When most of us think of an emergency preparedness kit, we picture a flash light, canned food supplies, gallons of water, tools, a radio and other bare necessities to disaster survival. However, as the East Coast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, we might want to consider adding another element to that list: a working bicycle.
As fuel shortages and public transit closures plagued New York in the days following Hurricane Sandy, human traffic took to the sidewalks and bike lanes. The number of bike commuters tripled from 10,000 to 30,000 per day and prompted comparisons to bike-centric Amsterdam. New Yorkers reported extracting old, rusty bicycles from their basements in an effort to return to work. The influx of maintenance, rental and purchase requests at bicycle shops, and the high demand at commuter stations demonstrated that bikes could be an integral part to a personal plan for disaster self-reliance.
On the city level, Portland has identified bikes as a crucial transportation link in their regional emergency management plans. Last summer, Portland’s Office of Emergency Management sponsored a Disaster Relief Trial to test the capacity of cargo bikes in a mock earthquake scenario. Participants had to navigate a 30-mile route filled with obstacles simulating debris and destruction carrying 100 pound loads of food, water, tents and propane. In areas of town that may become inaccessible after a disaster, Portland is mobilizing cargo bikers to form volunteer supply delivery routes. The Disaster Relief Trail demonstrated that bikes can access areas that larger emergency vehicle cannot, and are offer additional disaster response potential because they don’t rely on fuel.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a Seattle Disaster Recovery Plan workshop organized to engage stakeholder groups in Seattle’s plan for disaster resiliency. With the Seattle fault running through the city and the 600 mile Cascadia fault off the coast, the risk of a catastrophic earthquake rattling Seattle is not a matter of if but a matter of when. According to the city, that time frame could be as short as the next thirty years. In 2005, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute conducted a Seattle Fault Earthquake Scenario. According to their report, a 6.7 magnitude quake could cause $33 billion dollars in damage, 1600 deaths, 24,000 injuries, 180,000 damaged buildings and at least partial closures of all six major highways. Soft soil, old brick buildings and Seattle’s dependence on bridges heighten the risk of major devastation.
As Seattle creates a more robust plan for disaster recover, bikes have entered the dialogue. Recent events have demonstrated that bikes facilitate post-disaster mobility and could play a critical role in disaster first response efforts. While Seattle has not yet started racing hundred-pound cargo bikes up and down our neighborhood hills or boating bikes across Portage Bay, perhaps we should be taking a closer look into the critical role a human-powered bicycle could play when disaster strikes.