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National spotlight shines on role of bikes in disaster response

Posted by on November 20th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Screen grab of The Rachel Maddow Show last night.

It’s been a good year for the idea that bikes are the ultimate disaster response vehicles.

What started as a niche thing here in Portland (promoted by a few emergency preparedness hobbyists with a penchant for cargo bikes), spread east to New York after superstorm Sandy; and then last night the idea made its big, prime-time national cable TV debut.

At the end of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show last night, host Rachel Maddow shared the story of how partial subway service is being restored to the Rockaways, a section of Queens that was devastated by Sandy. During the segment, as Maddow described how the Rockaways have been cut off from the rest of New York, I was pleasantly surprised when she mentioned bicycles. With a photo from Sarah Goodyear’s story in The Atlantic on the screen, Maddow said:

“After the storm, the Rockaways got so hard to reach that some bicyclists pedaled in supplies. I think partly to prove that they could do it, but partly because with gas supplies short and rationed, biking still worked.”

It was a short mention, but an important one given that The Maddow Show is one of the most widely watched cable news shows in the business (on one night back in September, the show garnered over 2 million viewers).

Continuing with the positive press around this growing bike niche is a video from Times Up! in NYC that I first saw highlighted on CrankMyChain.com. The video chronicles a bike ride organized by Times-Up to aid Sandy storm victims. Watch it below…

I’m also aware that a national bike magazine is working on a feature story about the roles bikes can play in disaster response. Add to that, the next issue of Elly Blue’s Taking the Lane book series is based on the disaster theme.

Here in Portland, the City’s Bureau of Emergency Management is hard at work on a video about the topic. I chatted on camera for that project with PBEM’s Public Information Officer Randy Neves earlier this week and I’m eager to see how it turns out. Neves says PBEM is fully on board with the crucial role bikes can play after a disaster and he plans to promote the video as an example of good preparedness.

And in case you were wondering, Portland’s Disaster Relief Trials event will return next year. Organizers are already in the planning stages of what should be another excellent event. Stay tuned. And in the meantime, make sure your disaster response plans include your bicycle.

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  • Ethan November 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Crossing my fingers that FEMA funds the PBEM small grant proposal to pilot some cargo bikes here. I’m also going to hazard a guess that a lot more people will take notice of this year’s Disaster Relief Trials.

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  • Jeff Bernards November 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    I don’t think it has to be a cargo bike exclusively. I find a bike trailer an affordable alternative to a dedicated cargo bike. Bike moves have proven that bike trailers can haul a lot of big stuff. A bike trailer is a good option for people with limited funds, but still want to help out.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

      I’ve been making the same point Jeff. I encouraged Ethan and the Disaster Relief Trials folks that they should remember to not focus solely on cargo bikes. As you can see in the NYC video and Atlantic coverage, even standard bikes with panniers are awesome post-disaster. I think everyone in a disaster zone should have a reliable bicycle and a set of panniers at the ready.

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      • eric November 21, 2012 at 8:17 am

        Yes-trailers are awesome. I regularly use a trailer–which I built with about $40 of materials–to pull my 17 ft. long canoe out to a nearby lake. How many cargo bikes can do that?!

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        • Nate November 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

          Would you mind sharing some pics of said trailer? I’ve been thinking of how to make such a thing for a while, but not gotten past that stage. You can email me at srn.young at g mail.

          For those of you not onto the canoe tip, think of a canoe as a bike for the waterways. I expect to rely on both when/if THE BIG ONE hits, not least to pick up my damsel in distress from the other side of yon wooly Willamette…

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    • 9watts November 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      You are correct, Jeff. If memory serves me, the bike trailers smoked the Disaster Relief Trials citizen category last year.
      In fact where cargo hauling is as important as speed I think trailers can outshine their better known relative. I’m rooting for a stage where we have to transport an invalid adult between check points. :-)

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      • q`Tzal November 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm

        BYOB&C: Bring Your Own Backboard and Collar.

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      • Case November 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm

        Gonna be tough to stuff a person in that trailer. :) Hoping for an unconscious contortionist?

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        • 9watts November 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm

          There’s no shortage of trailers, where I come from….

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        • q`Tzal November 20, 2012 at 8:00 pm

          The 96AWD Bicycle Trailer from Bikes at Work, based in Ames, Iowa of all places, has been selling bicycle trailers for people that need to get things done.
          They seem to have recently increased their product lineup to reflect customer demand; their website has been updated as well.

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          • Psyfalcon November 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm

            Those things are $$$$. (I need to learn to weld.)

            Much more than similarly sized (imported) auto trailers.

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  • NW Biker November 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    What a great video. People always seem to be at their best when circumstances are at their worst.

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    • 9watts November 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      That is pretty much what Rebecca Solnit discovered (elites excepted)
      in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

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  • Rol November 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    I dunno if any-a-y’all are Bike Snob readers, but that’s him in the photo, on the right “portaging” a couple big boxes on his “smugness flotilla.” And feverishly using his phone to check for comments on another blog after said blogger had slagged on him. hahahaha

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  • Chris Sanderson November 20, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    Thanks for covering this Jonathan. If anything ever happens here, know that that my bike and trailer arsenal will be available for relief efforts!

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  • Robert Ping November 21, 2012 at 9:14 am

    My brother lived in New Orleans when Katrina was coming. He waited until the day before to drive out, like most NoLa residents did. I got a call from him that afternoon: “I have been sitting in one place on the highway for three hours now with a kid whining in the back seat, and I am watching bicycle after bicycle, loaded with backpacks, trailers, kids, smiles, even other bikes on them, go right by me – hundreds of them! I get you now, all that bike advocacy makes total sense, man. They are all going to beat me to Alabama at this rate; dude, book me a hotel room before they get there!” So I did.

    My Yuba Mundo is the best around town bike, not even counting emergency preparedness. It is my sexy stereophonic mini-van. (OK, well I think it’s sexy, stereo, lights and all)

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  • Travis Fulton November 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

    It’d be great to have some bike disaster preparedness practice runs in addition to the Disaster Relief Trials event or a second Disaster Relief Trials event added in the winter. “Worst day of the year for a Disaster Relief Trials event”?

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    • Psyfalcon November 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Do it soon, the actual ride seems to fall in a particularly nice part of February.

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  • Jeremy Cohen November 21, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I love it! My xtra cycle will be ready if (when) needed here in PDX! I have to say, after years of riding with trailers, tag-a-longs, and every other configuration of hauling cycle–I will stick with the X. While trailers are great for loads I don’t like how wide they make me (especially in traffic or on a bike lane next to a busy street (think N. Williams)) and I really HATE the complex parking situation they demand. In Eugene (where I lived for a long time before coming to PDX) every person collecting cans for the nickels had a $300.00+ trailer (usually Burley!) in large part because everybody I know had at least one trailer stolen. When you add another removable part you add the hassle of locking it securely, finding the right type of parking situation, etc. I LOVE that with the X I can lock it normal and walk away.

    Just my thoughts, and I have the trailer still, so if needed I could combine them and make a cargo train.

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