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The next frontier for cargo bikes: Disaster response

Posted by on March 28th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

The rise of cargo bikes in Portland could be a blessing in disguise when disaster strikes.
(Photos in this story were taken by Ethan Jewett for the new Neighborhood Emergency Team brochure.)

From the citizen-led Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NET), to an embrace of bikes as disaster response vehicles by City of Portland officials, there’s a growing effort in Portland to ensure that bikes play a key role in the response effort when a major earthquake or other disaster strikes. There’s even a cargo bike/disaster-themed Pedalpalooza ride in the works.

“We see cargo bikes… playing critical roles in the event our transportation system is compromised from a large scale earthquake.”
— Carmen Merlo, Director, City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management

Why all the interest in connecting cargo bikes to disaster response? As The Portland Mercury pointed out in fantastic detail recently, after the Big One hits, “In the coming weeks, bikes will be the best way to get around.” Add in crazy global weather patterns and the threat of a tsunami (made much more real after what happened in Japan last year), and you can see the urgency. The rest of it is simply playing to Portland’s strengths. More people ride bikes in this town than any other big city in America and I’d bet we have the highest rate of cargo bike ownership in the nation.

Ethan Jewett is an active member of the Woodlawn NET. He’s one of the most prepared people I have ever met (the joke at our house is that when disaster strikes, we’re grabbing our roll cart of supplies and walking over to the Jewett house). He’s also a father (of one) and husband who sold a family car over three years ago and bought a bakfiets cargo bike (he now owns a Larry vs Harry Bullitt).

He’s been following the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management’s (PBEM) disaster plans closely. “In a disaster,” he told me on the phone yesterday, “a city’s resiliency is put to the test.” Jewett has read Portland’s official disaster plans and he says they include some “ominous tidbits.”

“They talk about the damage to the Interstate Highway and rail infrastructure, they talk about fuel rationing for critical services. That means there will not be fuel for everyone’s vehicles.” The way Jewett sees it, when fuel starts being rationed, Portland’s bikey-ness will shine.

“I look at Portland as having a unique opportunity in terms of preparedness. Without any planning at all, if something happened tomorrow, we’d be better off than many other cities because lots of Portlanders can get around without an automobile… If it takes 3-4 weeks to get adequate fuel supply, that wouldn’t even have an impact on my household.”

“Without any planning at all, if something happened tomorrow, we’d be better off than many other cities because lots of Portlanders can get around without an automobile.”
— Ethan Jewett, Woodlawn Neighborhood Emergency Team member

Jewett is taking his knowledge of preparedness and passion for cargo bikes straight to the City of Portland. Through the City’s NET program, Jewett has earned the ear of PBEM Director Carmen Merlo.

Reached yesterday, Merlo said her agency takes bike seriously.

“We see cargo bikes, as well as motorcycles and scooters, playing critical roles in the event our transportation system is compromised from a large scale earthquake. Whereas widespread damage or debris may make roads impassable for cars or emergency vehicles — bikes and motorcycles may still get around. We hope to tap into this network for assistance delivering food, fuel, tools, water, medical supplies, other emergency supplies, etc.”

(Merlo mentions motorcycles and scooters; but I’d point out that not only do they require fuel, they can’t carry as much and they are not as light, nimble, or efficient as bicycles.)

Merlo also said that bicycles will be specifically called out in the Portland Plan, a comprehensive planning document nearing adoption by City Council. In the neighborhood emergency response section of that plan, Merlo says, “We will focus on identifying locations of bicycle stores and repair shops to accommodate alternate transportation modes.”

Speaking of accomodating all transportation modes. TriMet is working on a new bridge over the Willamette River. When completed it will not only be Portland’s most seismically sound span, it is also being built with only bike, foot, and rail traffic in mind.

Beyond empowering citizens to remain mobile during a crisis, bikes will also play a direct role in the response. As a NET team member, Jewett was struck by how much gear and aid supplies they are responsible for. “We’re required to carry quite a bit of stuff on foot around our neighborhood. I’m keenly aware that a cargo bike is a much bigger platform, they can carry 3-4 times more stuff and I can leave it stationary without it on my back.”

As we’ve covered several times in the past, the appeal of cargo bikes goes way beyond utility. There’s a growing crop of local enthusiasts that simply love them. In a perfect mix of passion and pragmatism, a few Portlanders have come together to plan the Disaster Relief Trials — a cargo bike trial race that will happen in June during Pedalpalooza (stay tuned for more details).

Jewett stands in the middle of all these inter-related cargo bike currents: Helping organize the Pedalpalooza ride (which he was “stunned” to see organized completely independently of his own cargo bike efforts), bending the ear of the City, and pushing for bikes to play a larger role on his NET team.

“It’s a fascinating tableau,” he said, “If we had an earthquake right now, suddenly all the people in my neighborhood that have food gardens and cargo bikes would be pretty critical pieces of infrastructure.”

Our cargo bike revolution has rolled smack dab into the reality of a major disaster; and it makes the thought of how we’ll fare afterwards a tiny bit more bearable.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Gregg
Guest

“It’s a fascinating tableau,” he said, “If we had an earthquake right now, suddenly all the people in my neighborhood that have food gardens and cargo bikes would be pretty critical pieces of infrastructure.”

There really are a good number of food gardens and cargo bikes in our neighborhood right now. Go Woodlawn! Thanks for the write up, Jonathan, and thanks for the good work, Ethan.

PlanBike (Jody Brooks)
Guest

Great stuff. What better way to show that bikes are more than toys than to have them help people at a very desperate time.

todd boulanger
Guest
todd boulanger

Good to hear this Portland.

Vancouver’s PD and Fire Depts have had very good experience with bicycle based response for our large car free events, like the annual 4th of July party. I think they have been doing this since 1998ish.

Rol
Guest
Rol

Pretty awesome. Nice to see acknowledgement of what is really a no-brainer: Conventional motorized transport is a highly complex system and therefore a fragile one. Wide, smooth, passable paved roads for example, are quite an achievement, and not at all a given.

Richard Masoner
Guest

My dad was the disaster readiness executive for a big telecommunications corporation in Tokyo when the Kobe quake struck in 1995. You might remember that a lot of the transportation infrastructure was demolished. He and his team took pre-packaged cases of portable cellular base stations, water, cash and other supplies and took the trains as far as they would go. He then bought a pile of bicycles for his team and they biked the remaining 20 miles or so into the disaster zone; which is no easy trick considering many roads were smashed to dust and this was before widespread GPS use. They were among the very first outside responders to arrive on the scene.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many emergency response plans have long called for the use of bicycle messengers in anticipation of failed electronic communication and iffy transportation.

9watts
Guest
9watts

And then there’s the longer term emergency (if you want to think of the post-cheap-fossil fuel era as an emergency) for which bicycles and the experience of relying on them will be even more suitable.
The stuff we can expect to be without in a disaster are similar to the things we will one day be without willy nilly: natural gas, gasoline, miles of smooth wide asphalt, 18-wheelers delivering citrus fruit, intact water and sewer infrastructure, etc. As such some of us feel that planning for a disaster and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels are both prudent.

Ethan
Guest
Ethan

One of my favorite things about linking disaster preparedness with sustainable practices like bicycling is the “blowback” if we never face a citywide crisis in our lifetimes . . . we get to live in an even better place. 3 days of stuff in a box is a great first step, but it does not pay dividends like planting a vegetable garden, canning, and riding your bike.

A great example of this connectivity I often think about is tool libraries. What if all tool libraries had cargo trailers (dare I dream fleets?)for area residents. They could haul compost, lumber and table saws for years and still be ready to join local NET teams for exercises and actual disaster response. That is the kind of latent strength an interconnected and intentional approach to resiliency could bring.

Thanks to Jonathan for nicely capturing this burgeoning effort. I hope to see many of you out at the Disaster Relief Trials, June 17!

Antload
Guest
Antload

Nicely-put, Ethan

Trailer libraries are just beneath the soil! Let’s water!

Gregg
Guest

Great idea, Ethan. NE Portland Tool Library has one bike trailer- but it is often checked out. It would be pretty awesome to get a longtail and a metrofeit into the tool library to help carfree folks get more of the 3000+ tools home when the trailer is checked out, or so that folks can check them out and test them when they are considering a new purchase.

Jennifer
Guest

I live in California and have always joked with my husband that in an “end of the world” emergency (ie. earthquake), I’m grabbing my bike. The truth is the roads will be cluttered with horrible traffic, possibly impassable, and that biking from point a to point b would make more sense and allow for more flexibility. I knew I wasn’t the first one to think of this! Love the cargo bikes in the photo, by the way.

cycler
Guest

Speaking to the “slow emergency” of peak oil,
I think the thing that is scary is that even those of us who rely on bikes for everyday transportation, and do what we can in terms of local food, are vulnerable to limited supplies of fuel for heat and clean water. People are driving around wasting energy that we may wish for some day in the future when we try to heat our houses and purify our water, let alone grow food for dense urban areas.

Michael N
Guest

As late at 1910, there was use of cycle-carried firefighting equipment in Germany, which was described earlier in Scientific American and then (with a photograph) in the New York Sun.
http://wheelbike.blogspot.com/2012/02/fire-fighting-bikes-in-germany-1910.html

o/o
Guest
o/o

triple thumb ups…

dwainedibbly
Guest
dwainedibbly

The bike shops will be the first to be looted. (And I’m not saying that to be funny.)

dan
Guest
dan

Sadly, in an earthquake, I expect our bicycles will be buried in the remains of our garage, and our emergency supplies will be buried in the remains of our house. Caching the supplies in a pit in the backyard feels a little too paranoid survivalist…any other thoughts?

Rita
Guest
Rita

OMSI had a earthquake themed Science Pub not so long ago – there may be a recording, I can’t check right now. Anywho, if you have a stickbuilt home, as 9watts says, it should be fine, assuming it’s not knocked off the foundation. To prepare against *that* you can have your house bolted to the foundation. And the presenter kept her supplies in a wheeled trashcan, and annually emptied/restocked it to keep the supplies fresh.

Kasandra
Guest
Kasandra

Ethan, I LOVE the pictures. And Jonathan and everyone else, I appreciate the discussion.

cloudhead
Guest
cloudhead

So at the speed of a loaded cargo bike, what will be the response time of the average emergency, vs an equally-equipped motorcycle or other vehicle?

Diane Emerson
Guest

I would also like to offer a suggestion to anyone which will help tremendously in case of a very large earthquake. For anyone who runs an organisation of any size: Right now, get in contact with prior employees/volunteers who have moved out of the area, and who still know your systems. Ask them if they would be willing to return to Portland for a couple of weeks in case of a massive earthquake. While you are making sure your family is safe, and recovering from the trauma of being in a major quake, these folks can be helping to recover the organization – or moving it, as needed. They won’t be traumatized, they know your systems, they know your customers/clients/members/, they know Portland, and they will be more than happy to be of service. Plus, after an emergency, they will be ALLOWED to come in because they will have an invitation from you in advance.

jo
Guest
jo

what cargo bike is that in the pictures?

thanks

ChaZ
Guest
ChaZ

Diane, GREAT idea!

Richard Masoner
Guest

William Lind (you know, that paleoconservative who hates cars and blames oil politics for our overseas adventures and vulnerability to terrorists) has proposed “Ciclovia” style events as a way to mainstream bicycle use in American cities, but to appeal to American transpo planners we call them “civil defense drills” or “emergency preparedness drills.” He writes:

We have had gasoline supply crises, both local and national, in the past, and we are likely to have more in the future. A supply crisis means the filling stations have no gas to sell. To prepare better for such situations, DOT could require all metropolitan areas over a certain size to develop a plan which would designate a grid of streets “Bicycles Only” during the gas shortage. Only local residents and businesses would be exempt. The grid should be dense enough to permit bicycle access to most points in the city.

Then to test the grid and make people aware of it before a crisis, the plan could be put into effect on some holidays. Think of it as a type of civil defense drill. Once people who do not normally cycle on streets do so while the plan is in effect, they may become comfortable with it. Potentially, they might press their politicians for a better urban cycling network that would always be available, not just in drills or fuel crises.

Nono
Guest
Nono

As long as they don’t take forever to come rescue me . lol

Travis Wittwer
Guest
Travis Wittwer

For more information on the event, check out the event page here, http://transportland.org/2012/04/disaster-relief-trials-overview/

dr2chase
Guest
dr2chase

Surprised nobody else here was on a bicycle during an equal event. Loma Prieta quake in 1989, I had happened to ride my bike to work that day, and so had several colleagues. Quake hit, power failed, lights went out, and traffic just came to a halt. Bikes flowed through stopped cars like water.

SalemLongtail
Guest
SalemLongtail

Any hope of extending training and advice to Salem? Cargos are FINALLY catching on here. I’m in, along with “Big Mama”, my Xtracycle 🙂

Dan Newman
Guest
Dan Newman

I am a 64 yo man. But I ride my bike everyday, 60-80miles a week! Let me know where to sign up to be a bike rescue and where I train for it! Let me know please. Sincerely Dan R. Newman