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Researcher considers cargo bikes as tools for social justice

Posted by on July 25th, 2012 at 10:26 am

Jane Pearce

Cargo bike researcher Jane Pearce.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

If more people of modest means had access to an affordable, dependable cargo bike, could they avoid being sucked into “forced car ownership”? Can cargo bikes play a role in rebuilding a city devastated by a major earthquake? Jane Pearce, a PhD student in the Geography department of Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand visited Portland for two weeks this past June to better understand those questions and to further explore the social justice implications of cargo bikes.

On February 22, 2011, a massive earthquake ripped through Pearce’s hometown of Christchurch. 180 people died and much of the city remains, a macabre reminder of what was lost that day. Pearce came to Portland because of the extensive community that has developed around cargo bikes here; but, as a survivor of the Christchurch quake, she found special significance in the Disaster Relief Trials event.

“I commend the people that organized and took part in the relief trials event,” she shared with me, “You are never going to simulate what it’s actually like but that’s not the point — you are becoming aware of what it might take to help. Whilst Christchurch went into total grid-look with no electricity, water, sewerage, destroyed roads, buildings, fires, liquefaction you name it; people normally reliant on cars, public transit, and so on, took hours to get home. I managed to cycle home through the mayhem and it took hardly any longer than normal — proof that bikes really are versatile in extreme situations.”

“I believe that cargo bikes could be a way of people on low incomes actually ‘getting one over’ on motorists because of the massive cost savings of not being ‘forced’ into owning a car.”
— Jane Pearce

Pearce began her cargo bike research before the quake, but the Disaster Relief Trials event has spurred her interest at how such bikes can play a role in disasters — and how they might help Christchurch rebuild both its transportation and social networks. While in Portland she met with low-priced cargo bike maker Tom LaBonty, local cargo bike business owners, Portland State University bike researchers, and others.

I sat down with Jane before she left. Below is a portion of our chat:

Given your research so far, do you think that cargo bikes pose serious potential as car replacements for people who qualify as low-income?

“Well that’s my research question so I guess the short answer would be that you’ll have to wait until I’ve finished this particular piece of research! The more nuanced answer is not so simple. I certainly think they could but there a lot of hurdles to overcome. In my opinion here in NZ we need more people using cargo bikes to generate visibility and we need builders to make them more affordable. We also need bike libraries so that people can be introduced to, and get to try out a range of bikes before they think about purchase. I like the bike library model that Cycles for Change [in Minneapolis] are using where low income women can access a kids bike trailer for 6 months at a time — I would like to see that idea put into action with a range of cargo bikes.

I believe that cargo bikes could be a way of people on low incomes actually ‘getting one over’ on motorists because of the massive cost savings of not being ‘forced’ into owning a car. This is not only true for personal transportation; it is also possible to greatly reduce business start-up costs by operating a cargo-bike based business where the cargo bike is your shop-front, transportation and advertising.”

How does the quake help or hurt the potential future role of cargo bikes in Christchurch?

“It does both. Bike infrastructure was damaged in the quake as was every other form of infrastructure and we will be living in a demolition and building site for the next 10-20 years. This is of course an opportunity and a threat. With the political will we could end up with a world leading cycle-friendly ‘sustainable’ city. Unfortunately we currently have a right-wing government in NZ who can’t see beyond the end of their nose in terms of automobility, and are obsessed with building ‘roads of national significance’; they certainly do not see roads as public spaces.

Despite the damaged roads and the central city still being closed off, my experience is that cycling is still a very effective way of getting around as pedestrians and cyclists can access spaces that are still not accessible to other vehicles. One very exciting development that occurred whilst I was in Portland was that the first business-owned cargo trike has been brought into Christchurch to operate in a cyclelogistics business.”

What has struck you most about Portland’s cargo bike culture?

“How willing the cargo bike builders, retailers and users were to give of their time to talk to me, and how they welcomed me into their space. I have a very positive glow from my Portland visit! For me it was the first time I was able to see a range of cargo bikes in one city. I loved being able to move around the city on my my bike and randomly come across cargo bikes parked-up or in use. It was also the first time I’d been able to observe cyclelogistics companies in action using cargo bikes and this has really pushed business cyclelogistics up my research agenda.”

We’ve seen cargo bikes revolutionize family biking and small business in America. More recently, we’ve seen how they will play a vital role in disaster response. Pearce’s important research about the social justice potential of cargo bikes, adds yet another exciting reason to love cargo bikes. I’ll share more of Pearce’s research once her thesis is completed and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing much more from her in the future. Good luck Jane! It was great to meet you.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. 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

  • Stretchy July 25, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Cargo bike researcher and mass murderer celebrant.

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    • Ian July 25, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Yes because clearly wearing a shirt with a modified version of a famous photo taken of Che means that she celebrates mass murder. Just like wearing Sambas means you think sweatshop labour is awesome or burning Shell gasoline means you support corporate mercenaries in Africa, right?

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      • Stretchy July 25, 2012 at 11:01 am

        Would you be so glib about casually wearing other symbols of mass murder?

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        • Scott July 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm


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          • Kevin July 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm

            So no problem with people wearing swastikas or Schutzstaffel (SS) T-shirts.

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    • Chris I July 25, 2012 at 3:38 pm

      Reason Foundation? I wonder what their stance on cargo bikes is…

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      • Alan 1.0 July 25, 2012 at 6:57 pm

        Donno for sure but the lead article on the organization’s homepage today is

        Reducing Traffic Congestion and Increasing Mobility in Chicago
        The transportation projects that will reduce congestion in Chicago and how to pay for them

        Samuel Staley and Adrian Moore
        July 19, 2012

        A new study finds Chicago has severely underinvested in expressways and urges the region to embark on an ambitious long-term road-building plan. The Reason Foundation’s Galvin Mobility Project plan proposes 11 major transportation projects that would add 2,401 new lane miles of expressways in the region, reduce the time that Chicagoans spend stuck in traffic by 90 million hours a year and add $2 billion a year to the regional economy by 2040.

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        • Chris I July 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm

          Ah, yes, build more expressways. That has seemed to work well at reducing congestion for the last 60 years…

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    • Scott July 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Somebody just graduated to college level reading. Don’t worry Stretchy, there are tons of other things that you will get to be preachy about.

      Now, tell me more about how you feel superior to a Ph.D disaster survivor because of her shirt.

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    • Scott July 25, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Go in young buck. Get yer learn on.

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    • spare_wheel July 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      an american citizen calling ernesto guevara a mass murderer is like pot calling a rose black.

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  • Brian Willson July 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Communist killers? The Cuban Revolution overthrew the capitalist killers who had been funded by the USA for nearly 60 years, the latest who was Fulgencio Batista who was forced to flee the island in 1959 taking with him most of the banked wealth of the country. The Cubans had lived in a feudal type society with every inkling of expression of dissent ruthlessly repressed with either prison or death. In the late 1950s Batista had mass murdered thousands of young people who wanted Batista out. He murdered them with US weapons, US tanks, and US bombers. Che was one part of the Revolution, one who represented the hopes and dreams of the poor throughout the “Third World.”

    Mass murderer? RE symbols, the US flag is the most violent symbol one could fly or wear/flaunt on clothing as it represents several genocides, including our Eurocentric national founding on forced dispossession of hundreds of Indigenous nations so our ancestors could steal their land with total impunity. That practice was extended into Latin America creating “Banana Republics” in which millions of people were impoverished and murdered to enable US corporations to reap huge profits from their slave labor and resources with total impunity.

    Che and Castro of the Cuban Revolution arose in response to this history. And they created a society relatively fairer with less repression than exists in the USA.

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    • JTL July 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      And yet you only ever see Cubans fleeing to the USA; never the other way around

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    • SilkySlim July 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Plus, it looks like Che is wearing a helmet on that shirt!!!

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      • Glen K July 26, 2012 at 4:39 am

        Well, we are talking about NZ, which has a mandatory helmet law…

        FYI, the t-shirt (which I also own one of) is produced by our local funky cycle clothing producer GroundEffect –

        Nice interview Jonathan!
        Glen (one of Jane’s supervisors and avid Portland fan)

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    • jim July 29, 2012 at 9:52 am

      everybody I have ever talked to that escaped cuba has hated it with an educated pasion, its not as glorious as the pictures make it look.

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  • el timito July 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Back to natural disasters and bikes…

    + 1 for cycling after earthquakes. I was in Santa Cruz, CA during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 (you know, stopped the World Series, bridges failing on cars – that one).
    Santa Cruz is pretty small but has a lot of commuters in cars. Quake hit right at rush hour. I had to pick-up my 6-year-old at school because his mom couldn’t make it into town. Streets were clogged and impassable.
    But I was travelling by bike. Rode up the hill and was able to comfort my kid within minutes. Can’t feel smug with so much pain to go around, but definitely can feel a major sense of relief to hug your child again.

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson July 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    i like her shirt 🙂

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  • jim July 25, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    I like what Jane is doing and anticipate that it will do a great amount of good.
    Did you mention the short timeline in which Portland has acquired so many cargo bikes? It wasn’t that long ago that they were a rarity.

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  • Gregg July 26, 2012 at 7:02 am

    We have 6 tool libraries in the region? I’d love to see a cargo bike in each tool library. It would give folks who don’t have access to a car, access to large tools to borrow for free. It would provide the cargo bike-curious the ability to test ride (For a week, for free!) a cargo bike. And it would be six more disaster relief vehicles in the city.

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    • jim July 26, 2012 at 7:35 am

      Somebody would also need to donate 6 bike lockers to store them in

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    • Antload July 26, 2012 at 11:59 am

      100% endorsement, Gregg. COUNT ME IN.

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