Monday, May 27, 2013

Bikes as Disaster Relief Tools: Seriously?(!)

This started as a response to Josh’s post: The Use of Bicycles as Disaster Relief Tools but I ended up re-tooling it to the point where I thought it could stand on its own, building on, not just responding to what Josh proposed.


This is an interesting article and idea but before you get everyone riled up writing to their congressman proclaiming things like, "bikes are the linchpin to survival during a disaster" we should take a step back and let cooler heads think this through a little bit.

Admittedly, as I read your piece I was struck thinking that in all the disaster material I've seen and read over the years I have never seen 'bike' on any of the preparedness lists. Why is that? My hunch is that it is because of at least five good reasons. First, if it is a bad disaster (and I'm talking about 'natural' disasters here like tornado, tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake  - not crazy people with guns, bombs, ricin, etc.) the thinking may be that the roads will be impassable for everyone – not just emergency vehicles and cars. Second, and building on the first, is that much of the debris in a post hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc. area there will be glass, nails or ‘sharps’ everywhere, which is a terrain most bike tires aren’t ready or designed for. Third, bikes might be so common-place that the feeling from disaster preparedness manuals might be that they don’t need to mention them – people know they have them and will use them if need be. Fourth, disaster kits are, at their core, trying to be efficient and essential to pull one through anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Biking in that instance might seem superfluous – meaning that one might as well walk to the nearest rally point, fire station, or grocery store?  And fifth, these bikes are expensive (the models you casually mentioned are all over a thousand dollars) – with only limited capabilities.

I also wonder if bikes have been left off the list because often the material that we pick up or read about on disaster preparedness and disaster kits is intended to be generic and not specific to fires, tornadoes, earthquake, etc. Bikes might be a confusing item because of where it is relevant. While it might make perfect sense for a tsunami prone region to have bikes on the list to head to higher ground after the alarm has been sounded, they lose relevance when a region is faced with a tornado, hurricane, etc.

If this response comes off as negative it is not meant to be. I think you raise a good point, its just needs further consideration. Actually Page 16, of the City of Portland’s ‘Earthquake Response Appendix’ (link below) features bikes in its literature:

“While roads may be impassible to automobile traffic, other transportation options including motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles may serve as a viable means of getting around locally. However, if the earthquake triggers a fuel disruption from damaged or ruptured pipelines or loss of energy to power fueling stations – bicycles may become the most practical means of transportation for the public.”

A final note is that cities are trying to prepare better for natural disasters. Portland, for example, has recently overhauled its CERT/NET program to provide just the kind of pre-disaster training for post-disaster preparedness that you are tacitly talking about. It would be interesting to investigate a role for bikes in this training. It would also be interesting to present your idea to Oregon Manifest as a bike design-build challenge: bomb-proof tires, large hauling capacity, extremely stable, etc.

Bikes aren’t there yet. However, it would be a good starting point to prepare people for emergency situations by linking disaster types with the resources (say, a working bike!) they have at hand.

Much thanks to Sravya for her editorial help/patience.

City of Portland ‘Earthquake Response Appendix’:

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management: Disaster Supplies Kit:

FEMA CERT Training:

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management: NET Training:

Oregon Manifest

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