Friday, May 24, 2013

The Use of Bicycles as Disaster Relief Tools

Could this be the new frontier for disaster response?
Natural disasters strike throughout the world on a daily basis. So many occur throughout the year that we won’t even hear about most of them from our regular news source. What we do hear about is the extreme ruin from building crumbling earthquakes, hurricanes that grind a city to standstill, entire blocks completely ravaged by tornadoes, record shattering snowstorms. All of these disasters happen routinely and when they do, emergency plans are called into action. For many, those plans heavily rely on traditional means of transportation, such as an automobile, bus or rail lines to move goods, shuttle people or even to evacuate the city. But history has shown that in situations such as these, traditional methods yield anything but traditional results and typically solutions are not usually viable means of mobility.

Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Sandy (2011) and the very recent Oklahoma Tornado (2013) are the three most recent U.S. disasters most of us most vividly remember. With each disaster, they each had their own challenges after the storm had settled and residents began digging their way out. However, they all had a common thread on hampering timelier recovery efforts and the movement of relief. The problem faced is one of mobility. With the most recent tornado in Oklahoma, a major gas line that entered Oklahoma and split to span throughout the Midwest was damaged enough to stop 35 million cubic feet per day of gas supply due to the event.[1] With Hurricane Katrina, gas shortages hampered relief efforts for weeks. Yet, an even bigger problem was that “power outages that keep gas stations from being able to pump the supplies on hand.”[2] Also affected were roads. “The roads that lead outside of New Orleans will only be able to handle two-thirds of the city’s residents over a period of twelve hours. In other words, even if everyone were able to leave, the roads out of the city could not have handled them all.”[3]

If disasters such as these happen from time to time, has nobody thought of alternative modes to combustible engines for relief? Why have we not learned from past mistakes that disaster preparedness means considering other means of mobility?

What I purpose is for individuals to revise their own household and neighborhood multimodal disaster relief plan policies to include using bicycles as a significant and viable means of transportation to move people and goods.

When gas is not available, when driverless cars are strewn about blocking other vehicles from moving through, when the buses and trains aren’t running and the transportation system has failed, another solution must be available.

Why bicycles? Because “bikes are one of the few reliable ways of moving people, objects, and information around streets choked with debris. They don’t require the gasoline that people are still lining up for hours to get. They don’t need to be charged up – just add some basic food to a human being, and you can power the legs that turn the cranks.”[4]

Maneuvering around a downed tree by car may be impossible
but not so with a bicycle. Source: David Chase
Cycling isn’t a perfect solution after the storm passes but it can be critical when the supply chain is disrupted. With a bicycle, short to medium length trips to deliver people or supplies is an option when a car simply is not. As long as the rider has the carrying capacity ability and the physical ability, limitations of using a bicycle are significantly minimized. “Cycling tends to play a smaller role, because it requires bicycles, the ability to ride, and adequate riding conditions, but can still be useful in some situations. For example, walking and cycling can be the primary mode for large numbers of people to evacuate away from a coastline during a hurricane or tsunami, and for evacuees to travel to transit and rideshare pickup stations.”[5]

So what can you do? First, do you have a bicycle? Have it in good working order along with knowing essential maintenance such as how to change a flat tire and swap out brake pads. If you have bags that attach to the bike, you are a step ahead. If not, make sure to have at least a backpack.
Perhaps you already have a bike, or multiple bikes, but want to have more options in the case of a disaster. Consider acquiring an easy to attach bicycle trailer to extend your carrying capacity. Or, to go even bigger, cargo bicycles can carry loads in excess of 250lbs. Cargo bikes (or “freight bicycles”) are designed specifically for transporting heavy loads. These bicycles typically have “heavy carriers at front or rear, sometimes with a smaller front wheel to accommodate a large front carrier.”[6] Another cargo option is the Longtail bicycle (or “Xtracycles”). This bicycle has a longer rear compared to what one is used to seeing on a normal bicycle. The added length is available to better facilitate extra weight or passengers.

Prepared for the unexpected. Source:
What else can you do to stay ready? Have a disaster preparedness plan that your family knows about. Does your neighborhood association have a disaster relief policy as part of your community? It may be worth finding out. If they do, inquire about bicycles as part of that plan. If not, start the conversation yourself. Suggest having a local mechanic come in to demonstrate, or provide, tune ups to the group and show what essential bike tools are needed as part of a basic disaster preparedness plan. One bike can only haul so much but “individual efforts, pooled together, can make a substantial material difference in a crisis.”[4]

Last, stepping up the chain of command to the national level, consider writing your representatives in Congress to get them thinking about bicycles as disaster relief tools. Suggest that special funds be set aside for FEMA to distribute a certain number of shared bicycles along with temporary housing. Suggest altering the training and education policies to provide instruction on the benefits and basic overviews to ensure optimal use of the bicycles.

Is the bicycle the linchpin to survival during a disaster? Yes, it can be. Simple modes of transportation are often times more effective in certain instances. The bicycle could be that tool in an emergency situation. Knowing this, I suggest you consider your own family’s emergency preparedness policy, your neighborhoods plan and even the city you live in and ask the questions, “Do we consider alternative options for mobility? Do we consider the bicycle?” Asking these easy questions now may be part of your success during an emergency situation in the future.

[1] UPDATE 2-Southern Star gas line in force majeure after Oklahoma tornado
[2] Hurricane Sandy Gas Shortage: Dry Pumps Could Last For Days
[3] Background on Hurricane Katrina
[4] The Power of Bicycles in Disaster Recovery
[5] Renne, J. L., Sanchez, T. W., & Litman, T. (2008). National study on carless and special needs evacuation planning: a literature review.
[6] Freight Bicycle; Wikipedia


  1. totally agree, when such a Disaster happen, a bike can become handy in most of the situations you might face as like if the roads blocked, electricity blow out or food and supplies got short. additionally that the bike speed is more than four times the walk speed which will save a lot of times if not lives.
    thanks for the useful article Josh.

  2. Great post Josh! This is a great topic, and one that I think will continue to get more attention as natural disasters continue to highlight the fragile nature of the dominant transportation system.

    This could be a great opportunity for NGO relief organizations to partner with research universities. Imagine a million dollar grant to provide a thousand GPS enabled simple cargo bikes to a disaster-hit area. Lifetime ownership of the bike, in exchange for providing the first year of use data automatically to the researchers. Think of the insights!

    1. Good points, Ben and I for one would love to see a GPS study incorporated. It would be curious to see where people took the bikes after the disaster was over. If their trips would be different than where the majority of cyclists traveled since they have a unique capability or if the bikes were used in the same way as a "normal" bicycle? Lots of questions crop up when you start really diving in!

      Also, full disclosure, I wrote this article to either persuade or dissuade myself from buying a cargo bike as I have been on the fence for quite some time now. Result: I'm putting my order in come June!

      Lastly, for all of you who may also interested in bicycles as disaster relief tools consider the Disaster Relief Trials happening on July 13th (

  3. When the Cascadia Subduction zone earthquake does happen, whether it be on the southern section of the zone or the entire length of the zone, the areas affected are going to be hard press to deal with the situation and bikes may end up being a good alternative.

    However, the problem in the Portland area is that if the quake hits off our part of the coast, there may not be enough infrastructure left to ride a bike too far either although it will probably be the only chance many people have.

    I live in southwest and I would have to travel far to even get to a grocery store if all of our bridges are out which is a good possibility. We are lucky in that we could probably live off our food supplies for a while but many people would be hurting quickly.

    Bikes will most likely play an important role if Cascadia goes off, but even they will have problems getting around.


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