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Urban Wonk

The Power of Bicycles in Disaster Recovery

The Power of Bicycles in Disaster Recovery
Sarah Goodyear

We rolled out from the Bicycle Habitat store on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn just after 10 in the morning on Tuesday, an admittedly ragtag assortment of about 40 people on bicycles loaded down with donations headed for Far Rockaway in Queens. We were pedaling panniers full of flashlights, backpacks jam-packed with diapers and wipes, and bike boxes stuffed with blankets and coats, all of them collected at the Brooklyn and Manhattan locations of the store over the previous week.

As we made our way through the dense traffic of Flatbush Avenue, still several miles from the devastation on the Rockaway Peninsula, many people hollered out words of thanks and encouragement. Some smiled and shook their heads in disbelief. Some laughed.

I could understand why they might be skeptical. After all, we were headed out to a scene where the debris filled an entire parking lot at Jacob Riis Park. Acres and acres of it, hoed into neat rows by Department of Sanitation vehicles. The contents of hundreds of homes, turned inside out by Sandy. We were riding alongside huge National Guard vehicles filled with supplies and troops. What did our little convoy signify in all this madness?

But when we arrived at our destination – the Church of the Nazarene on Central Avenue in Far Rockaway – I was more than glad we had made the trip. Aaron Stewart-Ahn, a filmmaker and Bicycle Habitat employee, had found the church and its pastor, the Rev. Leslie Mullings, after doing some research into what organizations were already hooked into the community and equipped to deliver direct aid to those most in need. With the blessing of Bicycle Habitat’s owner, Charlie McCorkell, he had taken on the task of collecting donations at the store and getting them into the hands of Rockaways residents. (In the past several days, Affinity Cycles of Williamsburg has organized similar efforts.)

After making our way over about 15 miles of city streets, the last stretches often blocked by sand and strewn with debris, we found an operation being run with brisk efficiency. As we unloaded our offerings, volunteers directed us where to put them: baby stuff here, flashlights over there, clothing upstairs. Once our own donations had been digested by the church’s warehouse, we turned to unloading other trucks that were arriving. A U-Haul filled with Red Cross cleaning kits. An SUV from a Harlem church stuffed with warm children’s clothing. Bags of diapers loaded out of the trunks of private cars.

We moved it all into the warehouse, and learned something from a more seasoned volunteer in the process: If you’re passing items along a line of people, it’s easier on your back if you don’t stand shoulder to shoulder, but instead face each other in alternating directions down the line. With enough people, you can empty out a truck in double-time that way.

New Yorkers are learning things from this storm, and from the relief efforts that are ongoing even as another weather front sweeps through this afternoon, forcing another round of evacuations. Practical things. They are learning where to go for help, and how to help each other. They are learning how to get around when the transportation system fails, and the importance of redundancy and resiliency in all kinds of infrastructure. They are learning what you really need to have on hand when supply chains are disrupted, and what you can do without. They are learning how to assess the accuracy of information, and how to spread it. They are learning that individual efforts, pooled together, can make a substantial material difference in a crisis.

Bicycles are part of all this. In the early days after the storm, when the trains and buses stopped running, bikes were 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.

Many of those of us who use bikes for transportation in better times knew their potential to help out in disaster already. Bikes have been part of my family’s emergency plan since we first made one in the wake of 9/11. After we had a kid, we planned for his bike needs at every stage, from a seat on the back to a bike trailer to a tandem to his own solid ride that would go any distance. A friend suggested on Twitter that the Office of Emergency Management should encourage bike tuneups as part of basic disaster preparedness measures, like a go bag or stockpiles of food and water. Yes to that.

Sure, there are lots of things that bicycles can’t do, or that motor vehicles can do better, if they’re available. Some Bicycle Habitat customers drove heavier donations, like bottled water and canned food, out to the Rockaways to supplement the bicycle effort.

But as I pedaled along the streets of the peninsula, my panniers filled with hand warmers and tampons and energy bars, I was struck again by the power of the bicycle. It is a machine that is uniquely able to leverage and amplify human effort. And this is precisely what we have seen all over the city in the days since the storm hit: The humble work of individual people, harnessed to simple mechanisms, can gain strength exponentially. And move a city forward.

All photos by Sarah Goodyear

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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