Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Disaster relief by bike

I'm not the only one who has mused about the potential bicycles hold for evacuation in an emergency situation.    But the city of Portland is taking it a step beyond, exploring setting up cargo bikes as emergency response vehicles.  And Bike Portland reports on a neighborhood preparedness organization which is testing the concept.
Photo from Bike Portland/ Ethan Jewett
It makes a lot of sense. Obviously a bike can't carry as much weight*  but they're more maneuverable, and if gas is scarce they don't have an issue.  This is part of why bikes were so popular in the 30's and 40's: Gas was expensive/ rationed so people biked every trip they could.   There are a lot of people talking about how high gas costs are "driving" (pun intended) to bikes.  I don't think that at current gas prices there is a strong economic reason to bike vs drive.  However I think that there's the "latte effect"  where people cut out expenditures that they think they can easily see, even if they don't have significant impact on their actual financial situation.   Biking can benefit from people trying it when gas prices go up, and finding that they like it enough to do it even if it doesn't affect their overall financial situation.

In any case, I think that the potential for bikes as part of a disaster response, and not just as part of an individual's preparedness is an interesting concept.  One of the rationales that is often used for over-sizing roads in a way that is not bike and pedestrian friendly is to allow for the passage of "emergency vehicles"  which in turn get bigger and bigger until they won't fit through existing road infrastructure.  Rinse, lather, repeat.    I don't know how viable bikes would be for fire-response, but for a lot of first aid, and the distribution of supplies to displaced or stranded people, they could really be useful in a catastrophe.

*although you read stories like this, and the amount of weight you can carry by bike is pretty incredible.


  1. A few years ago, we had a huge and destructive storm here in NSW, Australia where I live and to get out the next day by bike was much safer and easier as there were many fallen trees and other rubbish on the roads. I was really glad I had my bike to ride that day!

  2. I think daily cycling can have a HUGE effect on personal finances. Since I started commuting on my folding bike last spring, I think I've saved easily $50/month in gas, plus another $50 in parking. It's huge.
    Although I guess it would be less savings for people who had a shorter drive to work or don't have to pay for parking, but still!

    1. Alex,
      But even if you saved $100 a month, that's still comparable to a daily latte habit- say $4 a day x 5 days a week x 4 weeks = $80 a month.

      I think that there's a good analysis (by a biker) about how the time costs of biking (vs working) mean that biking for most people probably isn't actually money saving here: .

      Of course his analysis predicates that a) you already own and insure a motor vehicle, so the additional cost per mile is just depreciation, maintenance and gasoline, and b) that parking is low cost. In many part of the US, parking automobiles is subsidized such that the cost of parking is below other market rate uses of space.
      In other markets where space is at a premium, parking costs are at least higher and possibly market rate. These are conditions where bike commuting probably starts to legitimately be an economically important factor for people.

    2. The way I view it, if I weren't riding to work, I'd be taking the T, so it would cost me roughly $40 per month, not including the other uses I get out of my bike. And while it's true that $40 a month, for me, is not normally going to mean the difference between eating and paying the mortgage and not, I'd just as soon either save that money or spend it on film & paper for the darkroom. I wouldn't regard $100 a month as a trivial saving. But then, I also think $4 for a latte is ridiculous.

  3. I'm with you on $4 for a latte. I'm pretty frugal, so something like that is a treat, not a daily thing.
    and $100 per month is not a trivial savings.
    And I'll say that in Boston, where parking is more fairly priced than most of the country, and where commute distances are relatively short the savings that you see from bike commuting can be significant.

    However, for your average commuter in a suburban or less dense city,if you look at biking (long distances) vs the other economic uses you could spend that time on, it starts to be a less compelling argument.

  4. I live and work in the hurricane zone on the east coast. A bicycle is a necessity IMHO. I have used one for back up transportation in the aftermaths of Hurricane Hugo(1989), Hurricane Fran(1997), and Hurricane Katrina(2005). In all cases I was moving freely about the city I happened to be in while the rest of the populace was facing roadblocks caused by debris or law enforcement. I was also bypassing the long lines of people waiting to buy gas. In the aftermath of Katrina, people I worked with were spending 2-3 hours everyday sitting in gas lines to buy the allowed 5 gallons of gas so they could continue to drive their cars around. Sad part was probably a third of that gas was wasted by idling while either waiting to buy gas or waiting in lines to get through damaged areas. Our hotel at the time was ~5 miles from the job site. By bike it took less than 30 minutes, to drive to the same location took over 45 minutes due to traffic jams and detours.