Making disaster response more efficient is a top priority for city governments and emergency service personnel. Inadequate responses to disasters of every kind are a serious concern around the world. Even in the U.S, disaster response in many cities can be woefully inadequate. In many cities across the U.S, a new form of disaster response is taking shape to re-imagine emergency response in immediate aftermath of a disaster. Bicycles are being used in disaster response trials as a means to transport supplies from distribution centers to people in need.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but it is growing in scope. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, many people took up bikes to deliver supplies across sand covered streets along the northeast. Cities like San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR have been organizing more disaster response trials with bikes to encourage volunteers to test their readiness in navigating streets with cart loads of supplies in preparation for a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane.
Bikes are an ideal vehicle for ferrying supplies around a city after a disaster. Bikes are highly mobile, are human powered, and can go places where cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles can’t. While there are still many perils for bikes after a disaster, they can often be more efficient when alternate routes must be created, such as when power lines are down or roads are severely damaged. Bikes can also generate electricity and can power cell phones and other devices, making them a potentially invaluable asset when utility services are down. For disaster response, bikes can offer an excellent supplement to other forms of aid and resource distribution.
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Bikes are efficient and can be even more so in conditions where motor vehicles would be unable to navigate easily or where sheer volume of motor vehicles could prevent efficient movement. Bikes can often move with more ease during heavy city traffic congestion, and in a disaster could more effectively transport supplies to people in need across a damaged urban area. Biking in these circumstances, of course, can create inefficiencies for bikes and transporting 80-100 lbs of supplies on a bike across damaged terrain is very difficult. Navigating infrastructure damages, uneven surfaces, water, debris, and obstacles is a unique challenge for bike based disaster relief–especially with heavy gear and supplies. Even with these challenges, however, bikes can still be a highly efficient means for transporting and distributing supplies around a disaster affected area.
In some cases, motor vehicles may not even be an option. Bikes are simple mechanical vehicles and are nearly always reliable and basically free to operate outside of basic maintenance and parts. Post-disaster relief efforts can be boosted by supplementing bike transport into other methods of aid and community relief. Since bikes can be implemented with very little expense, incorporating a bike disaster relief team into community disaster planning can be a great idea. Organizing volunteers and practicing a range of responses for different scenarios can be a serious benefit in the event of an actual disaster. For disaster planning, you can never have too many contingencies available and the post-disaster bike messenger just may be the perfect contingency.