Tuesday, February 12, 2013

CYCLISTS MUST BE PART OF PLAN FOR DISASTER RELIEF: Testimony at City Council Transportation Committee Hearing "Oversight - Emergency Planning and Management During and After the Storm: MTA’s Response and the Long-term Impact on the City’s Public Transportation System



My name is Benjamin Shepard.  I am a college professor and volunteer for TIME'S UP!, a non-profit environmental group that has been using educational outreach and direct action for over 25 years to promote a more sustainable, less toxic city.


In the days immediately following Super Storm Sandy, the city was gridlocked.  Cyclists made their way through long gas lines and traffic without impediment. Groups such as Bike Habitat and Times Up! immediately organized relief rides in coordination with Occupy Sandy, bringing supplies and energy bikes (pedal-powered electricalgenerators) as well as volunteers to relief hubs from the Lower East Side to Breezy Point. 


"Bicycles were used in the East Village by the thousands of volunteers who came to help people trapped in the high rise NYCHA buildings in Zone A," noted Wendy Brawer, founder of Green Map System.  "With bikes, they could haul heavy supplies and get around quickly without dependence on dwindling supplies of fossil fuel. Bikes were used to scout and communicate where outages and problems were persisting, becoming vital parts of ongoing relief planning. People with bikes are naturally readier, more resilient and involved in everyday reduction of harms. They should be part of all NYC emergency planning, including in the evacuation plans."


"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, bicycle commuting from Brooklyn allowed me to get to work in Midtown Manhattan (eight miles each way) as if nothing happened to my commute, while my office was at maybe 50.0% capacity by the end of the first week," noted cyclist Stephen Arthur. "During my commute I could not help but notice droves of people queued up on the sidewalks apparently waiting to ride on MTA buses that would take hours to reach their final destinations, and countless motorized vehicles paralyzing the streets for miles in all directions."

"Sandy taught us a lot about how to define a crisis: for one thing, it means that all your infrastructure breaks down," noted Josh Bisker, another Times Up! volunteer. "Every pathway we rely upon for transporting people, goods, and information, from roads to gas stations to telephone lines to electricity for devices, everything goes down, and people are left to themselves. That's not to say they're ’left alone,’ but to themselves, to what individuals and communities can create and sustain. 

"That's when we saw bicycles become crucial elements of self-directed community survival," Bisker continued.  "It's more nuanced than the fact that bikes could get through blocked-up streets: it's that bikes let people immediately organize autonomous support networks in the absence of traditional infrastructure, creating effective new pathways not only for 
moving supplies and transporting volunteers but, crucially, for quickly relaying information from homes to neighborhood hubs, and from neighborhood to neighborhood, so that relief operations had the knowledge they needed. Bikes were not merely an asset to the greater relief effort, they were a lifeline for countless individuals and communities who were stranded when our infrastructure failed. And no matter how much we harden our systems, they'll fail again. In fact, when it happens is exactly when we'll know that a future emergency has just become our next true crisis. And right then, bikes will once again enable individuals to immediately begin self-directing their own survival with effective new structures to move and communicate.”


In the subsequent weeks, hundreds of bicyclists, many with large trailers, transported thousands of pounds of crucial food, medical supplies, and other needed goods from Brooklyn out to the Rockaways, approximately 18 mile each way, later distributing the supplies to individual households in need and taking on other important tasks during our volunteering visits.


"On these relief rides, I could not help but notice again that there were countless numbers of motorized vehicles paralyzing the main roads leading into the Rockaways," noted cyclist Stephen Arthur.  "Since bicyclists were not stuck in these massive traffic jams, we were able to carry out our volunteering duties unimpeded, while the MTA subways were flooded, other means of transportation were stopped to a crawl. The NY City Council should be passing laws that encourage cycling, and give incentives to those who do, because cycling is a viable means of transportation under all circumstances."

Times Up! recommends:


That Emergency Bike Repair Kits should  be in NYC's official emergency plans and be funded according to guidelines suggested by energy policy analyst Charles Komanoff. 


That NYC support a Go Bike design project for the bikes, for the groups suddenly dependent on them, for coordinating logistics and planning.


That the city expand its network of bike lanes, fund bicycle-related initiatives, enforce its traffic laws more strongly, and re-organize its Accident Investigation Squad, so that cycling is a safer, more widespread, and more family-friendly endeavor. This will increase ridership, and prepare a more resilient and capable citizenry before the next disaster strikes.


"Investing in bike infrastructure now is an investment in the next disaster relief effort," noted Times Up!’s Keegan Stephen. "Investing in bike infrastructure is an investment in communities, giving them the tools to deal with the next disaster. Hurricane Sandy was the result of burning fossil fuels. Investing in bike infrastructure and other zero-emission transportation will help mitigate the next disaster."

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