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Bicycles Play a Major Role in Disaster Recovery

Six weeks after Hurricane Sandy crippled the Northeastern coast, impacting the lives of millions of Americans, some are still recovering from its effects. Amidst the chaos of the storm, many heroes emerged, displaying their resilience and concern for fellow residents in their neighborhoods — and beyond.

And plenty of those heroes were members of the cycling community.

To shed some light on how the storm has affected cycling in the northeast and highlight some relief efforts, I checked in with Jennifer Laurita (pictured) — a League member, LCI and New Jersey resident — on how she’s been coping with Sandy’s aftermath.

While, Sandy interrupted the bustling lives of many in New York City and the surrounding areas, we saw picture after picture of both new and longtime cyclists going about their daily business shortly after the storm, taking advantage of their city’s ample bike lanes and trails. While silver linings are hard to come by in a tragedy as immense as this, the uptick in bicycle ridership was certainly a shining example. “Those of us who cycle already picked up where we left off, and many people I know, especially instructors, reached out to as many people around them as they could to encourage cycling to deal with things like gas shortages,” Laurita said.

A brave cyclist in Brooklyn

Many people were pushed into cycling by the transportation chaos that ensued right after the storm. For many, there were plenty of obstacles in attempting to get to their businesses to assess damage, reaching family members or just getting to work. The storm flooded train stations in the New York and New Jersey area, travel by car was dangerous at best, congestion was impenetrable combined with fuel shortages and rationing further complicating matters. Traveling to Baltimore for an LCI seminar, Laurita wasn’t sure she’d be able to find enough gas to get her back to Jersey residence.

For many, cycling became a saving grace. Bike commuting rose by as much as 130 percent in parts of New York, putting a strain on the city’s 300 miles of protected cycling infrastructure and forcing some to call for more infrastructure to accommodate increased ridership. But, beyond just getting out and riding, cyclists also became local heroes in raising funds for relief efforts and transporting donations.

Brooklyn’s Red Hook community was especially hit hard by the hurricane, leaving many businesses and the offices of Red Hook Crit in need of some serious repair. Instead of just focusing on getting back on their own feet, Red Hook Crit decided to raise funds for the Restore Red Hook Initiative by selling a limited edition Restore Red Hook Jersey produced by Castelli. Cyclists from Bicycle Habitat utilized the disaster relief capabilities of their vehicles to deliver much-needed supplies to the Far Rockaway community. Cyclists gathered donated goods at several local bike shops and community cycling organizations organized Roll Outs and Bike Brigades, loading cyclists with panniers, backpacks and any other suitable carriers they could find to deliver goods to local relief centers. And, as Carolyn wrote about yesterday, Giant Bicycles donated 100 bikes for relief efforts led by Recycle-A-Bicycle and Transportation Alternatives.

Though cycling increased as a means to navigate in a post-Sandy world, biking also posed challenges even for the most dedicated. Many year-round cyclists observed that, with new ridership, there’s been more congestion on major bikeways increasing the travel time for some and frustration for many. There are also numerous safety concerns ranging from inexperienced rider engaging in risky behavior to damaged infrastructure creating obstacles for cyclists. “We still have many trees down and a lot of debris in the roads from people cleaning up, so it makes riding even more challenging having to navigate around piles of yard debris, especially sticks,” Laurita said.

Perhaps even more than clean-up, it’s become clear that bike education has a great role to play in making the streets safer for many choosing to commute to work. “People who’ve taken safe cycling classes already have knowledge of hazard avoidance, flat repair, bike maintenance and emergency cycling maneuvers to deal with unexpected road situations,” Laurita said. “And people who have already taken a League  class have direct access to their instructors, who they’re able to ask for more assistance. I know I need donated venues to host disaster-related cycling classes for communities around the NYC area, so people can learn how to get around and still be productive during disasters like Hurricane Sandy.”

For Laurita, Sandy drove home the fact that the bicycle should be a major part of a basic disaster preparedness plan in the event that essential transportation services are inoperable or inaccessible. She is currently working on a program with Xtracycle to teach people how to use bicycles in time of disaster.

In the meantime, cycling has allowed her to get around town to check on family and to aid others in different relief efforts. “We still need to get supplies into the hands of people who have lost so much,” she said. “I’ve been helping demolition and rebuild damaged and destroyed houses and I know so many people who have lost everything. I would love to be able to help people with bike tools, pumps, bikes, locks, etc. When I tell you people have lost everything, I literally mean everything. Houses are stripped down to the bare studs in the walls.”

Our thoughts are with those who are still rebuilding and we thank all the visionary bike advocates, like Laurita, who are making sure bikes are pedaling all residents toward recovery.



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