Before Hurricane Sandy took out power, subways, buses, and some roads this week, New Yorkers stocked up on food, water, duct tape, flashlights, and batteries. After the storm, they stocked up on bicycles. An overlooked survival tool, the bike has become the only realistic mode of transportation for thousands of residents of the nation’s densest and most populous city. That shouldn’t come as a surprise.
From post-Sandy New York to rush-hour in Jakarta, the bicycle steps up where infrastructure falls short. It’s narrow enough to squeeze through traffic, efficient and fast enough to cover lots of ground, and simple enough that just about anyone can operate and maintain one. Consider this wise passage from the Zombie Survival Guide, about the value of the bicycle for survivors of the zombie apocalypse (which the CDC would like to remind you can work as an analogy for just about any disaster situation):
The common bicycle is fast, quiet, muscle-powered, and easy to maintain. Add to this the additional advantage that it is the only vehicle you can pick up and carry if the terrain gets rough. People using bicycles to escape from infested areas have almost always fared better than those on foot.
This week, many New Yorkers or were reminded of just how useful this oft-overlooked form of transportation can be. “I woke up on Wednesday with the feeling I had better be ready for a busy day, but nothing could have prepared me for how busy it was,” said Henry Carter, owner of Brooklyn’s 9th Street Bicycles, when we stopped in for a pair of gloves before riding through the chilly, November afternoon to Manhattan. “We’ve been totally cleared out,” he said, gesturing to an empty wall normally crowded with reflectors, pumps, and tires. A few blocks away at Bicycle Habitat, “we outsold our busiest summer Saturday” on Wednesday, manager Emily Samstag told CNBC.com.
As my girlfriend and I coasted down the Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown Thursday afternoon, bells dinging amid a smiling crowd of sweater-clad cyclists, the non-rush-hour traffic moved at our same speed—maybe 15 mph. A few hours later as we cruised home to Brooklyn after roaming the largely empty city streets, the bridge traffic was barely moving at all.
With a public transit system barely struggling back to operation and gasoline increasingly hard to come by, it’s not difficult to imagine a situation where the bike becomes the city’s favored mode of transportation.
That’s not going to happen this time. They’ll get the subways running and the fuel delivered, the weather will turn cold, and people will put their bikes back in the basement at least until spring. But the idea of a bike-centric transportation plan is a delicious thought after an afternoon of cycling mostly free of the threat of cars, through dramatically silent streets. Back in Brooklyn, the bridge traffic coursed through downtown, seeping into the bike lanes. It was hard going, but at least we moved, which is more than I can say for the cars. This is what a big city with an over-taxed road system and little mass transit is like, which I can report from experience after a year in Jakarta. There, a five-mile drive often takes well over an hour thanks to constant jams. Downtown Brooklyn on the Thursday after Hurricane Sandy felt a lot like Jakarta.
In developing cities, where mass transit and road construction haven’t caught up with population and car ownership, there’s often a shortage of road space. Bicycles could be a great way to alleviate that, but until fairly recently, lots of people in places like Jakarta and Beijing rode bikes because they didn’t have access to a car. Now that more people can drive if they want to, cycling advocates have to sell bicycling as a pastime or a symbol of urban consciousness—something cool that just happens to make city life better.
Here in the States bicycling faces a similar problem: “It’s been my complaint for a long time that people see bikes as recreation, not transport,” said George Bliss, owner of Hudson Urban Bicycles, which sells upright Dutch-style bikes in Manhattan. Business was not booming at his shop Thursday. “I do feel that the industry is hurting itself” by not marketing bikes as a form of everyday transportation, “but I have to prove that by selling more bikes.”
In New York this week, we learned that whatever you think of bikes’ coolness, they sure are useful when the trains don’t run and the traffic won’t flow. Hopefully, come spring, those who bought an emergency set of Sandy wheels will break them out anew, and the city will get a bit quieter, the air a bit cleaner, and the streets a bit safer.