Washington D.C. has had more than its fair share of natural disasters lately. We’re used to jungle-like humidity, but earthquakes and hurricanes? Thankfully, the earthquake caused little real, non-ridiculous damage and Hurricane Irene looks like it will impact New York City far more than D.C. However, both are definitely shedding light on how ill-prepared D.C. is in terms of actual emergencies. Thankfully, something new in D.C. is providing a little hope in dark times – the bicycle culture. Even in emergencies where people don’t have time to Twitter jokes, bicycles can provide a useful, reliable form of transportation.
I saw this in full force on my way home from work on Tuesday after the earthquake. We all got shooed out of our concrete monstrosity so our facilities staff could check for potential damage. At that moment, I definitely wished that I had biked into work. It was a pleasantly warm day, the Metro was cautiously running at half-speed, and I was scheduled to lead a community bike ride that evening. I considered using Capital Bikeshare (CaBi), but as I didn’t have my helmet and my town is currently outside its range, I wouldn’t be able to bike all of the way home. Instead, I decided to walk as far as I could.
As I made my way across town, I noticed two major things. First, a car was pretty much the worst place to be in D.C. at the moment. Traffic lights were out, emergency vehicles were blaring their sirens as they tried to get through, traffic cops looked exasperated, and cars absolutely jammed the roads. There was a lot of anger in the air. Second, all of the CaBi stands I saw were empty. Apparently, I was far from the only one to think biking was an excellent idea. After all, bike lanes and trails are usually empty when every other lane on the road is not. As it turns out, my personal observation was actually backed up by data. The Capital Bikeshare website published a great chart comparing Bikeshare use the day of the quake and day before. According to their map, all of the bike stations within a mile north of the National Mall were empty at 5:20 PM, about two hours after the quake. Between 2-4 PM, they recorded 1,246 rides, a 400-ride increase over the norm for that time period. Personally, I got on the train around 4:45 PM, found it to be no more crowded than usual, and thank CaBi for that lovely surprise. If everyone who took CaBi were forced to take the Metro instead, it would have been a much more crowded, miserable ride home. Reflecting on this incident, I realized two things – not only do bicycles lighten the car traffic getting out of town, they can also reduce the impact on the public transit infrastructure. By allowing more space for those who cannot bike home for reasons of distance or personal ability, they minimize waiting time, an important factor in a real emergency.
Although the earthquake didn’t actually require anyone to leave town – everyone just wanted to go home – bicycles could also be very useful for a full-scale evacuation. As the blog DCist pointed out, in some situations where you would be “screwed” in a car, “On a bike, well, you might just well be lucky.” In an extreme situation, people could use bikes to get to the edge of town where additional forms of long-distance transportation like buses or trains could be available.
For those who were unable to evacuate or in a situation without warning, bikes could come in pretty darn handy as well. Many times after disasters, fuel for a car can be nearly impossible to get because gas stations are closed, oil rigs are shut down, and gasoline is in high demand. In the future, even if you have the good fortune of owning an electric vehicle, you would want to be running your phones and other needed supplies off of the battery, not using it to drive. In addition, bikes are more nimble than vehicles, making it easier to get around downed trees, cracked roads, and other potential damage. While crews are busy clearing trees, police and medical personnel on bikes could get to people who need help right away. Even in the snow or ice, people can still use bicycles, so long as they are equipped with winter stud tires. In addition, you can go further with more goods on a bicycle than just walking. If people can deliver food, sperm, and legal briefs by bicycle, there’s no reason they can’t carry emergency goods to people who need them.
Unfortunately, D.C. has a long way to go on this issue. There were several reports of D.C. and Capital Police harassing bicyclists after the earthquake who were just trying to get home like everyone else (in the comments). Despite the fact that the earthquake clearly had geological origins, one person said that a cop wouldn’t allow cyclists to go past the White House, even though pedestrians could. In terms of infrastructure, the blog The Wash Cycle describes a study that points out the fact that there is no pedestrian or cyclist crossings between Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax, VA. Similarly, the pedestrian bridge going to Theodore Roosevelt Island from Virginia just stops there. Having it extend to D.C. could provide another very useful escape route, since it’s likely the narrow sidewalks on the Arlington Memorial Bridge (from the Lincoln Memorial to VA) and Key Bridge (from Georgetown to VA) would be very crowded.
Considering the events of this past weekend and climate change’s potential to intensify many types of disasters, I believe that D.C. and every major metropolitan area should improve their bike friendliness as part of their crisis management plans. Because people’s lives might just depend on it.