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Big Roll for Bikes in Sandy Relief

For years, Stephen Arthur enjoyed biking from Brooklyn to the Rockaways, taking what he calls an “activist’s day off” with friends from Time’s Up, an environmental action group.

His panniers used to hold sunscreen and a beach towel. Now his bike rack is bulging with medical and cleaning supplies for victims of Sandy.

“There’s all kinds of niches” in a disaster response, said Arthur, 45, as he prepared on a recent Sunday to join his ninth relief ride to the Rockaways.

Riding a biking boom after Sandy, advocates like Arthur want to spread their passion for getting around on two wheels and show that people-powered transport is no passing fad. They’re hoping more people will make cycling part of their daily lives – cutting dependence on fossil fuels that many scientists say will likely intensify future storms. The advocates also want officials to incorporate bikes into disaster-response planning.

A ‘Bike Brigade’

When regular transport options break down, “bikes play an extremely important role in mobility around New York City,” said Helen Ho of Recycle-A-Bicycle, a non-profit that promotes cycling.

The number of New Yorkers commuting by bike tripled to 30,000 a day during the post-Sandy transit shutdown, according to Transportation Alternatives. In spots beset by unreliable cell service after the storm, cyclists delivered messages by bike, Ho said. Time’s Up runs bicycle-powered generators where people still without power can charge phones and laptops.

Time’s Up volunteer coordinator Keegan Stephan, 28, said Rockaways residents have greeted his group with cheers like, “We love the bike brigade!”

On a recent ride, 25 volunteers towed bike trailers donated by Occupy Sandy, delivering more than half a ton of supplies, he said. Volunteers also have picked up goods from FEMA and the Red Cross, bringing the items from distribution centers to people unable to leave their homes.

“It’s really door-to-door,” said Emilie Coleman, 26, of Red Hook, who biked to the Rockaways with groups from Affinity Cycles and Time’s Up.

Doing Double

Vicki Beaver, 59, used her bike to carry diapers, blankets, baby food and children’s books to a mother with two young children in the Red Hook Houses. “You’re hitting a lot of traffic and a lot of construction work and ConEd men and you can just kind of whip right by,” said Beaver, who lives in Cobble Hill.

She noted other teams of volunteers traversing the area on foot. “If they had a bike, they could do double what they’re doing,” she said. “To have the bikes even bought ahead of time, wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

It may not be such a fanciful notion. In June, Portland, Oregon sponsored a 30-mile cargo bike trial ride as part of a disaster response exercise. Portland has encouraged its volunteer Neighborhood Emergency Teams to include cargo bikes in disaster-readiness plans.

New York has an equivalent to Portland’s Neighborhood Emergency Teams, called Community Emergency Response Teams or CERTs. Made up of more than 1,500 citizen volunteers, the neighborhood-based CERTs are trained to support first responders with evacuations, food distribution and other duties.

Glenn Wolin, who leads the Brooklyn South CERT, said some of his team members are avid cyclists and the group has considered bikes in its planning. “As recon it could be a really useful thing,” he said.

‘Bang for the Buck’

Still, the role of cycling in the city’s long-term disaster preparedness plans remains unclear. Advocates have cheered the Department of Transportation’s recent investment in new bike lanes to make cycling easier and safer not only in emergencies, but everyday.

Bike lanes provide “bang for the buck” by doubling as evacuation routes, said Dan Carroll, a graduate student in bicycle and pedestrian planning at SUNY Albany and an intern at the New York Bicycling Coalition.

“People see bike lanes as kind of leisurely,” Carroll said. “They don’t see it as a way to move people around.”

As the weather cools and the days grow shorter, volunteers like Arthur continue to organize rides to help the Rockaways. Next summer, he said, he hopes to ride to the beach, once again carrying only sunscreen and a towel.