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Bikes should be part of every emergency kit (Image: Archi Banal)
Bikes should be part of every emergency kit (Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONSocietyOctober 22, 2023

When the shit hits the fan, bikes will bring us back from the brink

Bikes should be part of every emergency kit (Image: Archi Banal)
Bikes should be part of every emergency kit (Image: Archi Banal)

Batteries, bottled water… bike? Timothy Welch explains why two-wheeled transport could be a life-saver in an emergency.

“Zombies!” someone screams. Everyone runs to their cars only to immediately be snarled in traffic and become lunch for a horde of the living dead. If apocalyptic movies and TV shows have anything to teach us, it’s that cars are absolute rubbish in times of disaster.

While the likelihood of being chased by zombies in your lifetime is essentially zero, the chances of exposure to some kind of natural disaster are increasingly likely. A report tracking natural disasters between 1900 and 2019 shows that disasters have increased tenfold since 1960. Another report monitoring natural disasters since 1970 indicates that “weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50% of all disasters, 45% of all reported deaths and 74% of all reported economic losses.”

Neither of these reports includes data from 2023, which, with a few minutes of doom scrolling on social media, reveals that the entire globe is currently dealing with unprecedented heat, rainfall, flooding, wildfires or hurricanes.

Images from these events show the disastrous consequences of relying on personal vehicles as an escape mode as they are washed away, burned, or buried under rubble. There is also a weird irony in using a car to escape a natural disaster that was likely exacerbated in some part by the carbon emissions from that vehicle.

A bike doesn’t need to be fancy to do the job in an emergency (Photo: Getty)

No power, no problem

What we learn from the movies and real-world examples is that when disaster strikes, the power supply is the first thing to go. This poses a significant conundrum for petrol and electric cars alike. Petrol stations require power to pump, measure, charge and accept payment for fuel. Electric vehicles eventually need a power source to recharge, even if they start with a full battery.

Bikes, on the other hand, have the advantage of being human-powered. So long as there is a person with some energy, a bike can be used as transport for an unlimited amount of time without electricity. Even e-bikes offer more flexibility than cars as they typically require less voltage and can be charged from any working outlet, a small solar panel, or even, with a bit of ingenuity, from the 12-volt batteries on all the cars left behind.

Flooded cars near Mount Smart Stadium.
Flooded cars near Mount Smart Stadium, January 28, 2023. (Photo: supplied)

The incredible submersible bike

Flooding seems to be the most frequent item on the natural disaster menu. Photos of flooding cities invariably show cars in various stages of destruction – whether it be floating away or smashed to pieces up against a building or bridge. Even if a car simply goes underwater and re-emerges after the flood subsides, its ruined electronics and engine almost certainly render it inoperable.

In the short term, bikes are OK with any amount of water. It’s easy to find many images of people riding their bikes – inadvisably – through moderate flood waters. After the waters recede, with a quick air drying and maybe a bit of lubricant, the bike is perfectly good transportation again.

The bicycle can break through

Streets strewn with the ruins of cars and debris from whatever horrible event hit the city pose a significant obstacle for vehicles, even for the most rugged SUVs. But bikes can easily navigate through tight spaces, and when the road becomes completely impassable a bike can be carried over the obstacle. Some people even do that sort of thing just for fun.

Bikes aren’t just a good option for people fleeing a disaster. Anyone with a bike and a bag, backpack or pannier can quickly provide emergency supplies to people unable to leave their neighbourhoods. Medical and rescue personnel can also travel faster on a bike than on foot and are less impeded than in a car to reach disaster victims. The rise of cargo bikes makes critical supply drops even more efficient and offers the opportunity to transport people and pets away from uninhabitable parts of the city.

The pre- or post-apocalyptic traffic jam has become a cinema trope. Pictured: Deep Impact (1998)

Cycleways are emergency expressways

Maybe the most poignant imagery from disaster movies, and sure, from actual disasters too, is of massive numbers of cars converging and stopping on the streets. Whether abandoned or stuck in a sea of traffic congestion, roads clogged with cars present a serious problem for vehicles that need to operate in an emergency. Fire trucks, ambulances and utility trucks all need fast access to a disaster site.

No matter how gung-ho we get about bikes, there are some jobs that are probably still best left to vehicles, including dousing fires, carrying away critically injured people or riding a boom lift to fix a power pole. But how do these vehicles get through traffic-clogged roads? The answer is protected cycleways.

In an emergency, wide bike lanes with substantial cement barriers and removable locked bollards become perfect emergency vehicle access routes. Even if, as unlikely as it sounds, the cycleway was strewn with abandoned bicycles, a single individual could clear bikes with little effort.

This isn’t just a cyclist’s fever dream. YouTube and TikTok are filled with clips of emergency vehicles using cycleways as emergency lanes in cities including London, Paris and Dublin. But, for this to work, a city must invest in wide protected lanes that form complete networks with access to most parts of the city.

We’re living in a time of climate unpredictability; it’s impossible to know when the next major natural disaster will strike. There has never been a better time to start talking about and planning for the next big event. But no planning will be complete without a serious discussion of how we can still move around our cities when the shit hits the fan.

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