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Cargo Bikes Could Play Key Role In Crisis

Over the weekend a hardened set of contenders pedaled 30 miles across Portland, each loaded down with a hundred pounds of food, propane, and tents. This isn’t the new Ironman challenge. It’s the Cargo Bike Disaster Trials. 

Some local cyclists are trying to figure out how they can fit into the region’s emergency management plans. 

Joel Metz appreciates a bike challenge. But didn’t really have to train for this competition. 

“You know, hundred pound loads, not out of the ordinary. Riding around the city, not out of the ordinary. Lifting bike over rocks — I can’t say I haven’t done that before!”

Metz delivers freight via cargo bike professionally for Portland’s Magpie Messenger collective. On the day we talked, he was grabbing some boxes of paper product at Stumptown Printers. 

Some years ago when Metz was living in the Bay Area, he heard emergency managers wanted to mobilize bike messengers. But not just because they’re tough cyclists. At that time, many bike messengers carried wireless radio systems. And that’s one of the few technologies disaster planners think will weather a major event.

Carmen Merlo runs Portland’s Office of Emergency Management. 

Carmen Merlo “We saw a much larger potential for the use of these bikes.  During a large-scale event, or even an event such as a fuel shortage, you want to use sustainable practices that don’t rely on fuel to get around, that can be open, even when larger emergency vehicles can’t get through.”

So her department agreed to sponsor the disaster trial. And staff are identifying parts of town that might be harder to serve in a disaster. They’re working with cargo bikers to set up volunteer delivery routes for emergency supplies. 

But in Portland, the push to include cargo cyclists in emergency plans came from the bike community.

Photos by Ifanyi Bell, Amanda Peacher, and April Baer/OPB News

Ethan Jewett is one of the organizers of this year’s trials. He and some friends wanted to show the city that when the worst happens, like a major earthquake, cargo bikes have a roll to play.

Jewett said, “The big thing is going to be the disruption of all the infrastructure that brings stuff in.”

City officials say not every Portlander can or should hit the streets, post-quake. It’s probably more appropriate for most Portlanders to stay near their homes if they can. But Jewett says it’s a good idea for people to consider bikes part of their personal plans for self-reliance.

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management
This map from the city shows potential accessibility by Portland neighborhoods in an emergency.

Jewett explained, “I think Portland’s already got some huge advantages in terms of preparedness, which is kind of a cool thing. If we had an earthquake tomorrow, a lot of people in Portland will be able to get around, you can take your bike and get a ride with some boat across the river at some point. You can’t do that with your car.” 

What’s more, Jewett notes the city’s emergency management plans call for neighborhood hubs to establish supply lines for food, water, medicine, and radio communications. If cars can’t reach those hubs, cargo bikes might. 

There’s no guarantee that the plan for cargo bikes will be perfect for the region’s next big disaster. But cargo messenger Joel Metz points out he and his colleagues have to be ready for just about anything.

Metz said, “It’s not so much that we can have this huge plan all made up. it’s that we’re really really good at operating without a plan, with things  changing as they go along. And saying, ‘Oh yeah, that plan you made just the other minute? It’s different now! And worse!’ “

Every day, bike messengers are doubling back to change routes, picking up unexpected clients, dodging hazards, dealing with aggressive weather, or hunkering down to fix a flat or a broken chain on the roadside. 

For more on this story, see our Arts & Life coverage.