What Sandy did: Cycling after the storm

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Residents of the Big Apple have a story to tell about the great storm of 2012. Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit, one Brooklynite recalls climbing onto a neighbour’s roof, exhausted and confused, and watching in disbelief as the constellation of lights across the city fizzled and dimmed. Another describes the bewilderment as crowds of individuals wandered a postdiluvian capital, seemingly unsure of where to go or how to get there.

From the perspective of someone far away from a disaster, it’s a mistake to think you can relate too closely with the impressions of people hit by it. But that’s the position New York was used to being in – hurricanes existed on the television. Doug Gordon, Park Slope resident, documentary maker and cycling blogger on Brooklyn Spoke, tells &Bike that Sandy truly tested his fellow citizens.

“It felt quite unreal even when it was actually on top of us,” says Gordon. “People tend to have short memories when they don’t have direct experience – we’re all aware of what happened with Katrina, but watching what happened in New Orleans with Katrina isn’t the same as when it’s in your own backyard.”

On October 26th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for every county in the state as the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, dubbed Sandy, swept towards Northeastern United States.

On October 28th, Governor Cuomo ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including the subway, closed. Evacuations took place in Lower Manhattan, the Coney Island-Brighton Beach, Red Hook areas of Brooklyn and the entire Rockaways peninsula.

Few saw this level of damage and disruption coming – even as attention across the television channels gradually turned from the tide of coverage of the presidential election to the satellite pictures of an ugly tropical storm wheeling its way over the Atlantic, there was still a sense of incredulity that ‘Superstorm’ Sandy would intervene in the democratic process. Pre-disaster preparations took the form of evacuations, suspended schools, shut shops and quiet trainlines.

Then the rain came.

On October 29th, the tropical storm made landfall just south of Atlantic City and continued northward, now as a post-tropical cyclone. Precipitation in New York State reached 87mm with winds recorded at 90mph.

On October 30th, US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared a public health emergency in New York as flooding and widespread destruction to property left swathes of the city without transport and power.

On November 1st, President Obama declared Rockland and Westchester Counties disaster areas. NASDAQ reporting services estimated New York’s economic losses to be at least $18bn, a figure which has since been revised upwards. At least 43 people died as a result of the storm.

Recovery

A city turned upside down is still a city; a mesh of conflicting interests and community spirit. Just as importantly, New York is still a unique setting and New Yorkers pride themselves on being hard to rattle.

Still, it was a frightening time, says Brooklyn-based Dani Simons, communications expert and sustainable transportations advocate. “It makes you feel vulnerable when you think how much the city has been affected by something that no-one has any control over,” she tells &Bike.

From neighbourhood to neighbourhood, across the boroughs, the disaster meant different things. Some had seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, while others could only stand and watch from the windows of their apartment blocks as the water rose in the streets and fret about how they were going to get to work.

Sandy left Manhattan without functioning tunnels, the subway completely shut down on the Sunday, with only 14 of 23 returning to functional use that working week as the services did their best to pump water out of the tunnels. While daily commutes reached more epic and exasperating lengths, the city’s less well-connected limbs faced shortages of supplies and aid.

Inundated subways under the East River and between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular created knotted coils of traffic and locked up a city that desperately needed transportation. Many turned to the bicycle as a vital tool in an hour of need.


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The East River bridges, which regularly see upwards of 10,000 cycling commuters on the daily slog, witnessed an overnight trebling of activity as people took to two wheels as a means of getting to their jobs.

“One thing I think the aftermath of Sandy showed was that, given the conditions, New Yorkers will choose to bike,” says Gordon. “The basic thought that most people have is ‘I need to get to work’ and the bicycle was the way they were going to do that.”

For the commuters, the bicycle was the fastest ride in town. Meanwhile, advocate organisation Transportation Alternatives hosted commuter support stops at the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Queensboro Bridge and 26th Street and 6th Avenue to provide route guidance, maintenance support and offering the odd cup of Joe.

For some, speed was the essence of what the bicycle provided in this situation – speed over the car. For others, the bicycle became something else.

Community

“It’s remarkable the way people responded. It made me proud to be a New Yorker,” affirms Gordon. Watching the same individuals that might casually ride down to the Rockaways on a bright autumn weekend, pulling together to help deliver supplies or collect donations for fellow citizens in need in those same areas left an impression on Gordon. The locals are the humble heroes in this story, but cycling gave them greater strength as a collective.

Online, cyclists, shop owners and alternative transport advocates alike turned their attention to organising their efforts as an army of volunteers. A site like www.bikesandy.com shows the sophistication of the response as the community looked for ways to harness their resources.

Seasoned cycle-commute veterans offered advice to those who’d just dusted off a set of old wheels, while others took to forums to share information on what routes were available and provide updates on the restoration of transportation services.

For some, the bicycle was more than a tool to help them get to work. A bike shop in Williamsburg called Affinity Bikes quickly opened a drop-off centre and co-ordinated rides out to the Rockaways. Bicycle Habitat on Fifth Avenue took donations and set up schemes to help local cyclists come together and help the recovery.

“They weren’t the only ones but there were a few shops that managed to co-ordinate a lot of people and they acted as a bit of a rallying point for the community,” says Gordon.

The image of ramshackle pelotons of cyclists with panniers creaking under the weight of water, food and basics like batteries and cleaning kits making their way through the debris out to areas like the Rockaway Peninsula may have looked odd in comparison to the convoys of National Guard vehicles, but the efforts of these individuals provided access to areas without working roads, making key contributions and inspiring those around them.

Efforts sustained even as conditions improved and the city shuffled towards normality. In Brooklyn, for example, Castelli and Brooklyn retailer Gage+DeSoto worked to create a custom jersey with Red Hook emblazoned on the front, the proceeds of which would go to the Sandy recovery efforts in the stricken neighbourhood.  On Saturday, November 10th NYC Velo in the East Village hosted a volunteer session to encourage cyclists who’d seen the Staten Cross race cancelled that weekend to use their time to donate and deliver suppliers to Staten Island.

“People’s instincts was to help out and cycling was a way for them to do that,” explains Simons. “I heard that the day after the storm was one of the busiest retail days for Brooklyn bike stores – they played an important role, offering discounts, running recycle-a-bicycle schemes to get bikes out to people who needed them and generally helping commuters.”

Legacy

On November 15th, a newly re-elected President Obama visited hard-hit neighbourhoods in New York and committed to significant help to the recovery process. Though areas including Coney Island and parts of Rockaway remained without power nearly two weeks after the storm hit, transport systems resumed functions over the week following the storm. 

The city will be dealing with the aftermath of this disaster for months, so in a sense it’s too early to ask what the long-term effects will be. Still, there are signs that cycling’s own part of the Sandy story will leave a legacy.

Resilience is part of the character of a New Yorker and perhaps it’s no surprise that when the situation demanded a practical response, cycling was the just the tool they needed. Yet the relationship between New York and cycling remains difficult to untangle, even as the waters subside.

In a pre-Sandy world, cycling fatalities remained high and, according to an article in the New Yorker by Katia Bachko, under-investigated. New York is no cycling haven, even if it, like London and other Western metropolises, has enjoyed its own nuanced cycling renaissance in recent years.

Indeed, even in that brief spell when parts of the population took to their bikes, it wasn’t without risk.

“I’m scared to be going back to Brooklyn right now,” one rider told a reporter from the New York Times, as he exited the Brooklyn Bridge after a trip to Manhattan during the week following the storm. “People are running red lights, very agitated, they don’t care.”

Cyclists may have come out of the woodwork to avoid the effects of the storm, but some of them are going back in once the inconvenience has gone.

The press noticed the effect cycling was having, but some of the city authorities were less obvious in their promotion of it as an alternative form of transport. Mayor Bloomberg was notable for his lack of promotion of bicycles, despite having held press conferences to discuss transportation restrictions and alternatives. Possibly he recognised the double-edge to having thousands of extra cyclists herding over roads more used to cars.

“We have a good relationship with bikes,” reflects Gordon. “Mayor Bloomberg was known for seeing the automobile as a sign of economic health, but now he’s making statements about how it’s important to get people out of cars.”

Simons sees it in the context of the long game. “It does take an event sometimes to shift people’s thinking, but cycling has come a long way in New York over the past five years and this is just a part of the change that’s happening,” she says. “During the 2005 transit strike we saw people respond to disruption by turning to bikes, but it was a lot less safe then. There are more bike lanes now, a lot of thought has gone into redesigning the infrastructure and I think you can see a difference between this moment and back then.”

Will Sandy change cycling in New York? It has probably altered the way some New Yorkers think about cycling, says Gordon, but it’s more a frame of reference for how the bicycle is a tool to avoid inconvenience. Simons is also balanced in her view; cycling gained in profile, but it’s part of a longer narrative to do with the changing perceptions of Americans towards transportation.

The great storm was about tragedy but also about how the city came together and responded. The part of the cyclist may have been a relatively small one, but it won’t be quickly forgotten.

Steve Hall

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