by Scott James
Let’s start with the Big Picture of transportation in North America and then work our way down to our neighborhoods. It’s not clear how long we’ll be able to continue national and international travel via planes, which may be doomed for their massive carbon hit, significant fuel requirements, and the general unprofitable nature of that industry. Trains certainly offer an ability to travel nationwide, albeit at a slower pace than air travel. Trains also have a more hopeful future because of recent private investments made by the Warren Buffet and Bill Gates crowd.
But, as we touched on previously, our dependence on using automobiles for citizens and the trucking industry for moving goods stands in the way of making long distance travel more sustainable. I’m a big fan of zero emission electric vehicles (assuming they can be recharged with renewable energy), but with our dwindling resources, electric vehicles may be too little too late.
So what are the alternatives available for the daily short-haul transportation of people and goods in the event that regional roadways are interrupted by a widespread emergency or a longer-term emergency like the gas shortages of the 1970s? Whether it is for conducting daily errands around town or making a once-a-decade hurricane evacuation trip with your Go Bags, having multiple options for transportation makes sense for both lessening our impact on the earth and building resiliency into our lives.
In an Emergency
In an emergency scenario, we can assume that it will not be just our fuel sources that are severely limited. Physical access to clear roads and pathways will also be blocked by destroyed buildings, water, and downed trees and power lines. Many citizens waste precious fuel driving around right before and after a disaster looking for emergency supplies like bottled water. A small bit of preplanning and self-discipline will help you conserve that precious fuel resource for more acute needs, like medical emergencies.
Living on an island with the very real possibility of being cut off by a collapsed bridge and a nonfunctioning ferry system makes me take to heart any wisdom offered by my elders. Years ago someone encouraged me always to refill my fuel tanks when they hit the one-half mark. This bit of wisdom is just as relevant for people on the mainland. Many smaller towns can be cut off from supply lines with the closure of one or two highways, which would stop the inflow of food and fuel.
For emergencies that are preceded by ample advance warning, such as hurricanes, fuel resources are sometimes most wisely used to vacate the area. But for sudden emergencies like earthquakes, it may be wiser to conserve transportation fuel and shelter in place until the appropriate time to then use the remaining fuel helping those around you with transportion to nearby shelters for medical attention or weather relief.
Nonfuel Strategies. When an emergency includes low-power scenarios, walking, bicycling, and horseback riding will all find their uses. Towns that have active riding clubs for both bicycles and horses will find themselves with an excellent resource for transportation that does not rely directly on fuel. In a longer emergency, horses can also be used to assist in the moving of heavy machinery.
Betsey Wittick of Laughing Crow Farm on Bainbridge Island talked horses with me at a recent farmer’s market: “Draft horses are an example of smaller-scale technology appropriate to certain farms, particularly those going beyond organic to something like biodynamic. The Farm Hack community that is creating new implements for horses is encouraging.”
She added, “Draft work requires a different approach to farming than using a tractor, primarily because you are depending on a living being to provide the ‘horse power,’ one with its own needs, attitudes, and opinions. For those willing to learn what it takes to farm this way, there is an added benefit: one of a spiritual connection with the horse. That’s something you don’t get with an internal combustion engine.”
Heavy Machinery and Tools. The availability of heavy machinery for transport of goods and materials and for emergency work such as removing debris and fallen trees is a significant concern for emergency professionals and citizens in their neighborhoods. Marcin Jakubowski has an interesting solution: His Global Village Construction Set, which is sometimes called a “civilization starter kit,” features a wide range of tools that could be shared among several microfarmers and permaculture enthusiasts. The kit sells for around ten thousand dollars—the more folks there are who are sharing the tools, the more affordable the kit becomes.
People Power. For transportation of ourselves and smaller amounts of goods, we can rely on human and animal power. But how many of our citizens can walk multiple miles day after day? I spoke with Tom McClosky from the Striders Club and his wife Louise about the importance of maintaining personal health as part of their emergency preparedness plans. Tom explained:
If there is anything we have learned from Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina it is that it will take the world-class local, state, and federal emergency response apparatus we have in the United States several days—if not weeks—to come to our aid. This is not an indictment of their desire or ability to help. Instead, it is the stark reality of confronting a catastrophic situation where the needs of those impacted greatly exceed the capacity of those dedicated to providing help.
With this in mind, it is critical for us to do everything we can to be prepared to take care of ourselves and our loved ones for at least seven days if not longer. This means having enough water (one gallon per person per day), food and the ability to prepare and serve it, sources of light and heat while we wait for our utilities to be restored, and shelter.
Another consideration, which is often overlooked, is the importance of taking care of yourself so that you are physically fit and better able to cope with the manual labor associated with responding to the devastation that will surround you. Just think about what you are likely to confront: a damaged home with its contents strewn about, floors covered with broken glass, and blocked and/or damaged roads preventing the use of cars. To move around you will have to be able to lift and carry loads and walk or, perhaps, ride a bike to obtain supplies and other assistance.
In addition to finding immediate benefits of maintaining our personal health in non-emergency times, we’ll find similar benefits in the maintenance of our nonmotorized gear such as bicycles. I spoke with Jeff Groman, the founder of Classic Cycle here on the island and an avid bicyclist enthusiast, about the importance of maintaining bicycling:
I’ve been part of the cycle industry for almost 40 years. I’ve had the opportunity to work on bicycles all around the United States and in other parts of the world. One of the things I discovered early in my career was the importance of having a bicycle ready to go at all times.
The bicycle is one of the most important inventions of the 19th century and one of the top 10 inventions that changed the world. When getting from A to B you can always depend on the reliability of the bicycle. It is by far the most efficient means of transportation for almost everything. One only has to look at the Netherlands to see the possibilities.
If the power goes out and there’s no ready supply of gasoline, the bicycle will be the most useful tool in the shed. Just think of how quickly you can get to an emergency center or check on the folks in your neighborhood, especially those who are most in need.
The intermediate level of technology is quite simple compared to a motorized vehicle. With a little bit of technical skill, a bicycle is easily maintained and will provide reliable transportation in all situations. We have a plethora of machines ready at all times at our home for recreation, transportation, and emergencies. On an island like Bainbridge, it’s possible to get from every part of the island to the main town in less than 30 minutes.
We’ve always believed we were making the island (and the world) a better place one bike at a time. You can, too!
Whether you are on a horse, bicycle, or your own two feet, the pathways that take you from neighborhood to neighborhood are crucial. Thankfully, our city maintains a map of our nonmotorized trails, also include kayak trails. The map serves as a good visual of the positive things that happen when civic and private groups cooperate, in this case our City Hall, our Parks District, an Open Space Commission, and the private nonprofit Bainbridge Island Land Trust.
I recently sought out Dana Berg, the founder of GO! Bainbridge, to speak with me about the importance of their mission to promote these pathways:
This is a timely conversation as my nephew is here from Brooklyn and he was telling me how crazy it was during Sandy and how everyone was surprised at how tenuous things are, especially when there are no shipments of gasoline.
We often forget that our society runs on oil. Most people and most goods are transported by cars and trucks fueled by oil. During emergencies, that system can be disrupted very quickly. The power may be out to pump the fuel or there may be no way for fuel to get to the fueling stations. Luckily, we have alternative transportation right at our feet. Walking and biking are historic ways of getting places and are still available to most people today. An average walker travels at 3 miles per hour, a cyclist at 12 miles per hour. And during a disaster, when roads may be impassable, walkers and cyclists can often find trails and detours that get them past these hazards and blockages. And the only fuel needed is some food.
Keeping a bike in good working order is an important part of your emergency preparedness plan. And taking some trips in your neighborhood by foot or bike on a regular basis will help you keep in touch with neighbors. It is easy to stop and chat when moving about without a car and a great way to stay connected with your local area.
Of course Bainbridge Island is not alone in creating transportation corridors that do not rely on automobiles. Active bicycling communities usually thrive in the same areas where sustainability or preparedness initiatives do. Witness Bellingham’s popular bike paths in Washington State where there is a local Transition Town movement for Whatcom County. It’s also the home to Sustainable Connections. Or consider Shelby County in Tennessee, which reversed its listing as one of the “worst cities” by Bicycling Magazine in 2008 when it had fewer than two miles of bicycle paths to now include over 160 miles of pathways. Their local preparedness group, Ready Shelby, is benefiting from this commitment to sustainability and community-building.
The financial commitment to creating and maintaining these nonmotorized pathways also proves to be a good investment. As Bobby Allyn from The New York Times reported,
The mayor’s office says that the potential economic ripple effect of bike lanes is proof that they are a sound investment.
A study in 2011 by the University of Massachusetts found that building bike lanes created more jobs—about 11 per $1 million spent—than any other type of road project. Several bike shops here have expanded to accommodate new cyclists, including Midtown Bike Company, which recently moved to a location three times the size of its former one. “The new lanes have been great for business,” said the manager, Daniel Duckworth.
Wanda Rushing, a professor at the University of Memphis and an expert on urban change in the South, said bike improvements were of a piece with a development model sweeping the region: bolstering transportation infrastructure and population density in the inner city.
“Memphis is not alone in acknowledging that sprawl is not sustainable,” Dr. Rushing said. “Economic necessity is a pretty good melding substance.”
Rethinking Our Urban Areas
Remaking our neighborhoods and towns around pedestrians is a long-term project but definitely worthwhile to make our living and working areas more sustainable and able to withstand shocks like natural disasters. As author and architectural critic James Howard Kunstler often argues, the end of cheap energy (read: oil) will force us to return to smaller-scale, agrarian-focused communities. I spoke with Jonathan Davis about this. He is a green architect, the principal of Davis Studio Architecture + Design, and a proponent of One Planet design principles:
In our current project, we are creating a community that will be zero carbon by 2020. Partially this is through homes that are extremely energy efficient with on-site photovoltaics. These net-zero homes have photovoltaic solar panel arrays that will generate enough energy to offset that used by each house, thereby greatly reducing monthly energy costs and, more importantly, their carbon footprint. The homes are warm and welcoming, using interior finishes that have been selected for both their sustainable qualities and also to create inviting, comfortable living spaces.
But a significant aspect of this zero net energy community is related to transportation. Due to the project’s location in an urban core, we take advantage of nearby, local facilities for residents like grocery stores, pharmacies, cafes, and schools that are within easy walking and biking distance. While we’ve added a zero-emission automobile for use by our homeowners, much of the transportation needs of the community are created by people power.
As we look into the future of transportation in both normal and emergency times, it looks like we’ll be back to the future. We’re already seeing sail craft—both large and small—being used for the transportation of goods in protected waterways like the Puget Sound and on navigable rivers. Bicycles, horses, and a significant increase in citizens walking will make our towns healthier and more resilient.
- Preparing for Emergency
- Preparing for Emergency: Developing Resilience Within a Community
- Preparing for Emergency: Starting with Food
- Preparing for Emergency: Water—The Precious Resource
- Preparing for Emergency: Come on Baby Light My Fire
- Preparing for Emergency: Gimme Shelter
- Preparing for Emergency: Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
- Disaster Preparedness Part 5: Bainbridge Hoods Organizing
- Disaster Preparedness Part 4: Your New Year’s Resolution
- Disaster Preparedness Part 3: Family First
- Disaster Preparedness Part 2: People Get Ready
- Disaster Preparedness Part 1: The Fire Department Takes Over
- Map Your Neighborhood Party This Evening: Get Prepared
Scott James is an entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and the founder of Prepared Neighborhoods, a program of Sustainable Bainbridge. More details at www.scottjames.me. Join the conversation about this series in the comments below or at www.preparedneighborhoods.com.
Photos by Alexander Baxevanis, born1945, guigo.eu, vastateparksstaff, Dennis Jarvis, Lars Plougmann,