Talk of a disastrous earthquake got you down? Just keep on biking

Talk of a disastrous earthquake got you down? Just keep on biking


People who bike together, stick together.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Bikes won’t save you after the Big One, but the community built up around them just might.

There’s been a lot of unease in Portland since the publication of a fascinating yet gut-wrenching article in The New Yorker that laid out the impending Cascadia earthquake in excruciating detail.

After I read the piece, I was sort of numb for a while. Then my mind wondered (as if often does) and I started to ask the default question I ask myself around any seemingly intractable issue or policy, “How can bikes fix this?”

After the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, we started asking that question: When a similar fate hits Portland, what role will bicycles play in the recovery? A year later, using bikes in disaster relief efforts had become a serious thing in Portland (and beyond). Our story archives on the topic have since become filled with reassuring vignettes of this positive trend.

But the “Really big one” Kathryn Schulz wrote about on July 20th seems so overwhelming that it didn’t feel like the right time or place to re-hash our optimistic editorial tone about how bikes will help smooth over the rough patches of recovery.

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Then it hit me: The thing that makes bicycling so powerful isn’t just the bicycles themselves, it’s the people and community that tends to gather around them.

When you do your research into survival tips (notice I said “when” not “if”), one thing you’ll learn is that many experts say the best way to ameliorate the devastating impacts is to turn to your community. Get to know your neighbors and build a community, they say, and you’ll be much better off.

That advice bodes very well for people who frequently use bicycles. While some see just a means of fun and transportation, I see a powerful community-building machine.

If you’re an advocate, activist, loyal BikePortland reader, dedicated rider, or all the above, just stop and think about how many people you’ve gotten to know through cycling. Think about how many people at your work, on your street, or at an event you’ve talked to and gotten to know better for no reason other than the fact they were on a bike.

I’ve covered countless events where hundreds — sometimes thousands! — of people have come together simply because of bicycles. I’ve seen people rally around strangers who’ve gotten seriously injured while riding. I’ve seen a tremendously strong community organize itself around the simple idea that bicycles are awesome.

When the shaking stops, it’s naive to think that bicycles alone will save us from tragedy and turmoil. They won’t. But the strong ties we’ve created through bicycling bind us together and make us more resilient — even in the face of an incomprehensible disaster. And that’s something that should make us all feel better.

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