While Sandy recovery continues, signs of hope on two wheels

Jonathan Maus
BikePortland.com, November 1, 2012
Original Article

While scenes of distress are beginning to show in some parts of New York City (lines for gas, chaotic traffic, fights at bus stations, empty food store shelves), there are also signs of hope. And bike activists are behind many of them. From organized programs deployed by advocacy groups; to citizen volunteers armed with bikes, the power of the Internet and big hearts — two-wheeled aid is going strong here.

Down on the Lower East Side, volunteers with Times Up are making a lot of friends with their free bike energy charging station. Set up at 10th and Avenue C, in front of a building known as "C-Squat" whose ground floor will soon open as the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MORUS), the charging station has quickly become a magnet for East Village residents. Flyers posted around the blocks announce "Free Cell Phone Charging and Food" and word has quickly spread through the neighborhood.

George Pingeon is a Times Up volunteer who has made a name for himself for his ability to harness pedal power into electricity. A bike tour guide by day, one of his accomplishments is the Energy Bike Project, a fleet of 14 custom fabricated bike stands that helped power the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now he's putting them to use on a sidewalk in the East Village that was submerged under five feet of water just a few days ago (I saw the proof via cell phone images shared by a guy named Tony who wanted to know which news outlet might buy them from him). People in this part of town still have no electricity, no running water, and food is in short supply.

Even before Pingeon got set up this morning, people were eager for it to get working: "Are you guys doing the bike charging thing again?" "Are you in line?" "Who's first in line?". As the energy station got set up, Herson Cabreras and a group of friends walked up. "How did you do this? We need these down on East Broadway! There's a church... People are walking around all crazy. We've got bikes; but there's nothing down there." he kept saying.

Cabreras said people were wandering the streets looking for power and he was intent on either buying a bike generator system or making one himself. Once he realized they weren't for sale, he whipped out a paper and pen and started peppering Pingeon with questions. "Is that your inverter? Because I've got one of those already. What else do I need? Where I can buy this stuff." Pingeon patiently and clearly explained how the system worked and I have no doubt Mr. Cabreras is busy putting one together as I type this.

Once the system was up and running, people from the neighborhood stepped up onto Pingeon's Burley tandem and started pedaling. The relief of being able to power up their phones, combined with the endorphins and camaraderie brought on by the physical activity, quickly produced smiles on the riders and the spirit on the sidewalk lifted. When I stopped by the station last night, C-Squat resident Bill Cashman said people from the neighborhood never stopped to talk with him or anyone that lives in his building. But Sandy changed that. "It was an island before," said Cashman, about his building. This morning, those same people filled the sidewalk and everyone chatted as the phones got charged. "It's awesome," he added, "we're getting to meet our neighbors."

A few blocks south, the Recycle A Bicycle shop is open for business. Employees Patrick Tomemy and Brendan Brogan stand on the porch, offering to help anyone who needs it. Their showroom is dark; but they're helping out a steady stream of customers. They sell used bikes, so the price is right for folks just looking for anything to get around (there's still no subway service in Lower Manhattan). One guy who picked up a nice, geared cruiser, stopped to look at the bike before pedaling off and exclaimed, "I got a bike! I got a bike! This walking is killing me!"

Inside, Tomemy helped a customer install a new saddle on a man's bike that had been stolen the night before. Using a flashlight, he ventured into the back of the store and emerged with the new seat. Before I left, Tomemy had one request of me. "If you see any other shops open down here, please call us and let us know. We are running out of stuff and want to tell people where else they can go."

Advocacy group Transportation Alternatives is also making it easier to cope for people on bikes. Each morning since Sandy they've set up bike commuter help stations on the bridges, offering free coffee, advice, and moral support. The storm has brought out a lot of first-time riders, so helping make their ride as enjoyable as possible is the goal. Tomorrow they'll set up a commuter info station in Times Square.

TA and other citizen activists are also organizing bike trains from shops throughout the city. These trains offered guided rides and the safety of riding in a group. I joined one from Brooklyn into Manhattan this morning and will share that experience in a separate post.

Bike-loving New Yorkers are also using the web to make riding as easy as possible. The #bikenyc hashtag on Twitter is full of help and advice from a variety of sources. Volunteer Kim Burgas has swung into action quickly to create a new website, Bikeapolis.us where she's collecting resources and information.

And sometimes it's just individuals who are using their bikes to help others. I met one gentleman on the Manhattan Bridge who had an Xtracycle bin full of vegetables. He was carting them around to those in need.

The post-Sandy recovery is not easy on those who live here. Some areas are expected to be without power through the end of next week. There are gigantic trees still toppled over in many neighborhoods, the flooding damage is far from being fixed, the air is getting colder, and tempers and supplies are getting shorter. Yet against that backdrop, It's been amazing to see how the bicycle has performed so valiantly; both in getting people where they need to go, and in bringing people what they need. It's the only vehicle I can think of that offers efficiency, resilience, and hope.

— This post is part of my ongoing New York City coverage. I'm here for a week to cover the NACTO Designing Cities conference and the city's bike culture in general. This special reporting trip was made possible by Planet Bike, Lancaster Engineering, and by readers like you. Thank you! You can find all my New York City coverage here.

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