COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Adaptive Transportation: Bicycling Through Sandy's Aftermath

Mina Keyes
Nov 27, 2012
Dec 14, 2017
Volunteers use bikes to transport donated goods to hard-hit areas like Red Hook and the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy / Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh via Flickr

On Thursday following Superstorm Sandy, when much of New York City was still without power, the number of bike riders on the East River bridges rose more than 130 percent. The substantial increase in ridership, according to a study by NYU’s Rudin Center, showed that walking and biking commuters were, on average, the least frustrated commuters compared to those who drove, or used the bus or subway. While non-bikers experienced double or triple their pre-Sandy commute time depending on where they lived, walkers and bikers added only nine minutes to their commute time on average!

The volume of biking commuters was observed and counted by volunteers from Transportation Alternatives. They stationed themselves in four locations around the city to record the swelling number of cyclists and by their estimates, there were approximately 100,000 people commuting to work by bike between Wednesday, November 7th, Friday, November 9th, and the following Monday and Tuesday. Observers covered a lot of ground during morning, afternoon, and evening shifts from 2nd Avenue, to Times Square, and up on 138th Street in the Bronx.

Although strained (perhaps beyond capacity) by Sandy, New York’s bike infrastructure provided a much-needed transportation alternative when subways were down and the automobile network was stymied by traffic light shutdown. Even with approximately 300 miles of protected bicycle paths, exclusive bicycle lanes, and shared bicycle lanes available in all five boroughs, riders still experienced frustrations when traveling during the storm’s long aftermath. Brooklyn resident David Pimentelli, told The New York Times, “I’m scared to be going back to Brooklyn right now,” traveling the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. “People are running red lights, very agitated, they don’t care.”

Many PPSers are cyclists who bike to and from our HQ in Manhattan’s East Village. In the office, I’ve heard several colleagues comment on how difficult it was to pass slower moving cyclists, with traffic slowing and compressing at points. "I couldn't believe the congestion,” said Transportation Associate David Nelson. “It was a Level-of-Service D equivalent. If [the East River Crossings] had been a highway, engineers would argue you'd have to add more capacity."

PPS Associate Casey Wang, a resident of Brooklyn, did not travel into Manhattan during the week after the storm, but as a regular bike commuter, she knows and understands the world of cycling in NYC. Her experience that week was one of relief in owning a bicycle. Had she not, she says she would have felt “trapped.” Although cycling didn’t mean commuting during that week, she was thankful to be able to carry out her day-to-day activities in Brooklyn even though her trusted trains were down, including the L, which only resumed service the week of the 12th.

Commuting aside, the bicycle’s role during Hurricane Sandy proved to be truly life saving. Many residents in the Rockaways and Red Hook suffered the loss of their homes, and had to rely on crowded, inadequate shelters and the generosity of friends and family—many without electricity or heat, themselves—and attending to basic needs quickly became an issue. Volunteers at Bicycle Habitat in Park Slope and Affinity Cycles in Williamsburg loaded their bicycles with panniers full of donations, including flashlights, diapers, blankets, and coats, and headed for the Rockaways. Using bicycle power allowed volunteers to bypass gridlocked traffic, nimbly move around donation centers and churches to make their drop-offs, and survey damage.

Occupy Sandy organizers demonstrated democracy in action by making use of bicycles as well. Rev. Michael Sniffen of St. Luke and St. Matthew on Clinton Avenue, an experienced Occupy Wall Street advocate, opened the church to Occupy Sandy, allowingmore than 2,500 volunteers to participate in relief efforts, including moving donated goods via bike and car. Rev. Sniffen told The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, “We’re neighbors helping neighbors, on a fleet of bicycles. It’s an image of community at its best.”

The number of NYC residents who cycle has risen considerably in the past few years. According to NYC DOT, bicycle commuting doubled between 2007 and 2011 from an average of 27,000 riders to 48,300 entering and leaving the Manhattan core each day and it aims to triple that number by 2017. Sandy has highlighted the resilience of NYC’s residents, the bicycling infrastructure’s ability to support that population, and the need to expand that infrastructure to accommodate the level of ridership seen during the storm on a permanent basis. Indicators recorded from Sandy present a strong case for the DOT to meet its 2017 goal.


To see photos of residents, commuters, and volunteers weathering the storm, visit Transportation Alternative’s Flickr page here.

For a New York City Cycling Map and information about NYC DOT’s cycling plans and initiatives click here.

Mina Keyes
Mina Keyes
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