From the Disaster Relief Trials to Disaster Relief in Action!

By: Mike Lang, G&O Family Cyclery and Seattle Pedaling Relief Project

August 21, 2020

Back in 2016, I participated in an event known as the Disaster Relief Trials in Seattle. Founded in Portland, Oregon in 2012, The Disaster Relief Trials is “a disaster drill in the form of a cargo bike competition simulating a four day supply run.” In other words, it is a disaster-response-themed alleycat race to show the unique capabilities of cargo bikes in emergency situations. The 2016 Seattle edition was a blast, but unfortunately, the organizers from that year would not be available to run the event again.

Several busy years passed with no DRT in Seattle. After this long hiatus, I decided that 2020 was the year to bring it back. I had the good fortune of meeting Maxwell Burton, who was eager as could be to help organize the event. Plans were made, local experts were consulted, and a date was nearly decided.

Then, Seattle became the point of initial contact for COVID-19 in the United States. By mid-March, it was apparent that drastic measures would be necessary to slow the spread of the virus. Schools, workplaces, and social spaces were closed until further notice. With a shelter-in-place order declared for Washington State, we could not run a social bike event legally, or in good conscience.

However, after wrestling with our initial disappointment, we realized that our work didn’t have to go to waste. Mutual Aid organizations, including established food banks and pop-up community groups, were already working to assist those who were hit hardest by the rippling effect of the pandemic. I started to use my cargo bike and a Burley Travoy trailer to deliver donated groceries, instead of a car. On a bike with a trailer, I was able to carry enough groceries to feed a small family for a week, and could do it in a way that did not generate CO2 emissions, degrade air quality, or systemically endanger vulnerable road users. Maxwell reached out to a local food bank with a similar goal. He and a few friends started using their own trailers to deliver groceries to neighbors who most needed to stay in the safety of their own homes.

Several paper bags full of leafy greens are shown strapped to the large rear bags of a cargo bicycle.
Green food, and green transportation!

This was no longer a trial or a test. Our transition from the Disaster Relief Trials to Disaster Relief in Action compelled us to re-brand as the Seattle Pedaling Relief Project (SPRP). We started by building partnerships with four local food banks. Based on community needs, we put out a call for volunteer cyclists. The response was quick and enthusiastic; dozens of local cyclists now show up each week to deliver groceries from food banks directly to neighbors, rescue unsold food from grocery stores, and haul fresh produce from local P-patches/urban farms to food banks. Thousands of pounds of food has been moved by bike, and the deliveries happen at least five days out of any week.

Our socially-distanced “Sani Cycle” ride encouraged folks to donate hygiene products and to bike those products to the food banks. All this has been possible due to over 100 individual cycling contributors (they’re more to us than just volunteers). We are now a growing collective of ride organizers, mechanics, educators, food justice advocates, and inclusive cycling enthusiasts.

Several people are shown riding bicycles out of a loading dock area, with paper bags of groceries on their bicycles.
SPRP contributors on the move! Loaded with groceries, they are shown here leaving the U District Food Bank to make deliveries.

Of course, our aim is to make this project accessible to as many people as possible, and not all of our SPRP contributors own a cargo-carrying bike. Realizing that panniers were not large enough for several bags of groceries, and cargo bikes were prohibitively expensive for many, we bought a fleet of Burley Flatbed trailers to loan out. (Disclaimer: I am an employee of a bike shop, which has given the SPRP access to pro deals on Burley products).

The Flatbed trailers have allowed nearly anyone with a bike to sign up for our deliveries. 10-year-old hybrid? No sweat, bolt the hitch to the rear wheel’s axle. Custom steel road bike? Watch out for the fastest chrome-lugged cargo bike in town. Carbon gravel bike? Add the Burley thru-axle adapter, and set that racing machine to work. At the end of the day, the trailers pop off, and any of these bikes are ready again for non-cargo-oriented use. And it’s not just the adaptability we love! Trailers are also great because they don’t require large storage spaces, they can be carried up stairs to walk-up apartments, and they cost a heck of a lot less than any cargo bike on the market. The cargo-carrying to price/weight ratio is supreme.

A view from above of a bicycle trailer, holding five paper bags full of foodstuffs.
There’s plenty of room for cargo on the small, packable Burley Flatbed trailer!

Burley trailers have been indispensable in bringing more cyclists to that world of cargo biking. Even more importantly, they have made Mutual Aid on bicycles viable in these unprecedented times. Be sure to follow us as we build partnerships with more community organizations throughout the greater Seattle area. Also keep up-to-date with what our contributors are pedaling by following our Instagram account, @pedaling_relief_project. To learn more about us and to sign up for the delivery rides, check out our website, pedalingrelief.org. Thanks for reading, and we hope to see you on the road!

– Mike Lang

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