Maxwell Burton and Michael Lang had started organizing the 2020 Disaster Relief Trials, a cargo-hauling bike competition, when the COVID-19 outbreak hit. As soon as schools closed down in the spring, Lang and Burton realized their mission had just changed.
The Disaster Relief Trials (“DRT”) is “a trial competition that’s meant to simulate a natural disaster happening in an area,” said Burton in a recent interview for Seattle Bike Blog TV (SBBTV). During a disaster, “bikes, and especially cargo bikes, are going to be the most flexible way to transport needed goods and medical supplies and water and other things around.”
Seattle has held DRTs several times over the past decade, usually organized by Familybike Seattle. It’s a ton of fun, but it’s also very informative. Teams or individuals bike around the city completing various tasks, from hauling water or “medicine” (usually an egg that you need to deliver unbroken) to demonstrating that you can fix a flat tire or carry your bike over a blocked path. It also connects different community-led and public disaster preparedness efforts, and it gets participants to think about their own personal disaster planning (or, commonly, the lack thereof).
But when schools and businesses closed and people hunkered down to prevent the spread of this scary respiratory disease, Lang and Burton knew that the crisis all the previous DRTs were practicing for had just arrived.
“This isn’t a trials anymore,” said Burton. “This is no longer a Disaster Relief Trials. This is disaster relief.”
So they threw out all their planning notes for the event and created the Seattle Pedaling Relief Project (“SPRP”), an all-volunteer effort designed to help food banks and other community organizations with the huge logistical challenge of getting resources to people who need them. One of the unexpected challenges of a pandemic is that many of the most vulnerable people in the community can no longer safely or comfortably access services like food banks the way they used to. Meanwhile, the need for services like food banks has increased as people have lost work.
The SPRP forms relationships with service providers and organizes volunteer opportunities for people with bikes to help make deliveries.
“It’s been great for the food banks because having cyclists available to them makes them really flexible in terms of how much food they can pick up and when,” said Burton. “It reduces their logistics overhead a lot.”
And they were inspired by Cranksgiving, food drive bike rides held across the country every November. Seattle Bike Blog has hosted the main Seattle event for ten years, sending people out across the city to buy food for Rainier Valley Food Bank.
“My thinking was, ‘What if we did a Cranksgiving in reverse? And did it every week?'” said Burton.
Volunteering for SPRP also helps build community resilience. People meet each other, become familiar with the services in their communities, and get involved.
“A good number of our volunteers have gone on to sign up for volunteer shifts within their local food banks,” said Burton. “It’s raising the visibility of this super valuable social services and food security infrastructure that we have here in Seattle.”
You can sign up to volunteer via the SPRP website. They currently have opportunities Wednesday through Saturday every week with El Centro de la Raza, Rainier Valley Food Bank, Byrd Barr Place, White Center Food Bank and the U District Food Bank. They are also getting involved with city P-Patches and other urban farms to help with fresh food donations. And the list is expanding. There’s also a general sign-up form if you want to stay informed of opportunities. Masks and gloves are required, and points of direct contact are as limited as possible during their work to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Thanks for this interview! I rode with them last weekend in the U District and Central District and had a great time. Maxwell was a great leader, this was one of the best-organized volunteering events I’ve done with any group. He had supplies and information for all the participants and was really welcoming and positive. Looking forward to joining them again!