10 Lessons From 10 Years Of Responding To Disasters On Bicycles

When roads and communication lines are down after a disaster in the Philippines, you’ll find Myles and his team—delivering aid and restoring hope. Here are their learnings from a decade of community-led disaster relief.


We call ourselves Bicycle Scouts. For the past 10 years, we’ve been providing an alternative means of access to communication, information, and essential supplies for people in the Philippines who are isolated in the aftermath of severe disasters—using bicycles.

Why did we choose to use bicycles? When severe disasters occur in the Philippines, the first things to be damaged or destroyed are the facilities and infrastructure for communications and access, such as mobile service, roads, and bridges. When this happens, there is no way for people to get the word out that they need help and absolutely no way for responders to get aid and assistance into these affected areas. That was the case after Category 5 Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. But our bikes can get us to those places when others can’t. And as members of these communities, we have local context and insight. We know who needs help, what type of help, and how to get to where people are.

Here are the top 10 lessons we have learned from 10 years of riding into storms, volcanic eruptions, and everything in between:

      1. People are able and willing to help themselves.

      Most of the time we see pictures coming from disaster areas that show people who look helpless, tired, and desperate. They are certainly tired and eventually become desperate to some degree. But people are rarely helpless because of their local knowledge of terrain and resources, coupled with the powerful sense of community that people naturally have in the aftermath of disasters. It sounds overly hopeful, we know, but after 10 years of riding our bicycles in all kinds of disaster-hit areas, one thing we know for sure is that people are inherently good. If given the chance, people will help themselves and each other with the wealth of skills, talent, and local knowledge they have already.

      2. Mobility is a must for disaster response.

      In the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 (and many other typhoons since then), people in severely impacted areas have found ways to get their old rusty bicycles moving again just so they can have a way to check on their friends and family. With their bikes, they can get to other villages and towns where a handful of supplies or medical help might still be available. From our experience, bicycles are the most effective first-response vehicles because they are often already locally available, can go almost anywhere, and are very easy to fix and maintain.

      3. Self-reliance helps preserve dignity.

      The availability of resilient mobility also provides the means for self-reliance for people in communities. When communications facilities and road access become unavailable, bicycles can quickly take the place of being the primary means of transportation and delivery of essential supplies for even the most isolated places. In the hands of an experienced and physically fit rider, bicycles can easily provide communities with access to help and supplies up to a hundred kilometers away, or more. With mobility, people can preserve their sense of dignity by being able to solve local problems on their own, and dignity generates hope that greatly contributes to people’s overall resilience.

      4. We should recognize local heroes instead of superheroes.

      Over the years, we’ve seen the heroism of disaster responders from faraway places as they travel to the corners of the world to help others. The work they do is noble, but what most people never get to see is that, on the ground in disaster areas, relief is needed immediately. We need to support and celebrate local preparedness.

      Local heroes have immediate access to their communities when disaster first strikes—the moment wind and rain pick up, the lights go out, and people need to know that help is just next door ready with a bicycle to bring hope where it’s needed.

      5. Relief efforts must start with local knowledge and context.

      At the height of a recent volcanic eruption in the Philippines, people were ordered to evacuate and to help track the locations where supplies were needed. A lot of data collection platforms were launched to gather information from social media and official and local sources. This was a very good initiative that could have been so much more effective and useful with the consideration of local knowledge and context, which are often neglected or ignored. The non-local data collectors didn’t have the local context of taking into account those who were unwilling to leave behind their crops, animals, and equipment that they and their families’ long-term livelihood depended on. This confirmed for the Bicycle Scouts team that it’s never enough to just know the numbers behind a disaster because disasters are, at their core, a human experience that’s driven by things that are hard to measure or predict.

      6. Resilience requires a network of long-term local support.

      It often becomes a kind of novelty story whenever people come together to solve a local problem or to address a local need. But the act of coming together and working together to solve worthwhile things locally is so much more than just the subject for public entertainment. In the past 10 years, Bicycle Scouts has created a network of support—not one-off volunteers. Happily, we’ve seen how community members who started as small children attending Bicycle Scouts’ efforts grow into young people who decided for themselves that riding bicycles with a community was fun and that doing good for others was a normal thing that people do daily. It’s the long way of getting people involved and developing a firsthand understanding of the value of community-led solutions. This long-term effort has become the backbone for a community-wide collaboration.

      7. The most neglected are the most vulnerable.

      Our choice of using bicycles for our resilience and response work is not by accident, or just for fun. The reality is that there are a lot of places around the Philippines that lack proper road access infrastructure or simply have no access by roads or even trails. In most cases, local communications infrastructure is the first to fail along with electrical supply. It usually takes days or weeks to get them working again, depending on how fast the roads can be cleared and any damaged bridges can be repaired, even just temporarily. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bicycle Scouts are focused on creating genuine local resilience and response: because people and families who live in the most vulnerable places have no other choice but to help themselves in the aftermath of disasters.

      8. Disasters are all about invisible effects on people and other living things.

      Disaster response is a unique kind of work in the sense that it has to be as efficient and effective as possible, but at the same time, it’s important to approach it with the fact that the work directly touches the lives of people in more ways than just the delivery of relief goods and emergency services. People who are affected by disasters are often emotionally stressed and physically exhausted, and so they need a higher level of understanding and patience than anyone would normally be willing to provide. We must focus on the invisible, not simply the visible, effects of disasters.

      9. We need a better way to define what “local” means.

      We hear the word “local” all the time about disaster resilience and response projects. Our question for ourselves, then, is whether something being called “local” tells community members that they are viewed as being incapable of thinking for themselves and unable to solve their own problems. From what we’ve seen at Bicycle Scouts, community members always understand the challenges and problems that exist in their own communities best, but they never get the chance to solve them because there is never any trust or support in the fact that they can. There is a real need for better consideration (and respect) of what’s already in place locally in communities and what the people who live there can actually do for themselves with the skills and talents they already possess and have been using for as long as their community has been in existence. This is why it’s important to define what local means, honoring the work and resilience of truly local community members.

      10. Engage people with inspiration and practical value.

      One of the questions we get asked all the time is how we get people to participate in such a thing as a community-based disaster resilience and response project using bicycles. The answer is very simple: just ride. People respond to such an honest and simple purpose and then they realize that they can do it, too. And before they know it, they are the ones riding out to inspire even more people to join the ride.

Help Bicycle Scouts continue riding and serving communities in the Philippines through disasters.


Featured Photo: Volunteer Bicycle Messengers for Disaster Response by The Bicycle Scouts Project Inc.

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