Humans everywhere have to deal with the reality of natural and man-made disasters. Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area hear regularly about how they are 'due' for a major quake, but even the American heartland is thinking about earthquakes in addition to tornadoes, and floods. Add wildfire, industrial accidents, and hurricanes, and most people have a good chance of a major disaster occurring in their area, whether climate change ramps that chance up or not.
In any event, by living in the Bay Area, you have chosen to live with the reality of earthquakes. Predictions vary on details, but the fact is that the longer you live in this area, the more earthquakes you are due to encounter.
One of your best tools for getting through any disaster, and the dramatic times afterwards, is a bike.
Often before, during and/or after any large event, there is an evacuation of people from the affected area. Whether it's due to landslides, fires, damage to homes or other infrastructure, large numbers of people usually have to get out. Even far from the nuclear reactors, millions of Japanese were directly affected by the March 2011 Tohoku quake and had to find their way long distances without their usual transport.
Earthquakes come without warning, so there is no pre-quake exodus - everyone has to start from where they are at the time the quake hits. USGS estimates for the next major Bay Area earthquake are for as many as 1700 road closures - 12 times the number in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake - and BART partially shut down. The roads that aren't closed will crawl at best (evacuation speeds are generally far lower than rush hour speeds). A quake is like many disasters that put large portions of the road network out of commission for at least a short period. The question is how will you get where you need to go with this much disruption to transportation?
When hell breaks loose, a car is a very limited beast. It can carry a lot of stuff or multiple people, but your car is easy to put out of commission - picture a car with more than one flat tire. Cars run out of gas (even idling can use as much as one gallon per hour). Cars break down. And cars can be blocked by debris somewhere very close to your start point, leaving you a long way to go on foot, with no way to carry anything substantial.
But what about bikes? You can get just about anywhere on a bike if you don't mind lifting it over obstacles and weaving your way around the stalled traffic. Fast as a car on anything other than a clear highway, nimble as a pedestrian, a bicycle also gives you a long range due to the bike supporting your weight.
A bike is more likely to be able to get through blockages and is also hard to make useless. Even a bike with two flats and a broken chain can support an injured person and a big load of gear and roll toward safety. And a bike needs only a narrow strip of vaguely smooth ground to proceed, not a road. Sidewalks, trails, fields, torn-up roads, parking lots, even beaches are routes bikes can take toward safety.
In an emergency, the bike allows evacuees to save their energy for moving forward, not carrying survival gear, valuables, or even children or parents. A bike can be loaded up with a tremendous amount of gear or even people and still move faster than gridlocked cars. Better still, bike trailers have come a long way, and can reliably carry people or hundreds of pounds of gear over fairly rough terrain.
From San Francisco proper, the most difficult place to start due to its dependence on bridges, evacuation by bike can get you far down the peninsula, well up into Marin, or far into the East Bay, and the trip is well within the cycling abilities of normal folks who don't normally ride a bike.
As an example, 15 miles is a distance a non-cyclist can easily cover on a bike in just two hours, even through traffic and over and around obstacles. 15 miles is a long way in a quake zone. From San Francisco, depending on the state of bridges, 15 miles takes you as far north as Larkspur, east to the hills beyond Oakland, and south past the airport to Millbrae. (15 miles from the very center of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in LA would take you to the Light areas of the quake zone, far from serious danger.)
Cyclists fleeing in advance of Hurricane Katrina were able to get well away from the city faster than most drivers just because they didn't have to sit in traffic. (Picture motorcycles 'white-lining' during highway rush hour.)
Here's a great account from Katrina, relevant for showing what one motivated non-cyclist with a bike can achieve in the face of blocked roads and general devastation.
After the 1989 quake, one parent said: "After the shaking stopped I realized that my 6-yr-old son was probably *not* going to be promptly retrieved from after-school care by his mom, who was traveling by car on the freeway. I hopped on my bike and rode to his school, passing lots of jammed auto traffic on the streets. I was there in a few minutes."
Although not considered 'the big one' for the Bay Area, the 1989 Loma Prieta 'World Series' earthquake seriously disrupted transit for months. With major routes, bridges and/or large stretches of BART closed by a bigger event, getting to and from work, school, and other essential destinations is not going to be easy. Road and transit closures and possibly long-term disruptions to water and electrical service will make for a long period of 'making do' in home life, work, and travel.
After a disaster, the ability to get around nimbly, and cross obstacles such as rubble or broken pavement, is probably going to be more important to most people than the ability to travel long distances at high speed. Cars will be limited to exactly what routes the earthquake leaves open - and which can be put back on line quickly. By contrast, except in rare cases, bikes will be able to get most anywhere, for as long as it takes for normal transit to your destinations to be restored.
Having a bike available as a secondary or even main form of transport will get you more places. (Weeks later, more bikes are still in evidence on the roads in Tokyo.
The same bike that served you well in any evacuation will do well in the aftermath, too. Sturdy tires, racks, panniers and other bags, and a solid repair kit will keep you going where you need to go at the best speeds of anyone in the affected area.
The best news of all is how easy it is. No heavy training plan. No long list of preparedness items to stuck up on. Just a bike with a little attention to detail will do - and give you a great tool when disaster strikes.
Here's a detailed list of how to make sure you have the best wheels for whatever disasters come your way:
Burly tires - types with Kevlar belts prevent all but the most determined stuff from giving you a flat. While mountain bike tires seem like an obvious solution, they are heavier than you need for almost any situation, so a good commuter tire such as the Continental Contacts is ideal.
Patch kit - in case you get a flat anyway. They are cheap and easy to use.
Pump - you want something more than the tiny 'mini' pumps, in case you get a lot of flats or are helping others with theirs.
Racks with detachable bags - the new ones are easy to put on and take off, making shopping and general hauling easy. Racks such as this one can be easily combined with various kinds of bags.
Detachable lights - a powerful detachable light (this is a very inexpensive one that uses standard AA batteries) lets you use the light to scout the way ahead or just to find things in the dark.
Trailer - You can carry kids, pet carriers, food, water, injured people, and anything else you can imagine on today's bike trailers, and they store in a small space. The state of the art is moving fast, and trailers can have one or two wheels and carry small to very large loads. Here's a basic example. For real mobility, one-wheel trailers have a lot going for them.
You can find links to proven products in many of these categories here.
USGS Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country - has good preparation info
Managing Pedestrians During Evacuation of Metropolitan Areas - an interesting look at how non-auto people get moved around in emergency plans
Calculating the next Bay Area Quake - specific to the Bay Area, with a fun map!