NYC’s E-Bike Crackdown Still Bad for Everyone
It’s not just affecting delivery people… it could harm the city’s transportation future.
While biking home the other night, I passed a police van parked on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 20th Street. The van’s rear doors were open, and the officers inside were unloading confiscated electric bikes. The bikes were dinged and scuffed, their frames wrapped in black electrical tape; they almost certainly belonged to the delivery-people who pedal around the city at all hours, transporting everything from food to laundry.
I only had a brief glance at the officers, though, because my own electric bike was carrying me at a fair rate of speed down the street. Several months ago, Citi Bike, the bike-sharing system that I often rely on to commute, introduced “pedal assist” bikes, which use an electric motor to power one’s pedaling. These bikes are quite fast, shaving as much as 25 percent off my average commute time; if the lights are with me, and I’m pedaling hard, I can travel between lower Manhattan and Queens in just over 30 minutes.
These “pedal assist” bikes are also legal, whereas the throttle-activated electric bicycles preferred by delivery people are not. The NYPD will not only confiscate the latter, but sometimes charge the owner with misdemeanor reckless driving (which comes with a hefty fine — imagine taking a $500 hit when you’re making less than $100 per shift). Yet because the “pedal assist” bikes rely on “human power,” they’re allowed. Here’s the relevant bit from New York Administrative Code Section 19–176.2, banning “motorized scooters,” that’s used as justification for seizing throttle-bikes:
“Any wheeled device that has handlebars that is designed to be stood or sat upon by the operator, is powered by an electric motor or by a gasoline motor that is capable of propelling the device without human power.”
As with so many other things in life, enforcement is a varied thing, and hinges heavily on the perceived social status of the person operating the vehicle. During my commute, I often end up in a “herd” of conventional bicycles, electric bikes, and motorized scooters — and the riders are overwhelmingly white, male, and dressed in ways that signal either professional or rich-hipster status. We zip past police cars and officers standing on the sidewalk, none of whom try to stop the scooters or throttle-bikes.
No wonder some critics call the city’s e-bike policy classist. “The many immigrant workers who brave hellish weather and crowded streets to deliver food to us have been telling the City loud and clear that they rely on these e-bikes to do their jobs. Criminalizing their livelihoods sends a terrible message to our immigrant communities, especially in our current national climate,” city council member Rafael Espinal told Vice last year.
Mayor de Blasio has insisted on cracking down on electric bikes out of “safety concerns,” but a pedal-assist bike will do just as much damage to a pedestrian — and take the same amount of damage from a car — as a throttle-activated one; it doesn’t matter all that much if the rider who hits you is traveling at 18 m.p.h. or 23 m.p.h. And despite the aforementioned crackdown, the mayor has insisted that he’s still on the side of delivery drivers, which might strike you as a contradiction until you realize this is the same mayor who claims he’s “Progressive” while crawling into bed on a regular basis with mega-developers and Amazon.
And it’s not just a question of class, or inconsistent enforcement. New York City’s subways are a mess (to put it mildly), and congestion pricing is going to make it very expensive to try to drive a car into Manhattan. Scooters and e-bikes represent a partial solution to the escalating traffic nightmare — but only if the city relaxes its asinine restrictions on what people can ride, and enforces the laws equally. The police, and the mayor, have better things to do than ensure delivery people can’t make a living, all while letting Williamsburg hipsters zoom their e-bikes and scooters around.