For years, electric bicycles have been a significant, if illicit, component of New York City’s street transportation network, favored by food delivery workers and loathed by many pedestrians.
But the motorized bikes — now illegal and frequently confiscated by police — could soon become an officially sanctioned mode of transportation under a measure now being considered in the City Council.
A package of bills introduced in the City Council on Nov. 28 would legalize not only e-bikes but also e-scooters, and would pave the way for e-scooter sharing services to begin operating in the city.
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who is a co-sponsor of the bills and the chair of the Council’s transportation committee, cast e-bikes and e-scooters as an efficient and environmentally friendly option for delivery workers, commuters and tourists at a Nov. 28 press conference on the bills.
“It’s a safe, green alternative to sitting in traffic, riding the subway or for a quick trip to the bodega,” Rodriguez said. “Most people are not blind to the fact that we have electrical bikes and electrical scooters moving through the city already.”
E-bikes that use a throttle, which can travel at speeds of more than 20 mph, are currently banned from city streets. Earlier this year, the city’s Department of Transportation adjusted its rules to permit pedal-assist electric bikes, which have motors that only operate while users are pedaling and typically travel at lower speeds.
Rodriguez and other council members co-sponsoring the e-bike legalization bill, including Lower Manhattan representatives Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera, said that current regulations are unfair to delivery workers, who are predominantly immigrants and against whom police enforcement is often targeted. “We refuse to accept a city that uses over-policing as a short-sighted Band-Aid for traffic safety reform, especially when the people who are penalized, the delivery workers, end up being the ones with the most to lose,” Chin said.
But despite the legislators’ enthusiasm, many e-bike skeptics remain — including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has long criticized throttled e-bikes as a safety hazard and has claimed that legalization would require action by the state legislature. (Proponents of the Council legislation dispute this legal analysis and claim that the city can act unilaterally to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters.)
The de Blasio administration has attempted to crack down on the use of e-bikes by targeting police enforcement against riders and businesses that employ them. Last year, police confiscated more than 1,000 e-bikes citywide.
Asked to comment on the Council’s e-bike legalization proposal at a separate Nov. 28 press conference, de Blasio cited safety issues posed by delivery riders “going the wrong way on streets, driving recklessly” and said that the city will continue its enforcement efforts. “The only way to resolve that issue is in Albany,” he added.
“BREAK THE CAR CULTURE”Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he is “excited” about the bills and spoke of the need to “break the car culture in New York City,” but did not endorse the legislation, explaining that the Council is still in the process of reviewing legal issues relating to the state law.
Ben Kallos, who represents much of the Upper East Side in the City Council, said he is still learning about the bills and listening to constituents, but said he has concerns about cyclists sharing bike lanes with motorized e-bikes. “I believe there needs to be a place for different types of vehicles,” Kallos said. “I don’t think vehicles have any place on sidewalks where pedestrians go. I like human-powered vehicles to have their own space apart from motor vehicles, and that’s why we have bike lanes.”
Another bill packaged with the e-bikes legislation would legalize e-scooters. The council is also considering a bill that would allow for a pilot program to test e-scooter sharing services in New York City. The pilot program would prioritize neighborhoods that will be impacted by the shutdown of the L train next year and neighborhoods that are underserved by Citi Bike.
In recent years, e-scooters have risen in popularity — and have faced accompanying backlash — in San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and other American cities that host sharing services operated by Bird, Lime and other companies that allow users to rent battery-powered scooters for a fee. Unlike Citi Bike, the companies do not utilize docks to store e-scooters when they are not being used; rather, users can drop off or pick up e-scooters anywhere.
Critics in other cities complain that users ride e-scooters on crowded sidewalks and say the dockless system results in unsightly jumbles of abandoned e-scooters that impede pedestrian traffic. Vandalism of unused e-scooters has become an issue in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Paul Steely White, who recently joined the e-scooter company Bird after previously heading the New York bicycle advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said that e-scooters are an “economical and environmental” option that complements public transit options and replaces car trips. White said that e-scooters and e-bikes can be safely accommodated within the New York City’s transportation infrastructure. “E-bikes and e-scooters do not belong on the sidewalk,” he said. “E-scooters and e-bikes must ride in the street, in the bike lane.”
The Council legislation would cap the speed of e-scooters at 15 mph. E-bikes would be limited to 20 mph. The Council’s transportation committee expects to schedule a hearing on the bills by early next year.