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The Murky Legality of E-Bikes

You’ve probably spotted delivery guys zipping around on e-bikes. Are they skidding afoul of the law? That’s tough to say.

A bicycle fitted with a prototype of the Copenhagen Wheel, the red disk, human/electric hybrid bicycle engine, hangs on a wall at the Superpedestrian manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that electric bicycles are illegal in New York City. The local press routinely reports on NYPD “crackdowns” on e-bikes, quoting residents complaining of reckless riders clipping them on streets and sidewalks. Invariably, the culprits are shown to be people of color—often delivery workers for Chinese restaurants. But these news reports obscure a legal framework far more complex and far less consistent than meets the eye.

Under federal law, an electric bike with a maximum assisted speed under 20 miles per hour can be sold as a bicycle, not a motor vehicle. Under New York state law, riders would need to register these as they would a motorcycle, moped, or car. But there’s no clear way to register them. Because of this regulatory patchwork, e-bikes are legal to sell as bikes anywhere in the U.S. but effectively illegal to ride in New York, since they can’t be registered as motor vehicles.

To complicate things even further, e-bikes come in a variety of styles. There are pedal assist bikes, which amplify the energy you put in; since they only work when you’re pedaling, they’re not explicitly banned by New York City law. New York City’s local laws do prohibit the use of “motorized scooters,” which include so-called “throttle” e-bikes that can run without human assistance. These are the ones most commonly confiscated in NYPD e-bike raids. There are even combination bikes that allow you to toggle between pedal assist and throttle modes. But to the untrained eye, these bikes are difficult to differentiate—and that’s why many believe they’re all equally illegal.

“Most people are scared to purchase electric bikes,” says Chris Nolte, owner of Brooklyn-based e-bike retailer Propel Bikes. He does most of his business online and estimates that he sells twice as much to New Jersey as he does in New York—though not for lack of trying. Nolte works with other cycling advocates to push for full e-bike legalization in New York. Even so, he says, many potential customers “won't even look at [an electric bike] because of all the talk about it being illegal.”

That’s a shame, because electric bikes offer many health and environmental benefits. Since they reduce the physical burden of pedaling, e-bikes make cycling accessible to more people, especially those who have long commutes or health limitations. They can also replace cars or public transportation for some, helping to reduce overall emissions in a city.

Cycling advocates say they would support legalization of pedal assist bikes only; most recognize that throttle bikes, while generally safe, may not be suitable for urban areas. But currently the NYPD doesn’t distinguish between them.

“That’s not smart policy,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “They're outlawing a legitimate mode of transportation. Lumping electric assist in with motor scooters is unfair to e-bike users, and it's not going to serve the mayor's goals of doubling bicycling by 2020—nor will it serve Vision Zero.”

A double standard

The question of e-bike legality has an even more direct impact on the livelihoods of commercial riders—the delivery workers so frequently maligned in the press. They are the targets of the NYPD’s sporadic e-bike raids. They are the ones who get fined and have their bikes confiscated. They are also overwhelmingly Latino and Chinese American.

To Vincent Cao, an organizer with the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association (CSWA), that’s racism, plain and simple. “Everybody's using electric bikes,” he says, “but only Chinese and Latino [workers] are facing the problem. We talked to many of the e-bike shops—white people never have a problem. They never even get ticket[ed].” Even if you give the NYPD the benefit of the doubt, it's clear that a policy of targeting commercial riders results in racial inequity, since most delivery workers are people of color.

Under local law, business owners are supposed to be held accountable for employees who violate e-bike regulations. But in practice, it’s the delivery workers who end up footing the bill. “We don't have a choice,” says Carlos Rodriguez, an organizer with National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) and a delivery worker himself. To maximize tips, there’s a strong incentive to get orders out of the way as quickly as possible—and that requires moving fast. “When the police give the tickets, they [workers] have to pay the ticket, and they continue using the bike because that's the only way we can make some money to survive.” Riders can be fined up to $1,000.

For Rodriguez, the NYPD’s inconsistent enforcement of e-bike law is part of the larger problem of wage theft. “That's why we need enforcement of the labor law,” he says. “If the boss doesn't pay you enough to survive, that's why a lot of people ride on the sidewalk [or] cross the traffic light.”

CSWA and NMASS have teamed up to organize delivery workers against New York’s e-bike policy, and they hope to partner with e-bike shops and environmental groups to push for full legalization in 2016. Both organizations say they support enforcement, as long as it’s fair and transparent. Rodriguez is also pushing for city-funded workshops to educate delivery workers in the rules of the road.

But, as Chris Nolte points out, commercial e-bikers aren’t the only ones breaking those rules. “It's really easy for me to jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘These delivery guys are terrible people because they're going the wrong way down the road and they're running through red lights,’” he says. “But a large percentage of all cyclists are doing it.” Nolte’s store sits on one of the busiest bike lanes in the city, and he often sees police pull over as many as ten cyclists at a time for running the red light. “It seems to be a common thing that the delivery guys and regular commuters are doing, as well,” he says. But the delivery guys are “very easy to be attacked because they don't have a voice, really.”

The scapegoating of e-bikes could even detract from the threat that cars pose to cyclists, according to bike advocate Randy Neufeld. “We support efforts that issue violations and curb all reckless bicycling behavior, e-bike or traditional bike,” says Neufeld, the director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. “What we are against, however, is ticket traps for cyclists that … divert precious NYPD enforcement resources away from more pressing dangers on our streets, such as motorists running red lights and not yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk.” He adds that some precincts seem to prioritize “handing out tickets to cyclists coasting through red lights when no one else is around, while at the same time turning a blind eye to motorists who are speeding through intersections during heavy pedestrian flow periods.” Instead, he’s in favor of a system in which “the infractions that are doing the most harm on our streets are those infractions that are getting the most attention and enforcement.”

Paving the way for clearer regulations and enforcement

A bill that would have legalized electric assist bicycles in New York failed to pass the state legislature last year, due in part to opposition from the NYPD. But e-bike advocates remain optimistic about the prospects for policy change. New York cycling groups are working with a lobbying firm to push for legislation this session; the e-bike bill was re-introduced in the state senate earlier this month. And Nolte says that at a recent meeting with the NYPD and the mayor’s office, all sides reached a new understanding about the difficulties of enforcing e-bike regulations.

Police officers catch flak from residents for failing to enforce the law, and from e-bike users for enforcing it too aggressively. From the NYPD’s perspective, cops have enough on their plates without having to differentiate between pedal assist and throttle e-bikes. It’s easier for police to draw a hard line between traditional and electric bikes. But Nolte insists that officers could tell the difference with a “very small amount of training.” Randy Neufeld suggested that e-bikes could be labeled with special stickers to aid enforcement. (The NYPD did not respond to CityLab's numerous requests for comment.)

Commuters ride bicycle, mopeds and electric bicycles in Shanghai, China. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Across the country, a growing number of cities and states have already modernized their laws and regulations governing electric bicycles. Nebraska, Montana, and Kentucky adopted the federal definition of e-bikes, allowing them to be regulated as conventional bicycles rather than motor vehicles. Boulder, Colorado, and Park City, Utah, have allowed e-bikes on certain multi-use trails, and Birmingham, Alabama, launched the nation’s first e-bike-share program, Zyp BikeShare. In October 2015, California broke new ground with a law that defined three classes of e-bikes and specified how and where each type could be used. Alex Logemann, state and local policy analyst at PeopleForBikes, believes this legislation could serve as a “model for the rest of the country.” In Europe and Asia, electric bicycles are already ubiquitous.

However the debate in New York shakes out, pedestrians, cyclists, and law enforcement alike would benefit from greater clarity in e-bike regulation. “We're already seeing electric-powered skateboards and other conveyances proliferate, and the way to get ahead of this is to pass smart legislation that clarifies what's an acceptable vehicle and what's not,” says Paul Steely White. “When they operate in this kind of legal limbo, officers are more often inclined not to enforce, not to give tickets, not to confiscate bicycles, because they don't know exactly where any of these vehicles stand, and they don't want the trouble.”

New York has the opportunity now to act as a U.S. e-bike policy bellwether, joining the 22 states that currently have laws conducive to e-bike use. And New York City in particular has a great deal to gain, given its high population density, debilitating traffic, aging infrastructure, and robust delivery culture.

But until public policy catches up with e-bike technology, delivery workers and retailers alike have no choice but to operate in this legal gray area. As Nolte put it: "We're pretty optimistic that the city's gonna come to their senses."

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