The story of e-bikes in New York City is like a transportation parable.
Until last spring, as subways were slowing, traffic from ride-hailing vehicles was thickening, and bike fatalities were on the rise, e-bikes were illegal to ride. That was in spite of the fact that these increasingly popular battery-boosted bicycles have long provided a vital means of transportation for thousands of working New Yorkers making below minimum wage, are energy and space efficient, cost-effective, quiet, and quick. And the fact that there’s growing evidence to suggest dockless e-bikes and e-scooter rides replace car trips, which could reduce traffic and cut down on fatal crashes.
Despite this, until recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio chose to echo the concerns of residents in a few wealthier parts of town that e-bikes were dangerous and their riders reckless. He called them “a threat to neighborhood residents” and cracked down in 2017, expanding fines on those caught using the bikes.
Six months later, after extensive advocacy by labor and cycling groups, the city legalized some types of “pedal-assist” e-bikes, which have electric motors that provide a modest amount of assistance to a pedaling rider. But throttle-controlled e-bikes, which are the ones used by most food delivery workers who rely on them, remained forbidden. Now, e-bikes of all types appear set for legalization. Last month, New York City Council proposed a set of bills that would introduce pilot programs for e-scooters such as Bird and Lime and legalize throttle e-bikes. Both such measures are clearly long overdue.
But there is still a danger in assuming dockless e-bikes or e-scooters can be simply inserted into the city, although it’s not about the vehicles themselves. Without a coherent vision for what New York City streets ought to look like, or of how to get from here to there, these “little vehicles” can’t operate safely. And our transportation landscape will just keep suffering.
Just look at how the city typically protects cyclists: The Department of Transportation installs a single line of paint on the ground and calls it a bike lane. Protected bike lanes are far too rare. Since 2015, the city has installed 86 miles of what it calls “protected” bike lanes, although many of those miles do not in fact feature physical separation from traffic. Further, those projects only get expedited—meaning, installed within six months at best—when someone is killed.
Commonly, protected bike lanes are proposed only to be neutered by “community opposition”—shorthand for the handful of loudest people speaking on the issue—a fate that has scuttled more than one bus lane proposal, too.
This will be a huge problem starting in April 2019, when the city kicks off the L Train shutdown, diverting some 400,000 riders every day— easily the greatest planned transit crisis in modern history. That same unwillingness to give cyclists of all types dedicated, protected street space extends to buses as well, where DOT has not taken one step to physically separate bus lanes from drivers who routinely use them as parking spaces. During the L shutdown, some 38,000 of those riders will move between Brooklyn and Manhattan via replacement buses. If the buses don’t work, some of those riders may resort to ride-hailing, an untenable state of affairs given how bad traffic already is around the Williamsburg Bridge in both boroughs.
Rather than enact a plan to physically separate bus lanes—even ordinary traffic cones would do—DOT has acquiesced on a number of issues to irrational opposition that will surely make everyone’s lives worse. The plan for a fully protected two-way bike lane on 13th Street, one block south of where the L runs underneath Manhattan with a mix of businesses, offices, and townhouses, was scrapped for two one-way bike lanes on 12th and 13th streets that do not offer nearly as much protection. It also doesn’t address the concerns a few local residents had about cyclists invading their streets; they’ll just be on two streets now instead of one.
City transportation officials seem to be trying to walk a non-existent line between placating a vocal minority and implementing an effective emergency plan. Elsewhere during the shutdown, the Williamsburg Bridge will shoulder the majority of the load in the L’s absence. It will only be open to cars with three passengers or more (and trucks), but Lyft has already announced a program to load up ride-hailing vehicles with three or more people to shuttle them across. On the Brooklyn side, Grand Street, the main thoroughfare to the Williamsburg Bridge for cyclists—which bike safety activists have wanted redesigned for years—received a half-hearted redesign that offers little more by way of protection.
Ironically, the L shutdown itself is name-checked as a primary motive in the City Council bill to legalize e-scooters, which it says could absorb at least some of the displaced riders. The bill would ensure the pilot program, which hasn’t been designed in any detail yet, is prioritized in the areas most affected by the L shutdown, such as Williamsburg and Bushwick. But these are the very same areas receiving questionable street redesigns that don’t do much in the way of separating bicycles or e-bikes from cars. It’s also the same area that will be flooded with Ubers and Lyfts because the Williamsburg Bridge restrictions only encourage ride-hailing, instead of, say, creating a bus-only lane on the Bridge which could transport more people.
To be sure, four out of every five displaced L riders are still expected to take the subway on other (very crowded) lines. The subway is run by a state authority and is therefore outside the city’s control, but this division of oversight speaks to the inherent difficulties for the city to have a comprehensive transportation vision. It would take tremendous coordination between city and state agencies and lawmakers to ensure the streets, subways, and buses all worked towards one collective goal. Instead, they all too often work in opposition, with subway delays steering would-be riders above ground to buses that are stuck in traffic because other frustrated riders are in the growing number of Ubers.
But this city vs. state friction lets local leaders off too easy. The de Blasio administration has failed to present a coherent plan for what they do control. This leaves a lot of New Yorkers behind. Bus riders, who are more likely to be low-income, elderly, disabled, or non-white than New Yorkers as a whole, are increasingly stuck in place. Unless that City Council bill becomes law, food delivery workers still have to worry about their e-bikes being confiscated—which can only be recovered by paying a $500 fine. This despite the fact that the city’s bikeshare system has already debuted e-bikes of its own. What makes those e-bikes permissible but not others? As someone who has ridden both, I’d say you won’t find the answer on the streets of New York.