John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
After a controversial crackdown, city officials will legalize one class of battery-boosted bicycles.
On any given afternoon in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, a pedestrian is sure to encounter—probably within seconds—an e-bike. The battery-boosted bicycles are popular among the 50,000-plus delivery cyclists registered in New York City, who zip down streets and avenues carrying take-out food, laundry, documents, booze, and anything else New Yorkers care to order online. Practically overnight, the city has become a haven for them.
The problem is, this hasn’t been entirely legal: In October, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would crack down on the swarm of e-bikes on its streets in response to safety complaints from residents. E-bikes have been technically forbidden since, though scofflaws are legion. But on Tuesday, de Blasio reversed, instructing his Department of Transportation to loosen its ban and recognize “pedal assist” bikes—or bikes that use a rechargeable battery to boost their speeds—as a legal means of getting around the city. Any e-bikes with a motor capable of pushing its speed above 20 miles per hour, however, will remain effectively banned. “With new and clear guidelines, cyclists, delivery workers and businesses alike will now understand exactly what devices are allowed,” the mayor said in a statement.
After de Blasio’s October crackdown, his administration faced a backlash. Transit advocates bemoaned the decision as a step backwards for New York, hindering the city from embracing a mode of transport that’s increasingly popular in cities worldwide. Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups argued that the regulation was particularly punitive to those who rely on e-bikes to make a living in the booming restaurant delivery industry; a recent flood of relatively cheaper e-bikes from China had allowed smaller businesses to invest in them. The city threatened fines of up to $500 for the riders themselves, and fines starting at $100 for businesses that employed workers who use or own them.
On Tuesday, the same advocates offered cautious praise for the mayor’s decision, which a coalition of several immigrant rights groups called “an important and positive first step in responding to an explosion in demand for food delivery supported by thousands of low-wage immigrant workers who deliver more than 100,000 meals in New York City each day.”
That e-bike rules have caused such brouhaha in New York is perhaps a testament to the potential this emerging transportation mode holds here. Subway trains and buses are shedding riders due to crisis-level delays and slowdowns, and the city’s streets are packed, thanks in part to the rise of ride hailing. All of these may be part of the reason why the city’s 8.6 million inhabitants are cycling in record numbers. To balance a growing population, ballooning transportation demands, and carbon reduction goals, more advocates and transportation officials alike are pointing to more bikes as a clean, lean solution.
E-bikes in particular are a hot topic in the transportation world as a new frontier of space-conscious urban transit. They’re not new, exactly, but until very recently high prices and limited battery capacity have kept them a fairly boutique item, at least in the U.S.; bike-friendlier European municipalities like Paris and Lisbon already boast considerable populations of e-bikes, as CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan has reported recently. (Officials in Oslo, Norway, are so fond of electric cargo bikes that they’ll give residents $1,200 to buy one.) Boosters say that e-bikes can broaden the appeal of cycling to a wider audience—older or less athletic riders, or commuters who balk at sweaty uphill treks. Many private and city-run bikeshare programs are racing to roll out electric models, for example, and advocates have high hopes that e-bikes have the potential to accomplish something that most Americans have been loathe to consider: trade their cars for bikes. (Which, one new study shows, is starting to come true.)
E-bikes come with baggage, though. In New York City, the speedy contraptions have angered some residents and block associations, who argue that they’re a safety hazard for pedestrians, drivers, and slower cyclists. Some research has suggested that higher speeds could lead to more bike crashes—“Are E-Bikes Less Safe?” CityLab asked in August 2016. Safety questions are what led the de Blasio administration to crack down on them in the first place.
Those questions are unlikely to disappear under the new regulations. Legalizing pedal assist is a “step” in creating that framework, said Jon Orcutt, the former NYC DOT policy director who has consulted on bike system improvements. A more important—and more challenging—leap may be for the city to distinguish between e-bikes and electric-powered motorcycles, or scooters.
Cities in Germany and China that have adopted formal regulations regarding e-bike usage could be instructive, he said, as the e-bikes that are slower, and more manageable, are often the safer ones on the streets. Here in the United States, Colorado adopted legislation last year that specified where each class of e-bike could be ridden, and which one required an age limit and helmet. Legislation regulating the technology is otherwise patchy nationwide, with some states having little to no laws on the books regarding e-bikes. (New York City is still one of the only places in the country to deem certain e-bike classes “illegal.”)
“Most of the e-bikes the cops are going after are the more-power type,” said Orcutt. “Places that have their acts together classify pedal-assist [bikes] as bicycles, and the bigger, faster e-bikes as motorcycles, and regulate accordingly.”
There’s also the issue of murky state and federal regulations. To summarize: federal law allows e-bikes with a maximum assisted speed of 20 miles per hour to be sold as bikes, not motor vehicles. (So, no license or registrations required.) But New York State law demands that they must be registered as motor vehicles, and, furthermore, all “motor-assisted bicycles” are supposed to be banned, too. Add in the city law, which banned “Class 2” and “Class 3” e-bikes (or those that have a throttle controlling the motor) in 2013. That thrust “Class 1” e-bikes, or those that use pedal assist, into a confusing legal purgatory. The recent announcement merely cleared up that last part.
If your head hurts, you’re not alone—these legal intricacies have also stumped journalists and cycling advocates alike. The bigger issue, critics say, is that the thousands of daily deliveries are largely being made on Class 2 and 3 e-bikes. So with these new rules, it’s unclear as of now what is preventing those individuals from potentially being punished in the future.
New York’s e-bike debate is unique in a number of regards: The city’s density and voracious appetite for delivery encouraged e-bikes to surge onto the streets in mass numbers before regulations on their use existed; now lawmakers are scrambling to catch up. “New York is the only city I know of in North America or Europe that has tried to ban and impound e-bikes,” said Randy Neufeld, the president of America Bikes and a well-known cycling advocate. Other cities don’t share Manhattan’s crowded transportation ecosystem, and would be unlikely to face a similarly intense backlash.
Still, cities everywhere may face the same debates over safety, efficiency, and meaningful regulation as e-bikes move in. Should New York City master these fine lines, Neufeld believes that e-bikes hold “amazing potential” for the Big Apple and beyond; the city could be a gateway for e-bikes to enter the U.S., much as it has been with so many other advances in urban planning and design.
“If the city moved from impounding to encouraging, you could see e-bikes take off in New York in ways that we have not seen elsewhere, even in Europe,” said Neufeld. De Blasio’s new rule is one small step in the right direction, he added, “but it will be the effect of the regulation, not the regulation itself, that will get attention.”