“The heart of the problem is that most of the food that’s being delivered in the city of New York is being delivered by bikes that are prohibited,” Steven Wasserman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s just an unconscionable situation. It’s not viable for the delivery workers.”
Similar debates have occurred in other cities. In such cases, transportation officials usually tried to find the balance between those who viewed the devices as a nuisance or a safety threat and those who quickly became fans of the devices’ fun and convenience.
In the case of New York, the zippy e-bikes have become the means for thousands of people to earn a living delivering food from restaurants.
An estimated 50,000 New York delivery workers use the type of e-bike with a throttle that allows the vehicles to quickly zoom up to 28 mph, the New York Times reports. Unlike the slower pedal-assist e-bikes — which were legalized last year in New York City and reach top speeds of 20 mph — the throttle-controlled e-bikes are still banned.
“These bikes really make pedestrians, in particular, nervous,” Wasserman said. “They don’t make a sound. They are capable of much more rapid acceleration than just a conventional pedal-powered bike. I’m sure they frighten people.”
In October 2017, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio (D), in response to complaints about the fast-accelerating e-bikes on sidewalks and in bike lanes, announced a crackdown. Council member Helen Rosenthal (D) and other local politicians lent their support, saying the bikes posed a menace to pedestrians and other bicyclists. The New York Police Department can cite violators with $500 summonses and impound the bikes until their owners pay up.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Thomas Chan, the NYPD’s chief of transportation, testified that police confiscated 1,215 e-bikes in 2018 and issued 1,154 e-bike summonses to individuals and 167 e-bike summonses to commercial businesses, Gothamist reported.
Wasserman, who has represented about 100 delivery workers in the past four months or so, said most of the enforcement appears to be focused in Midtown Manhattan, on the East Side and the West Side, where fleets of e-bikes are often parked outside restaurants.
“The typical case is where you have police staked out in these bicycle lanes just waiting for a throttle-operated bike,” Wasserman said. “They flag them down, hand them a summons and tell them where to go to get their bike back.”
As tickets and confiscations increased, so did complaints about fairness toward delivery workers. The NYPD said its enforcement efforts were focused on the businesses that employ them. But even if that were so, advocates say, the city needs to come up with a better solution. Delivering hot meals for a living is already a tough enough gig, they say.
One of the ideas put forward at the hearing was to allow the throttle-controlled bikes to convert to pedal-assisted bikes — a compromise that Gothamist called “puzzling,” given that the council was considering legalizing throttle-controlled scooters.
Wasserman said he can also understand why officials are proceeding cautiously.
“Truth be told I’m a bicycle commuter, and sometimes when these guys blow by me, I get a little anxious,” he said.
In Washington, e-bikes are considered motorized bicycles that are legal to operate without a driver’s license so long as they have pedals and a motor that goes no faster than 20 mph. If they go faster than 30 mph, the motorized bicycle is considered a motorcycle, requiring the driver to have the appropriate driver’s license, wear a helmet and adhere to other laws that govern motorcycles.
But they are not as ubiquitous as scooters, and jurisdictions in Washington vary. The National Park Service, for example, prohibits motorized bicycles on its major bike paths, including the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail.
“I think the solution is partly technological and partly economic,” Wasserman said. “These bikes have to be modified in a way that will satisfy the people who are in charge of automotive safety."