Tunnel Vision

New York City Wants to End Its Classist E-Bike Policy

The bikes are technically illegal, yet that hasn’t stopped thousands of New Yorkers from using them.
JEWEL SAMAD / Getty Images

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

New York City’s policy on e-bikes and e-scooters is sort of like its policy on pot: both of these micro-modes of transit are technically illegal, yet that hasn’t stopped thousands of New Yorkers from using them. Unfortunately, the enforcement of the laws against those modes of transportation are not equally enforced. A number of videos and photos have surfaced of New York’s delivery workers, who are often immigrants, having their e-bikes seized by cops; vehicles that they frequently purchase themselves for the increasing number of jobs that require them. Critics point out that the same stings are not seen for wealthier (and, many times, white) people who hop on e-scooters, or the 200 hugely popular pedal-assist Citi Bikes.


A package of bills that will be introduced in the New York City Council on Wednesday hopes to address those issues at play. Introduced by Council Member Rafael Espinal, who VICE profiled in May, the four pieces of legislation seek to both end the crackdown on e-bikes, and encourage the use of e-scooters citywide.

"These bills are about more than mobility and sustainability. Fundamentally, they get at the core of who we are as New Yorkers,” said Espinal in a statement to VICE. “The many immigrant workers who brave hellish weather and crowded streets to deliver food to us have been telling the City loud and clear that they rely on these e-bikes to do their jobs. Criminalizing their livelihoods sends a terrible message to our immigrant communities, especially in our current national climate.”

After officials said they received complaints from residents about safety, the city announced that it would be cracking down on e-bikes in October 2017. Immigrants rights groups responded with outcry, saying that the rules wronged workers who are merely trying to deliver your food in a blizzard as fast as humanly possible. The city then clarified its own rules in June (which I wrote about then for The Atlantic’s CityLab), and legalized pedal-assist bikes, which use an electric engine to boost pedaling. Yet anything that could go over 20 miles per hour was still effectively banned from the streets.


“It has been just over one year since Mayor de Blasio announced his e-bike crackdown in NYC, and delivery workers who use e-bikes still face criminalization for doing their jobs,” read a statement from the Deliver Justice Coalition, which is made up of biking and immigrant rights groups. “Workers are still being pulled over by the police, getting tickets, and having their e-bikes confiscated while the employers that require them to use the e-bikes are left alone.”

Espinal’s bills would legalize all e-bikes, including throttle bikes, which do not require pedaling to activate a motor, and bikes that have pedal-activation, but do not require it. Bikes that go over 20 miles per hour would still be illegal, yet the fine would be reduced from $500 to $100. In order to mitigate this, the legislative package would establish a Department of Transportation (DOT) program for delivery workers that would subsidize the cost of converting their vehicles to be speed-compliant. The idea here, said Espinal, is to not disregard those safety concerns of pedestrians, while also not costing deliver workers their jobs.

“Legalizing e-bikes is an essential step in giving delivery workers greater job stability and better working conditions. The work is hard enough with difficult weather, long shifts, and low pay,” Espinal said later. “The City should be doing everything in its power to support one of our growing industries and its workers. This legislation has been years in the making, and represents a great step forward for transit equity.”


Furthermore, the legislation would go ahead and legalize e-scooters, which would be capped at 15 miles per hour. It would create a pilot area for scooter-share providers like Bird, which has heavily lobbied the city and its officials in recent months to gain access to North America’s largest market, which currently does not allow any scooters to operate. The approach, which the city has used before when introducing e-bikes, is done to contain their impact on streets.

In comments, Espinal said the city would ultimately determine the location of the pilot scooter share area, but that priority should be given to north Brooklyn, portions of which Espinal represents, that will be adversely affected by the impending L train shutdown, and have less access to Citi Bike. (Before the shutdown starts, the bike share program intends to have 1,000 pedal-assist bikes in the system, with specific ‘shuttles’ for the e-vehicles.)

Supporters of the bills say that the package of legislation has a strong chance of passing the Council in the coming weeks. At a press conference with Council Speaker Corey Johnson in September for the passage of shutdown-related bills, the Speaker told VICE and other reporters that the scooter bill was one of the transit options that the Council was seriously discussing.

Should it pass, the attention then shifts to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. In recent months, it has been City Council that has pressed the mayor on issues like congestion pricing and a transit subsidy program for low-income New Yorkers called Fair Fares, the latter of which was successful. While generally supportive of the police’s crackdown, the mayor’s statements in the past have suggested that the enforcement’s criticism has weighed on him.


“While e-scooters are illegal under State and City law, the Mayor is committed to innovation as part of his all-of-the-above transportation strategy to get New Yorkers moving again,” said City Hall spokesperson Seth Stein in a statement to VICE. “We look forward to reviewing the proposals with an eye toward both transportation innovation and safety on our streets and sidewalks.”

The package of bills, of course, has a particular urgency when it comes to the city’s faltering transit. Officials believe that the broad majority of the 275,000 stranded commuters during the L train shutdown will hop on other subway lines, which are now undergoing expedited work to increase capacity and reliability in time. So there’s a question of whether the scooters will be used to simply get to and from these subways, or for entire commuting purposes.

To find out more, I spoke with Sarah Kaufman. An associate director at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, Kaufman is one of the leading voices on micro-mobility in the city, and a fierce critic of the e-bike crackdown, who has said the thinking behind it relies on questionable figures. She told me in July 2017 that a scooter share could be a helpful way to mitigate commuters during the L train shutdown, a crisis that she herself has studied closely. And that was before Bird and other e-scooters became a national phenomenon.

She called the shutdown a “fantastic testbed” for the devices, and that the city should be doing everything in its power to encourage “active modes of transit” like it. “The scooters are best for that last mile gap of getting back home,” Kaufman told VICE. “Then again, it’s also better to ride a scooter than being stuck on a cramped subway.”

Her only concern there is the space on the Williamsburg Bridge, a key overpass that is expected to see a major spike in bike riders during the shutdown. “I worry that we’re going to have a very packed bridge,” she told VICE. “So the city will need to figure out how to handle this, and still encourage these modes of transit.”

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