In January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD instigated a planned crackdown on the use of electric bikes–two-wheelers powered with the assist of a motor–which are technically illegal to use in the city, but are often overlooked. When the mayor announced the impending enforcement last fall, he hailed it as a victory for Vision Zero, the city’s effort to make streets safer and end traffic deaths.
Except that no data exists to support the idea that e-bikes, and the people who ride them, are a true threat to safety. What is true–and what de Blasio all but ignored in his original messaging–is that e-bike users are largely immigrant delivery workers. They depend on the extra boost of power from e-bike motors to be able to complete their grueling shifts (often 12 hours and dozens of miles a day, seven days a week). The crackdown, advocates argued, brought them into unnecessary conflict with law enforcement and threatened their livelihoods. If a worker’s bike—which can cost around $1,000—were confiscated, he could lose a month’s wages trying to get it back.
Since the crackdown, advocates have called for de Blasio to take a different approach and legalize e-bikes. This week, he seems to have finally listened: E-bikes that operate via a pedal assist motor (which activates the boost only when a rider is already pedaling) and go no faster than 20 mph will now be legal on New York City streets, mirroring decisions already made in cities like San Francisco and Paris.
However, e-bikes whose motors propel them forward without pedaling will remain illegal. Streetsblog points out that the onus is now on the NYPD to understand the difference between the two models and ensure that officers don’t unfairly target workers riding pedal-assist bikes.
This is a first step–not an end to the issue–and without an effort on the part of City Hall to reach out to workers about the clarification, it doesn’t go far enough.