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It took a pandemic to halt NYC’s unfair crackdown on delivery workers’ e-bikes

As COVID-19 ravages New York City, delivery workers are zipping through near-empty streets on a mysterious brand of cheap, illegal e-bikes.

It took a pandemic to halt NYC’s unfair crackdown on delivery workers’ e-bikes
[Photo: Clay Banks/Unsplash]

COVID-19 has emptied New York City’s streets. Residents are sheltering in place. The city has limited restaurants and cafes to do takeout and for delivery only, putting delivery workers on the front lines of the effort to contain the virus. Recognizing this fact, two New York City councilmen urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the “crack down on the technology they are using to keep us fed.”

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A day later, de Blasio announced he would comply. The technology in question? The throttle-controlled e-bike.

New York City’s administrative code makes it illegal to sell or ride any two-wheeled vehicle with handlebars and an electric or gasoline motor “capable of propelling the device without human power”—effectively forbidding the use of throttle e-bikes. In 2017, the mayor directed the NYPD to step up enforcement of this long-standing prohibition against the throttle bike, the vast majority of which are ridden by delivery workers. The crackdown was a response to citizen complaints and fears over safety, even though there’s no data to prove that throttle e-bikes are more dangerous than other types of bicycles.

The workers who rides these forbidden e-bikes are mostly Chinese and Latinx, many of them immigrants, some undocumented. When officers nab a rider, they issue a $500 fine and impound the bike. Precincts proudly tweet out pictures of captured e-bikes like so many kilos of dope. In 2018, NYPD’s Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan told the city council that police had confiscated 1,215 e-bikes that year and had issued 1,154 summons.

Throttle e-bikes weren’t the original target of the NYC regulation. When the city council established the rule in 2004, e-bikes didn’t exist. Instead, the law targeted motorized “pocket rockets.” Standing less than two feet tall, able to reach speeds of 30 miles an hour, and priced at around $100, these Lilliputian motorcycles were as noisy and dangerous as they were affordable.

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Although they were already illegal to sell or operate in the city, the penalty was not severe enough to dissuade toy and novelty shops. Upping the ante through a change to the administrative code, city councilman John Liu said at the time, would end the “plague-like swarming of these devices… a clear and immediate danger to pedestrians and motorists, as well as the environment.” The pocket-rocket scourge ended, but the law and its draconian penalties remain on the books, disproportionately impacting those who deliver food and packages.

These delivery workers have long lived at the economic margins. Paid according to the number of deliveries they make, they are encouraged to cut corners when it comes to traffic rules. While making deliveries over dangerous streets, these workers are preyed upon by bike thieves and risk the police impounding their vehicles—and yet they carry on through the proverbial rain, sleet, snow, and hail. Delivery workers feed all manner of New Yorkers—doormen, hard hats, night-shift workers—but they mostly deliver to apartments. Even before the pandemic, doors would open only wide and long enough for the customer to grab the goods with barely a nod, sometimes without a tip.

For many of us, the appeal of DoorDash, Uber Eats, Postmates, and Seamless is the promise of frictionless commerce. We can conjure food out of the cloud and onto the table with the swipe of a finger and without the messiness of human contact. But in the gig economy, delivery workers serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the labor required for food to magically appear on our doorsteps. Now, the pandemic has made their value to society unmistakably clear. They risk infection so others can stay behind closed doors.

The mysterious Arrow

Nearly all delivery workers ride Arrows, a throttle e-bike as ubiquitous as it is mysterious. You can’t buy an Arrow bike at a bike shop, on Amazon, or even on Ali Baba. The transportation planners, bicycle advocates, and city officials I spoke with were all familiar with the Arrow, but none could tell me who made them.

Then I happened to find a phone number stenciled on an Arrow bike chained to an unsuspecting sidewalk tree on the Upper West Side. The number belonged to MNC International Trading, which city records list as an electronic parts and equipment company located on Broome Street in Chinatown. “Arrow E-Bike” and “Sale E-bike & Service” appear prominently both in English and Chinese on MNC’s tiny storefront. On the broken clay tile floor sat two Arrow E-bikes. As I walked around the shop, it quickly became clear that MNC is not an electronic parts and equipment company. Nor is it a bike shop. It is Arrow Bike.

I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, and the men in the store were not forthcoming in English. But reportedly, MNC buys generic parts from China and assembles the bikes on demand, which it then sells for about $1,800—relatively inexpensive for an e-bike. The business is not without its risks: In 2017, the city fined MNC $5,000 when officers discovered five throttle e-bikes on its premise. It was a rare example of officials targeting an e-bike retailer rather than delivery workers. Three years later, as evidenced by the two floor models in the shop, the penalty has had only a limited impact. It’s worth noting that this one small shop could not possibly supply the market of some 40,000 delivery workers; there are reportedly branches uptown and in the outer boroughs operating under different names.

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Delivery workers have been riding throttle-bikes for well over a decade, but in the past few years, middle-class consumers have discovered the throttle bike’s more acceptable cousin: the pedal-assist e-bike. Mechanically, the two types of e-bike are virtually identical. But the motor on a pedal-assist bike is not “capable of propelling the device without human power.” It only provides a boost when the rider is also pedaling.

Such bikes fit neither the budgets nor the needs of delivery workers.

That means that pedal-assist e-bikes can be sold legally at bike shops in NYC. Propel in Brooklyn can sell you a pedal-assist model from Cannondale starting at $3,500, or you can drop $6,000 or more on a German-made Riese & Muller. From the Bronx, it may be quicker to reach Slick eBikes in Tarrytown, where owner Edward Busk carries carbon fiber folding models from the U.K., two lines of Dutch e-bikes, and American-made electric mountain bikes. Such bikes fit neither the budgets nor the needs of delivery workers.

Even as the city has ramped up its assault on throttle bikes, pedal-assist e-bikes have hit the mainstream. Lyft-owned Citi Bike, New York City’s official bikeshare operator, has begun adding pedal-assist bikes to its fleet. Meanwhile, Jump (which is owned by Uber), Lime, and other bike-share companies want to operate dockless pedal-assist fleets in the city. Negotiations with NYC officials, company spokespeople say, are ongoing.

A “proven racist policy”

Mayor de Blasio continues to oppose throttle bikes on safety grounds, but critics call the safety argument a ruse. Do Lee, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York, Queens College, has called the crackdowns an exercise in white supremacy. Marco Conner, deputy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told the New York Post that the NYPD was enforcing a “proven racist policy.” Jacob Mason, the research director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, takes a more measured tone. “There are a lot of equity issues around throttle e-bikes, especially their heavy use among delivery workers,” he says.

There are a lot of equity issues around throttle e-bikes, especially their heavy use among delivery workers.”

Jacob Mason, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

This is not the first time a New York City mayor has gone after delivery cyclists. In the 1980s, well before e-bikes joined the city’s traffic mix, important papers zipped around Manhattan on the backs of messengers who rode lightweight, entirely human-powered road bikes. They pedaled fast, often recklessly, and blew whistles to scatter pedestrians and warn drivers that they were coming through, right of way be damned. Mayor Ed Koch tried banning them from Midtown. The NYPD targeted them for traffic tickets. To this day, commercial cyclists are still banned from blowing whistles.

Sam Schwartz was the city’s transportation commissioner in those days. “Despite the fact that more than 300 people a year were being killed in traffic crashes,” Schwartz recalls. “I could not go to a community meeting without people complaining about the few bikes that we had on the road in the 1980s.” The complaints were couched in the language of safety, but Schwartz recognized the same racial dynamic we see today: “I think many of the messengers back in the 1980s were African American and Latino, certainly minorities. It became somewhat of a racial issue. People did not like the idea of seeing people of color speeding through their communities.”

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Good cop, bad cop

The good news is that the movement to legalize throttle bikes has been gathering steam. Since 2014, 24 states have updated their laws to classify both pedal-assist and throttle e-bikes as bicycles. It has thus far taken six years for the New York state legislature to follow suit; the state passed a bill to legalize both types of e-bikes in 2019, only for it to be vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo due to safety concerns. However, earlier this year, Cuomo finally dropped his objections and and prepared to sign off on legalization. Once throttle bikes are legalized at the state level, Mayor de Blasio may have no choice but to legalize them as well. (After this story was published, Cuomo signed the 2021 budget, which will legalize all types of e-bikes at the state level.)

Meanwhile, the NYC Department of Transportation  has been educating delivery workers and holding businesses accountable for their safety. Kim Wiley-Schwartz, assistant commissioner of Education and Outreach for the DOT, has a team of 20 people who do commercial cyclist outreach. They help delivery workers understand their responsibilities in traffic as well as their right to proper training and safety equipment—lights, helmets, bells, and reflective devices—provided by their employers. The team includes Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish speakers. “The spirit of the work we do at the DOT is to keep deliverymen safe and protected,” Wiley-Schwartz says.

The job of enforcing the rules on businesses falls to Vincent Maniscalco, the city’s assistant commissioner for highway inspection and quality assurance. Maniscalco, who bristles playfully when Wiley-Schwartz calls him the “bad cop,” heads a team of five inspectors. Issuing a summons when a restaurant fails an inspection used to be a straightforward affair, he explains. The inspector could simply note the violation—like not providing delivery workers with a helmet—hand a summons to the business owner, and plan a follow-up visit.

But as restaurants have outsourced deliveries to app-enabled third-party services, things have become more complicated. Door Dash, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and the rest maintain that they don’t employ any delivery workers at all; they use independent contractors. In 2017, city council responded by amending the law. “[This amendment] closes the loophole for commercial cyclist safety requirements, bringing independent contractors into the fold,” said Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the city council’s transportation committee, in a hearing at the time.

What we call the third party has been a growing problem.”

Vincent Maniscalco, NYCDOT

“What we call the third party has been a growing problem,” Maniscalco says. “If we see a delivery person come in without a vest or a helmet, the small business owner will quickly tell us if they work for Uber or Seamless. Some have actually given us contracts.” The fines remain small, between $100 and $200 per infraction, unlikely to cause Uber Eats, Grubhub, and the rest to change their behavior. Still, the NYCDOT has shown that businesses, including third parties, can be held to account.

Grubhub, Seamless, Uber Eats, and DoorDash all declined to comment on the record for this story.

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The real problem

Despite all of the attention directed at throttle bikes, cycling advocates, DOT officials, and transportation planners all agree that the real problem is motor vehicles. They crowd out cyclists and pedestrians, leaving them to squabble over the few crumbs of street and sidewalk space remaining. In the age of social distancing, New Yorkers may come to question the privileges the city grants to cars and trucks. Without motor vehicles, the streets provide plenty of room for walking six feet apart.

Mason of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy thinks differentiating between “good” pedal-assist bikes and “bad” throttle e-bikes is counterproductive: “The goal is to say, ‘Here is how we create a transportation system that moves people effectively and safely and affordably.'”

While most New Yorkers are fighting coronavirus by sitting on the couch and ordering in, the delivery workers remain on the job, riding their throttle e-bikes in increasingly empty streets. The threat of infection has replaced the threat of NYPD enforcement, at least for now. Perhaps this pandemic will help the mayor—and the many people who now rely on delivery workers to receive groceries and food—to understand how vital they are to life in the city.

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