Do Electric Bikes Belong in NYC?

ebikes_190.jpgPhoto: City Room

In its most recent installment, the City Room bike column cites the apparently burgeoning popularity of electric bicycles. According to the story, "e-bikes" are favored by delivery workers, the elderly, and at least one 38-year-old Manhattan screenwriter. Thing is, it’s illegal to ride them in the city:

[F]or the moment, electric bicycles occupy a nebulous legal lane on the road. Not quite a scooter, not quite a bike, e-bikes are considered "motor-assisted bicycles" under New York State law and are banned from state roads and city streets.

Sellers and riders are hoping state law will be amended soon, but is that a good idea? At the recent Upper East Bike forum, Council Member Daniel Garodnick said he is authoring a bill to increase penalties for riding motorized bikes on sidewalks, which he believes is occurring more often.

Weighing the possible pros (increased mobility for those who can’t ride regular bikes) and cons (potentially dangerous pedestrian conflicts), do motorized bikes capable of traveling 20 mph have a place in the city’s transportation mix? If so, where do they belong?

  • ms nomer

    I’ve seen experienced cyclist clock at least 20mph and no one questions their right to the road. And we’re all obliged to give pedestrians the right of way, and to slow down when faced with any real or potential hazards (heavy pedestrian and/or other traffic, poor visibility, icy roads etc). Why not allow e-bikes too, holding them to the same rules of the road as conventional cyclists?

  • J

    My experience with e-bikes has been fairly neutral so far. I guess my main point of annoyance is when I’m climbing a hill and an e-bike zips by with little effort. It’s almost never at an obnoxious speed, but it’s annoying that they don’t have to work for it. I am wary that this may become more of a problem in the future, particularly on bridges.

  • They should be regulated as motorcycles and follow the same traffic laws. They belong in car space, not in bike lanes or pedestrian space.

  • Allan

    I’ve gone over 30mph on level ground, i assume that plenty of others have as well, and although its not easy to sustain this speed, it is quite possible to reach. should i be banned? this is a no-brainer. allow these vehicles to operate in the city

  • Mark, I think your bike should be regulated as a motorcycle and follow the same traffic laws. In fact, every bike (non electric) should be registered and require riders to have a license. Why? Because I feel like using the same logic you are.

    E-bikes are just like regular bikes, but allow people with less of a fitness level to make it up hills. Theyre probably the best bet at getting the masses to ride bikes more frequently. “Id love to ride, but I could only ride to work, it would be impossible to ride home!” or “Id like to bike to work but Id sweat too much” would be arguments of the past.

  • Yangmusa

    Many cyclists are able to maintain 20 mph. On my recumbent I can (relatively) easily break 30 mph. So there’s nothing new about the sort of speed achievable on an e-bike.

    I don’t see any reason why e-bike riders should be particularly better or worse than other riders in using common sense to dictate when 20 mph is ok, and when 10-15 mph (or slower!) might be more appropriate.

    E-bikes are great if they make cycling a viable option for a wider range of people.

    Even if I personally think they’re “cheating” 😉

  • rex

    Weight, not speed is the real issue. Many states have laws that allow electric scooters to navigate on roads and bike lanes if is is less than 500 or 750 watts. But they do not restrict weight which means that a long range 500 watt scooter may have a GVW of 400 pounds which can do a heck of a lot of damage and cannot stop nearly as well as a bicycle. It is not that big of an issue on roads, but on sidewalks and multi-use paths it is poor practice.

  • jass,

    How about go the other way: Let’s require zero licensing or registration of anything at all, then let anyone do anything they want, so long as they’re predictable, and liable for any harm caused.

    You could even leave a bunch of violations on statute and I’d be happy — say, operating a bike or car without brakes sufficient to cause a skid on dry pavement; not having a light.

    Registration doesn’t do a damn thing to keep us safer, meanwhile supporting a state cartel of registrars. Same for licensing; anyone can get one, though I recall one or two posters here copped to the embarassment of having actually failed a licensing exam.

    We’ve got way too many laws, enforcement of the wrong things, and huge auto fatality rates. I hope the current regime dies with the boomers who created it (and most of the rest of our problems).

  • Paul

    The e-bikes that I rode were “pedal assist” only, so they basically make pedaling easier – ideal for hills and such. They also only assist you up to 17mph which is obtainable on nearly any bike without a motor and will not work unless the rider is pedaling. So of course they belong anywhere a regular bicycle may go as long as the rider goes with the flow of bike traffic. Perhaps the motors only need to provide assistance up to 10 mph though.

    Although I wouldn’t personally buy one, in many hilly cities they could be the key to getting more folks out of their cars. My test ride was actually kinda fun pedaling uphill in the top (21-speed) gear while sitting down!

  • Danny G

    E-bikes totally belong in NYC. As for exactly where, let’s go with the bike lanes for now. When our bike lanes are as full as China’s, then we should revisit this question. Until then, the more, the merrier.

  • Here is the summery from the Consumer Product Safety Commission February 12, 2003 ruling on “Low-Speed Electric Bicycles” – up to 750watts (1hp) and only capable of propelling the bicycle at less then 20mph by use of the motor alone.

    SUMMARY: Public Law 107-319, 116 Stat. 2776 (the Act), enacted December 4, 2002, subjects low-speed electric bicycles to the Commission’s existing regulations at 16 CFR part 1512 and 16 CFR 1500.18(a)(12) for bicycles that are solely human powered. For purposes of this requirement, the Act defines a low-speed electric bicycle as “a two-or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.” Public Law No. 107-319, section 1, 116 Stat. 2776 (2002). The Commission is issuing this immediately effective amendment to its requirements for bicycles
    at 16 CFR part 1512 to promptly inform the public of the newly enacted statutory requirement on low-speed electric bicycles.

    Here is the link to the complete statement: http://www.cpsc.gov/businfo/frnotices/fr03/low.html

    This Cornell Law site of US Codes had this to say about the Federal promulgation:

    (d) Preemption
    This section shall supersede any State law or requirement with respect to low-speed electric bicycles to the extent that such State law or requirement is more stringent than the Federal law or requirements referred to in subsection (a) of this section.

    Source: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/15/usc_sec_15_00002085—-000-.html

    To the best of my knowledge from what I’ve read from the CPSC release and other websites, the conclusion by the CPSP is that “Low-Speed Electric Bicycles” are to be classified as a consumer good like a bicycle and not a motor vehicle. And as the section above indicates, states NO LONGER have the authority to regulate them since they are now under Federal regulation. Essentially that makes New York’s law that prohibits what are defined as “Low-Speed Electric Bicycles” mute.

    Essential my take is that these federal regulations allow for the sale of electric bikes so long as the power output keeps the bicycles within the performance characteristics of a typical, albeit rather fit bicyclist.

    For more reading on the topic these interesting sites came up after searching for “Requirements for Low-Speed Electric Bicycles”.

    http://forums.sae.org/access/dispatch.cgi/emergtech_pf/docProfile/100020/d20070307201829

    http://www.x-tremescooters.com/techdocs/adobe/e-bicycle-fed-regulation.pdf

    http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/safety/vehicle/docs/motorized-scooters.pdf

  • ta

    as long as they aren’t running me over, go green with biking!
    http://ambitiousandfunemployed.blogspot.com/

  • zach

    20mph speed limit for all vehicles throughout the city.

  • I’m with Zach. 20mph bikes? Get more of them on the road to slow down the cars!

  • Geck

    What Zach said! I have not had a problem with them. I have sometimes been a bit surprising to have them zip buy me at a speed I would not use in a congested area, but I can’t say they were being operated unsafely. It does seem like cheating though. Maybe a distinction should be made between pedal assist, which require pedaling, and those that are effective low powered electric scooters (no pedaling required). Holland allows powered scooters on bike lanes and that is creating problems http://www.nieuwsuitamsterdam.nl/en/2009/10/away-scooters

  • Geck

    If I was not clear, a distinction in allowing electric scooters on bike paths and bike lanes. I am totally fine with them in traffic.

  • rlb

    A 1hp motor is absurdly powerful to be put onto a bike. A bike with a one horsepower motor would crush Lance Armstrong in a race.
    Somebody with a one horsepower motor strapped to their bike needs a license and should not be allowed in a bike lane.

  • beelectric

    Ebikes that are pedal assist should be treated as a bicycle and subject to the same rules as a bicycle. Any time we can get someone out of their car and using another mode of transportation, especially one that has a health and environmental benefit is a plus. Any ebikes that are throttle operated should be subject to the laws that apply to gas powered scooters. Whats the point of a throttle operated ebike anyway? Just call it a scooter.

  • Even bicycles have rules. Dealers are required to equip bikes with a minimum amount of reflective material. Children under 14 must wear a helmet. Those above 14 or riding full sized bikes are not allowed on the sidewalk. To some extent, traditional bikes are limited in terms of speed by the riders ability. You certainly wouldn’t want a helmetless eight year old going 20 to 30 miles per hour on an e-bike in crowded parks or on the Greenway. Set a minimum age where we can expect the rider will be reasonably responsible and determine a cut-off point, in terms of power or weight, where an e-bike becomes a motor vehicle and is subject to the same requirements as small motorcycles and scooters.

  • v

    +1 to e-bikes.

    my younger brother got around for years in the ‘burbs on a scooter, which is the same thing really. he didn’t have (or need) a license, just needed to pass the age limit and have a scooter with a maximum speed. this worked fine and was allowed on bike paths. same thing in the netherlands and many other places. making e-bikes more common will make cars less needed for teens everywhere, as they can have mobility without a license…this in turn makes it easier to raise driver’s license training standards for everyone, and to keep unlicensed people out of the driver’s seat.

    e-bikes are of tremendous benefit to cities, and anyone who is against them is ignoring the large portion of our population that is less mobile (older folks, the handicapped, the tired).

    hopefully an increased US market for e-bikes will lower the price of models that don’t rely on big nasty lead batteries. right now the price differential is huge, way past what it should be.

    beelectric: pedal assist is a joke. the determining factor should be the bike’s maximum speed. pedal assist is not actually useful in any meaningful sense, and it can be disengaged in a lot of e-bikes anyway.

    geck: i’m pretty sure the scooters causing problems in holland are the more high-powered ones a/o gas-powered ones. low-powered electric scooters and pedal-assist bikes don’t require a blue license plate or emit particles.

  • Uhmmm…

    Let me repeat.

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission (a Federal agency) has declared that bikes that meet the definition of “Low-Speed Electric Bicycles” are to be treated as regular bicycles and that no local authority can supersede this ruling and regulate them in any way different then bicycles already are.

    However I agree that some Asian manufacturers are simply making minor modifications to flat floor, step through electric scooters, namely by meeting the power requirements and installing rudimentary pedals connected to the rear while via a belt drive. These things don’t look a think like a triple triangle, human powered bicycle but are now supposed to be considered equals.

    I like the concept of Low-Speed Electric Bicycles when they are simply a bicycle with a helper motor. I went for a test ride on one this summer in a hilly German town and was amazing! I do think that there should be some expectation in the regulation from the CPSC that a Low-Speed Electric Bicycle are first a bicycle that can easily be ridden without any help from the motor.

    Unfortunately there are some importers who are sidestepping the intent of the regulation and are using it to sell low powered scooters that then don’t require a license nor insurance and are nearly impossible to propel on human power alone.

    Look at the selection of Low-Speed Electric Bicycles from this one seller:
    http://www.veloteq.com/veloteqgallery/compare_scooters.htm

    These things look nothing like bicycles!

  • Oh yeah! One other thing. Every one of the vehicles (I won’t call them bicycles) on the link above weighs well over 100lbs!

    Imaging crashing into one of those things at speed on the West Side Bike Path!

    I think these “scooters” have a transportation roll but they are not the equal to a bicycle.

    THERE NEEDS TO BE A WEIGHT LIMIT!!!

  • Bob

    Andy B,
    No they don’t. The heaviest E-bikes weigh in at around 60 pounds.

    “do motorized bikes capable of traveling 20 mph have a place in the city’s transportation mix? If so, where do they belong?”

    Of course they have a place in the mix. If two-wheeled vehicles capable of 20mph have no place, we wouldn’t allow normal bikes either. We certainly wouldn’t allow motorcycles and scooters.

    Just like normal bicycles, E-bikes belong on the road or the bike path. If motorized bikes are causing conflicts with pedestrians or riding on sidewalks, that calls for more traffic enforcement, not an out-and-out ban.

  • Jason A

    On paper, without knowing anything about e-bikes, I’d be tempted to say “no way!”

    But in practice, I’ve never had a problem with e-bikes. I think they ride as responsibly as anyone else out there…

    NYC streets are (obviously) dangerous and there are hectic instances where you need a certain fitness level to safely manage a precarious situation. If e-bikes help someone with fitness concerns get on a bicycle, I think they should be encouraged.

  • there are 100 million ebikes in china.

  • An interesting debate. I have felt the pang of envy when a non-pedaling ebike operator zips past me on an uphill, but that is no reason to ban them. On the Upper East Side, the majority of ebike users are delivery guys and the commit the same violations with them that they do with ordinary bikes–sidewalk and counterflow riding, and running reds without yielding adequately to pedestrians. But again, that is still no reason to ban them. As a general matter, bicyclists ought not to leap to impose new regulations on a device that looks just like a bike, lest they end up helping demonstrate that cyclists of any kinds are a powerless minority that can be easily subjected to any regulations that pop into non-cyclists’ heads.

    On the other hand, the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law specifically defines “vehicle” as a device moved by other than human power. So ebikes fall within a different regulatory category than ordinary bicycles under present law. In my view, the rationale for drawing the line at human- vs. non-human powered vehicles is that with the aid of non-human power, the ebike user is more likely to use higher speeds.

    This will be not only because of human limitations, such as in the going uphill scenario, but also in other scenarios. For example, if I see a light about to turn red up ahead, I start breaking right away. I know I will conserve energy if I reach that intersection after the light turns red, and after the cross traffic, motor vehicle and pedestrian, has crossed. An ebike operator may instead have the incentive to increase speed to reach that same intersection, in hopes of making it through before the cross traffic enters the intersection. The ebike operator has less to lose in trying to slip through a light at the last minute. By picking up speed into a potential conflict situation, the ebike operator exacerbates tensions between bicyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians will usually wait before entering an intersection if they see a cyclist accelerating toward them, even if the pedestrian has the right of way; and then the pedestrian crosses in indignation, and rightly so, since the cyclist has essentially stolen a few seconds of their time by grabbing a right of way they did not have a right to by law. Although I don’t know this from experience (I’ve never ridden an ebike), I suspect that a cyclist would in general tend to adjust the risk/benefit analysis, and engage in riskier cycling behavior, if the cyclist has an extra supply of energy and could restore forward momentum effortlessly if a sudden stop became necessary because the risky maneuver proved ill-advised. So the current distinction of human powered vs. non-human powered vehicles in the law makes some sense.

    I have also seen ebike operators on the sidewalks operate without pedaling. Perhaps they think it is less alarming to the pedestrians, but I actually find it more alarming, because I am used to assessing what a cyclist intends to do by how they are pedaling. Even with mere peripheral vision, one can tell if a bicyclists is coasting or pedaling and make quick judgments about the possbility of a collision, but you can’t do this with an ebike operator. I find it alarming to confront an ebike operator and not know whether s/he is accelerating or decelerating, so this is another issue that would weigh against changing existing law so that ebikes were treated as fungible with human powered vehicles.

  • EBikes extend the speed and range and bikes. A normal person (non-elite athlete) won the Tour de Sol on an EBike (Optibike; http://www.optibike.com) in Albany a few years back going something like 100 miles in 3 hours.

    EBikes are an important step in making bicycle technology serious transportation; in addition to networked bikes or bicycle systems, advanced bicycle and or small vehicle systems, and recumbent foldable tricycles to name a few.

    Advanced systems will likely incorporate modular small vehicles that work on-and-off specially designed systems to provide for high-performance hands-free automated transportation with a minimal ecological footprint; crucial for high-density transportation and most importantly, seriously addressing the climate change crisis.

  • I have my water flown in from Poland. I need an e-Bike to get it home.

  • #28 Todd Edelman, “I have my water flown in from Poland. I need an e-Bike to get it home.”

    While the City Room pix above is somewhat of a sustainability disconnect my tool bag probably approaches the same weight of those bottles of Poland Spring water from Maine and e-power assist would be an advantage for timely travel in hilly areas, snow, heavy wind, for longer trips, and travel when heavily fatigued or with bio-mechanical issues.

    As creatures of habit e-power assist extends the daily practicality of bicycle technology which is probably why a lot of delivery people are using it in the city.

  • I live in San Francisco up a fairly monster hill. So monster that probably only 4 or 5 bicyclists attempt it a day. I have electrified a bicycle with a 450 Watt rear wheel motor and a LiFEPo4 battery that allows me to make it up the hill at about 5 or 6 mph, pedaling the whole time. I have a thumb throttle which gives me a lot more control over my acceleration than pedal assist.

    I use the electric motor mostly for hills and starting from a stop. I rarely go over 15 mph, mostly because I am cautious by nature and feel uncomfortable riding faster than that. I don’t ride on sidewalks, I don’t run stoplights. I cede the right of way to pedestrians and to cars at four way stop signs. I would say I’m probably ten times more law-abiding than your average SF cyclist, but it’s true that the electric motor helps this because it’s not as painful for me to start from a dead stop as it is for regular bicyclists.

    The electric motor means I can replace car trips with bike trips. I have an Xtracycle attached to my electric bike which means I can carry a week’s worth of groceries home. I can transport my 12 year old daughter back and forth to her dance class (though with her on the back I have to work very, very hard coming up the hill home.) I can go places without getting sweaty. (I rode my bike to the symphony last night in a skirt and heels. Boy, did I get looks.) Most of all, I don’t dread taking my bike because of the last half mile home.

    There are downsides to an electric bike. It’s somewhat expensive, which makes me worry about it getting stolen or people messing with it more than I would with a regular bike. It’s heavy–probably 60 – 70 lbs–and while it’s possible to ride it without using the motor (I’ve done so) the extra weight does make me dependent on the electric boost. And with the hills I do, the range is limited to about 11 – 12 miles, although I could get a bigger battery for more capacity. (More $ and would add more weight.)

    I can’t imagine anyone needing a motor over 650 Watts. Really. And there is a big difference between a scooter with pedals and a bicycle with an assist. Most people don’t know my bike is electric unless I tell them.

    If I lived in a flatter place, I don’t think I would go electric. It wouldn’t be worth the expense or the worry about the bike getting stolen. On vacation I use a regular bike for weeks at a time at a location with medium-sized hills with no problem. But would I prefer a city full of electric bikes over a city full of pollution-spewing cars? You bet.

  • Ebikes do not belong in bike lanes. I do get a little annoyed when an ebike goes past me without any effort but more importantly, I think its a safety issue. As a cyclist, I expect other cyclists to move in certain ways. This includes speed. It includes all levels of cyclists and bicycles. When riding over the Manhattan bridge,I have gone to overtake another cyclist. I turn to look behind and see what appears to be another cyclist a certain distance from me. I base all sorts of assumptions based on this fact, like..is it safe to overtake right now? What has happened is that an ebike is behind me and they are moving faster that what I am expecting. This creates an unsafe situation. For this reason, they belong with cars.

  • #31 dooda, “Ebikes do not belong in bike lanes.”

    Would you also disallow recumbent bicycles and tricycles which can be much faster than standard bikes and are normally much lower to the ground?

    From # 6 Yangmusa:

    “On my recumbent I can (relatively) easily break 30 mph. So there’s nothing new about the sort of speed achievable on an e-bike.”

  • Bob

    I rode regular bikes for a long time, finally switched to an eBike this year. I did so because I carry my 2-year-old daughter on my back, and I just couldn’t do it any more on a regular bike — especially not with groceries, etc. The eBike is great for hauling LOTS of stuff.

    Mine is a real eBike, not one of those things with pedals for show. It’s 60lb, with a gross vehicle weight pushing 250-300lb, when fully loaded. It really likes to be pedaled, if you want good performance.

    A vehicle with a top speed of 20mph doesn’t always mix so well on the avenues with traffic lights timed at 30mph. Nor does it work on the West Side Highway, with actual speeds up to 50mph+.

    The best thing about eBikes is they’re so much easier to accelerate than regular bikes, it’s made me more patient about hitting the brakes for stop lights, pedestrians, etc.

  • Rhonda

    The bike path along the Hudson is already dangerously congested with inappropriate users – time and season specific. Electric is awesome, but not SILENTLY whizzing past on bike lanes, counter-traffic in streets, and on sidewalks at night with no horn, no light, the driver dressed in black.

  • Rhonda

    Sort of addendum: Please check out interesting piece on ‘Hyper-illumination’ via Todd Edelman for arguments against too much visibility for bikers.

    http://greenideafactory.blogspot.com/

    Thanks, Todd.

  • bob den

    maybe it will cut down on car traffic

  • Joe R.

    Interesting discussion. Nothing special about the kinds of speeds ebikes achieve. Just last year I kept up with one for 2 miles. I easily pass them on downhills where their motors limit their speed to not much over 20 mph due to regenerative effect. E-bikes merely allow a weak, or out-of-shape, rider to keep up with a strong rider. In many ways I think this is good. A frequent reason given by hard-core riders for not using the protected bike lanes is that they’re mostly clogged with “slow” cyclists. Put all those slow cyclists on ebikes to even things up, then everyone can use the bike lane. In any case, whether allowed in bike lanes or not, ebikes are exactly what NYC needs more of. They’re sort of halfway between a bike and car. As such, they can fulfill many of the roles a car might, but at much lower cost, and zero noise/pollution. I’m all for greatly expanding their use.

  • Yourmother

    Ebikes are the future. If you want a work out go to the gym. Lanes of travel are for “travel” from one place to the next. They are not there specificly for you to get your exercise and save money on a gym. They are public lanes of transporation not public lanes of excersize. If someone on an Ebike is not riding safe treat them the same way you treat the average cycle rider who does the same.

  • Meadows Dad

    Ebikes, etrikes, ebike cabs – all should be allowed. All reduce congestion and pollution, enhance health and are ‘green’. We need more ideas on how to promote this type of transportation. How about covered paths to allow riding in the rain and snow? Or elevated paths? How about huge penalties and long prison terms for bike theft? (when in prison if they stole a bike, they have to make or repair bikes). Etrikes are the future for the older set, even for handicapped folks these devices make riding possible. Great forum.

  • davidmt50

    The U.S. Senate passed SR 1156, defining electric bicycles in the
    country. Then President, George W. Bush signed the law and is in full
    effect at the moment. The SR 1156 bill states that the Consumer Product
    Safety Commission is the one in control of electric bicycle. Electric
    bicycle is defined as a bicycle if this one has with pedals, able to
    being propelled by those pedals, with an electric motor of no more than
    750 watts, and a top speed of 20 mph. If your electric bicycle falls
    into the category of a bicycle then, you do not need a registration,
    license or insurance.

    Further, it says that Federal law supersedes any state law that is more stringent. How can the state of New York prohibit electric bikes with this Federal law on the books? Is anyone a lawyer out there who can file a suit? I don’t get it.

  • Ian Turner

    As far as I can tell, SR 1156 applies to regulation on the sale of electric bicycles, but is silent on the regulation of their use on local streets.

  • davidmt50

    If you read this link, I think it’s very clear that the law is talking about the use of a bicycle and not on the sale: http://www.x-tremescooters.com/techdocs/adobe/e-bicycle-fed-regulation.pdf . In part it says “The state must regulate the electric bicycle as a bicycle.” Regulate to me means the law or laws pertaining to the use of any given vehicle. From this I believe your state and a host of others are in violation of federal law. New York state has no legal authority to outlaw electric bicycles, unless all bicycles are illegal.Now I don’t live in your state, but if I lived there I would be going to the Attorney General’s office and find out for sure whether or not you folks are living under an onerous and illegal law. I just happened to wander into your site after reviewing the various state laws around the country, and yours is the only one that totally bans the use of electric bicycles. Forgive me if I’ve stepped on any toes, but I thought I’d at least bring to your attention something I think is wrong.

  • Ian Turner

    Davidmt, what you are quoting is a paraphrase of the law, not the law itself. As I read it, the law regulates the sale of bicycles and nothing else. And even then, it’s not clear to what degree Congress can regulate this as a local issue; the sale of the bicycles can probably be construed as interstate commerce, but it’s not clear how their use on public roads would be.

  • DanOi

    The use of E-bikes should remain illegal in NYC, even if NYS gives them the OK.  In the environment of NYC’s streets, cyclists and pedestrians frequently interact.  This is partially because an informal series of traffic rules have evolved in NYC which continence jay walking, crossing after the wave, slow and go through red lights, and wrong way riding.  Pedestrians and cyclists undertake these illegal movements because they’re expeditious and have manageable risks.  These four behaviors do result in pedestrian cyclist collisions.  Knowing (or learning) this, pedestrians and cyclists have started looking out for each other.
     
    The problem with E-bikes is three fold. 
    1.  They get to and can sustain their top speeds faster and for considerably longer than a human powered bike.  Thus, there is a much higher probability that they are going fast when pedestrians encounter them.  That they can do this without visual motion of legs and body pumping leads to their in-conspicuity.  E-bikes require, in short, a much higher level of vigilance on the part of pedestrians to avoid being struck. 
     
    2.  The mass of the E-bike is tremendously greater (x10) than that of a conventional bike.  Force in impact is a function of mv2/2.  Significantly greater weight and typically high speeds suggest that pedestrian injuries from a collision with an E-bike will be much more severe (hospitalization) than collision with a standard pedal powered bike.  Under their current status, the injured pedestrian has no simple enforceable mechanism of liability and insurance compensation from the offending rider. 
     
    3.  E-bikes may seem benign now, when there are only a few of them, but imagine if their usage took off.  Sure, they might replace a few of the cars on the road, but the street environment would quickly become a swarm of fast moving, silent but deadly E-bikes still operating by NYC’s informal rules (It is hard to imagine these going away).  If E-bikes are legal, there also seems no logical reason their less expensive gasoline powered cousins wouldn’t also, so now we have the din of 2-stroke engines added to the street environment.  The street in its chaos of operation and noise then begins to resemble Delhi or Jakarta.  The constant noise of scooters is mentally debilitating.  The speed and incoherence of scooter/E-bike driving behavior is antagonistic to pedestrian use, safety and enjoyment of the city’s streets. 
     
    This is a pathway NYC should not take.  Abetting it now by legalizing E-bikes will make it impossible to control, when the real urban problems posed by thousands of these bikes, become manifest.

  • Joe R.

    @8a45f476e8f11be4a365a4fe987ecb47:disqus Under federal law any electric bike with a top speed of 20 mph or less, and a motor of 750 watts or less is considered a bicycle. States and localities may make less restrictive laws (i.e. allow faster, more powerful e-bikes to be considered bicycles) but not more restrictive laws. Despite what some people think, NYC can’t ban e-bikes unless it also bans regular bicycles.

    There are also some problems with your reasoning:

    1) A strong cyclist can easily keep up with e-bikes in both acceleration and speed.  I personally had no trouble keeping up with one for 2 miles, until he turned off the road. I regularly beat e-bikes going downhill because they’re electronically limited to 20 mph, whereas I’m not. And I can accelerate from a standing start to 20 mph in about 5 seconds if I hit my shift points right. This also more or less matches what an e-bike can do. In short, e-bikes as specified under federal law aren’t any faster or more powerful than many cyclists. Now if e-bikes are being sold which can significantly exceed 20 mph, then that’s another story. Those need not be treated as bicycles under the law.

    2) NYC streets are already full of vehicles weighing many times what e-bikes do, and traveling much faster. Why not ban those first? Why ban e-bikes when e-bikes could have the potential to replace some motor vehicles? To me e-bikes seem to be exactly what NYC needs to fill the niche where a person might want to bike, but either the journey is too long, or the person isn’t in good shape. I could even make a good argument to allow speeds up to 30 mph for e-bikes since this is roughly what the fastest cyclists can reach.

    3) Cyclists should look out for pedestrians, not vice versa. It’s irrelevant if a e-bike is inconspicuous to pedestrians. Regular bikes are pretty stealthy also. The person riding a bike shouldn’t be expecting pedestrians to get out of his/her way. They should ride with enough care to avoid hitting pedestrians. If they do injure someone, the same legal mechanisms for e-bikes are in place as for bike riders who hit a pedestrian.

    4) E-bikes aren’t 10 times heavier than regular bikes. Most are under 100 pounds, some are even under 50 pounds. When you count the weight of the rider, e-bikes are only perhaps at most 50% heavier than regular bikes. This still pales in comparison to the weight of motor vehicles.

    5) Allowing e-bikes to be treated as bicycles doesn’t imply we’re going to allow the same for their gasoline-powered counterparts. Indeed, the reason e-bikes should have their status as regular bicycles is precisely because they don’t make noise or pollute. If NYC wants to ban anything, it should be gasoline-powered bikes and scooters. Those are obsolete anyway now that e-bikes exist with decent range and speed.

  • carma

    i dont mind the ebikes, but some of those electric scooters are REALLY irritating as they actually do resemble a motorcycle in many ways.

    i too can usually hang on with an ebiker if we are going the same direction.  even though my average speed is around 13mph.  i can easily top 25mph on nice downgrades.

  • davidmt50

    I’m back with more information about what to do about the egregious law in New York pertaining to e-bikes. I just talked to the U.S. Attorney General’s office and was informed that they cannot take on a private citizen suit, but rather it has to come from a federal agency. In this case it would be the US Consumer Product Safety Commission which Public Law 107-319 defines as the agency regulating e-bikes. I will be contacting them and filing a complaint for my state, MN. It does sound like something is happening in your Legislature that will solve the problem and you may not have to go my route. Call your representative and cite Public Law 107-319, it is the law of the land whether states like it or not. It is a bicycle, nothing more and nothing less.

  • Sunshine

    No bicyclist should behave this way, electric or otherwise!

  • Electric bikes are typically heavier than traditional bicycles, but generally speaking you don’t want to get a bike more than 30kg. Above that, it becomes difficult to lift and manoeuvre especially when you’re not riding at speed. Electric bikes are getting lighter and lighter, but be wary of some older models.

  • Bob Bedrossian

    ?

    Why punish all or NYS because NYC and the elite bike lobby has a hair up its nose? The green advantage for low income people to have reliable low cost transportation to get to work, school, doctors, etc., should out weigh elite-us Manhattan bike riders who feel that they own all the streets of New York State. Their need to own the bike lanes after leaving their elite-us jobs and bike to their favorite watering hole claiming they are helping society is ridiculous. “Let them eat cake.” Pass laws for Manhattan that make sense and not hold the entire New York State as hostage. What about Queens, Statan Island, Albany? By investing in green energy e-bikes we take hundreds of cars off the road and allow handicap people a way of getting around. Cheap local transportation will be helpful to millions of our citizens. Lets move forward with a plan for all citizens in New York State and not the few who can only think of themselves and their elite-us lifestyle. You can eat your cake but how about throwing us a few crumbs and allow e-bikes in the rest of NYS.

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