Why Are Electric Bikes Illegal, Anyway?

It’s getting to be a task keeping up with pending City Council bills that deal with electric-assisted bikes. Legislation proposed by Council Members Jessica Lappin and Dan Garodnick would hike fines for riding an e-bike, and two new bills would reportedly shift fines away from delivery workers to their employers and grant enforcement power to DOT and Parks Department personnel, who, if the bill passes, would have the authority to confiscate bikes. Meanwhile, Council Member Brad Lander wants to establish an e-bike task force — a possible sign that lawmakers are looking to streamline the council’s seemingly haphazard e-bike offensive.

Under New York code, this man is an outlaw. Photo: ##http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/battery-power-gives-deliverymen-a-boost-at-a-cost/##NYT##

One question that tends to come up when an e-bike bill surfaces, or resurfaces, is why they’re illegal in the first place. Restaurant workers do long shifts, in all weather and terrain conditions, for very little money. Not all of them are young. Why would the City Council expend so much effort to take away a tool that makes their jobs easier?

We called up Transportation Alternatives’ Juan Martinez for the lowdown on e-bikes in New York. About 10 years ago, Martinez says, the federal government passed a law that classified certain electric bikes as bicycles, exempting them from regulations that apply to street-legal motorcycles. But Albany never updated state code to reflect the change. Since electric bikes don’t come from the factory with vehicle identification numbers — because VIN plates aren’t required by federal regulations — they can’t be registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Many e-bikes used by restaurant workers weigh about the same as conventional bikes and have a top speed of around 20 mph. Yet in the eyes of the law, they are unlicensed motorcycles driven by unlicensed operators.

Martinez says the Assembly routinely passes out a bill that would bring state code in line with federal law, but the Senate has yet to pass a companion bill — not because there is opposition, but mainly because, well, it’s Albany.

And why doesn’t the City Council simply adopt a home rule message urging state lawmakers to finally make e-bikes legal to ride, like conventional bicycles? “That’s a rhetorical question,” says Martinez.

In the meantime, council members are desperate for a solution to constituent complaints about sidewalk riding. “They’re hearing about this every day,” Martinez says. “There’s a reality that they’re responding to.” Since NYPD does not keep data on electric bike summonses or crashes, however, it’s impossible to gauge the extent of the problem.

We have a message in with Garodnick’s office concerning the latest e-bike bills.

Again, Martinez notes that not everyone who wants or needs to ride a bike is physically capable, at least not to the extent necessary to keep a job as a delivery worker. He points out that other cities have e-bikes as part of their transportation mix without the attendant problems that NYC can’t seem to get a handle on. “It’s not the type of bike that’s going to make people safer,” Martinez says. “It’s the way the bike is being used.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that some council members who are hot to regulate delivery cyclists have been less receptive to making streets safer for them to ride on.

  • Anonymous

    I agree about the eBikes, but what the heck is this notion of elite bike lobby owning the streets? Really? Although the jerks that speed around Central Park as though it is their private velodrome are another story.

  • Lou

    I did poo poo

  • carlos 5

    it is how you ride,that should make it illegal like riding on the wrong side of traffic or against traffic,pedestrians usually look to one side when crossing the street and then cross not thinking that a moron in any kind of bike could be coming against traffic and you hear no horn ,i almost got hit a few times by these delivery guys because they don`t alert you that they are coming against traffic,you should whistle or use some kind of noise when coming in the wrong direction.a bicycle or e bike can kill you just about the same way.i build a motorbike that was able to do about 40 to 45 mph rode the bike for three and half years never got into an accident.i never ride against traffic or the wrong side of the road.my bike was a prototype my own design i have been a mechanic for 25 years and i build a few models through trial and error i build the perfect motorbicycle. oh and don`t run through red lights or stop signs respect traffic laws.

  • anonguest

    Madness, email the hell out of these politicians. eBikes over cars are reduced business anyday.

  • Jim

    A lot of comments but little facts. Preceding the passage of H.R. 727 in 2003, a congressional committee extensively studied the capabilities of pedal bikes and low speed electric bikes relative to weight, average speed, average distance and other considerations. They found that electric bikes are no different than pedal bikes. Further, they recognized that electric bikes are used by people with various disabilities. The legislative intent behind the bill is highly important. Once the bill was passed, electric bikes were transferred out of NHTSC ( motor vehicle) and placed under the jurisdiction of the consumer products safety commission and defined as a bicycle. True, this definition pertains to manufacturing and sale, but this is a technicality. Low speed pedal assist electric bikes with a motor of 750 watts and a top speed not greater than 20 MPH are synonymous with pedal bikes. Accordingly, any place a pedal bike can go a low speed electric bike should be able to go. Any law or ordinance to the contrary is not in accordance with the spirit of federal law and is prejudicial and discriminatory.

  • AGDM

    I am completely in agreement with you on e-bikes vs cars/etc in heavily populated urban areas. They would disrupt parking garages, cars, public transportation like buses, and impact gas prices probably also… Its a very neat solution if safety standards are implemented and followed. NY could be greener than ever… It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think of a few entities with influence on politics wanting to stop this before it goes viral.

  • henry

    why not just make bikes illegal all together. all they do is old up traffic.

  • Chris Karasavvas

    This is an interesting blog that you have posted, you shares
    a lot of things are very informative for us. Thanks

  • Kelly Rae Kelly

    I came across this page while searching to see if these bicycle motor kits are illegal. My 10 year old son wants one.
    He currently has a go cart that he rides around the yard, but wants something he can drive anywhere. We live in town, and had the police over (a neighbor called) – he looked at the go cart, and stated that because it was only 8 hp it was perfectly legal as long as he doesn’t ride it on the road.
    He also stated that it WAS legal for us adults to ride it on the road as long as we have one of those red and orange triangle shaped slow moving vehicle signs on the back. Like the ones you see on tractors.
    Anyways, as his father and were discussing any reasons why a pedal bike with a gas powered kit on it might be illegal, we couldn’t think of one good reason. Except maybe the fact that it has gasoline in it, which is highly flammable, and if our son wants to ride it to school, they might have an issue with that? However, if they’re going to try to say those are illegal than they may as well start making everything motorized illegal. Razor scooters, power wheels, etc. . Also, after I said that I thought maybe he has to be 16 because he has to know and obey traffic laws when riding it on the road, my son brought of a very valid point. He says; “Mom”! “I have to do that on my bike anyways”! He can pedal faster than some of those motorized kits can go, and his current pedal bike has a speedometer on it so that wouldn’t be an issue either. They also sell smaller, slower kits just to be on the safe side. I really don’t think they go any faster than a person can pedal. Even if they can, it doesn’t mean they have to. It’d be really stupid if these things are illegal. And like Henry a couple comments below stated – they’d almost have to make bikes illegal all together. What the hell’s the difference if you’re using the pedals the whole time or not? This is what they look like. You can barely even tell there’s a “motor” on there.

  • Joe R.

    It might make more sense to use one those kits with a hub motor and battery, like this: http://www.falconev.com/E-Bikes.html

    There are plenty of different power and speed options. Most of them go no faster than anyone can pedal going downhill.

    Gas engines are smelly, noisy, vibrate, and frankly make being on a bike powered by them unpleasant. The electric hub motors are silent. Even better, you can recharge at home, not worry about refilling the gas tank at a gas station.

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