When Will Albany Finally Legalize Electric-Assist Bicycles?

NYPD's e-bike seizures impose a heavy cost on low-wage delivery workers. Photo: NYPD
NYPD's e-bike seizures impose a heavy cost on low-wage delivery workers. Photo: NYPD

Will this be the year Albany legalizes electric bicycles in the state of New York?

E-bikes are everywhere on NYC streets, and delivery workers, especially, rely on them. But they have never been legal in New York despite 2002 federal legislation classifying electric bikes of certain speeds as regular bicycles.

This has opened the door for draconian NYPD sweeps targeting deliver cyclists. Merely operating an e-bike can result in seizure of the vehicle and steep fines, even if the owner was obeying all traffic laws. The financial penalties are much more severe than if police approached e-bikes like other bicycles and enforced infractions like biking on the sidewalk.

In addition to serving as a smaller, less polluting delivery option than gas-powered scooters, e-bikes have the potential to make cycling for transportation accessible to older New Yorkers and other people who may benefit from less physical exertion while pedaling. But there is resistance from NYPD as well as questions about whether e-bikes belong in bike lanes with conventional bicycles.

Electric-assist bicycles are the main source of global growth in the bike industry. In the U.S., bike makers and retailers have focused recent state-level lobby efforts on New York and California with the hope of setting precedent for other states, according to New York Bicycling Coalition Executive Director Paul Winkeller, whose group has received a “small” amount of industry funding to help with advocacy.

California legalized e-bikes in 2015, and for years, New York legislators have put forward bills to make e-bikes legal here. Some years, the bills passed the Senate or Assembly, but never both chambers.

Legislation has typically been introduced in the Assembly by transportation chair David Gantt, of Rochester, and in the State Senate by Brooklyn rep Martin Dilan. The language has shifted over the years, but the proposal that passed the State Senate last year before dying in the Assembly would have classified “electric bicycles” as any bicycle with a motor of no more than 750 watts and a peak motor-assisted speed of 20 mph. For reference, the bicycles typically used by delivery workers max out at 250 watts.

That bill ran into opposition from the NYPD’s legislative staff, who wanted to make tampering with the technology or label a misdemeanor, according to Winkeller.

“We’re not really sure what the intent of the NYPD was by suggesting that change,” said Winkeller, but it effectively nixed the bill. “The program staff at the Assembly level who monitor legislation said, ‘That’s ridiculous, we’re not gonna accept that language,’ and they killed it.”

This year, there are bills in both houses. Assembly Bill 1018 and its companion in the State Senate, proposed by Gantt and Dilan, resemble last year’s bill. The bill would require riders and passengers to wear helmets and be over the age of sixteen, or else face a $50 fine.

Another proposal, from Senator Thomas O’Mara, would legalize “class one” electric bicycles, which only deliver assistance when the rider is pedaling and cannot go faster than 20 mph. O’Mara’s bill would also allow New York City and other municipalities to create their own rules guiding e-bike use on city streets and greenways.

That’s more in line with advocates’ priorities in New York City, but Transportation Alternatives has endorsed both bills. “We are supporting the Dilan/Gantt legislation, but believe a focus on non-throttle max 20 mph-assist bikes are the way to go,” TransAlt Legislative Director Marco Conner told Streetsblog,

  • Joe R.

    Megawatts? I doubt it. Just for reference the output of a nuclear aircraft carrier is around 200 megawatts. The proper unit is watts. Note sure how you would fit any power plant generating megawatts on a bicycle.

    Note: 1 HP = 746 watts. A average human cyclists can output about 100 watts continuously. A strong one can manage 200 to 300+ watts.

    As for the proposed bills, drop the idiotic helmet requirement and definitely don’t allow local municipalities to create their own rules regarding e-bikes. I can easily see the idiots on the City Council banning them once Albany makes them legal.

    And please, absolutely NO NYPD input on this bill. I’m sure they want to keep some loopholes open so they have a pretense to continue to stop e-bikes just to meet their ticket quotas. The NYPD should be in the business of enforcing laws, not making them.

  • David Meyer

    Fixed. Thanks.

  • Joe R.

    You’re welcome!

  • Elizabeth F

    Positive actions YOU can take on this bill:

    1. Go to the nysenate.gov and support “Aye” on these bills:

    https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/S2888
    https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/S2282
    https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/A1018

    2. Write to your senator and assembly person regarding these bills (it’s pretty easy on the website).

    3. Write to the sponsors of these bills:

    http://assembly.state.ny.us/mem/Erik-M-Dilan/
    GanttD@nyassembly.gov
    https://www.nysenate.gov/senators/thomas-f-omara

    4. Join the NY Bicycle Coalition, and share your thoughts there. They are based upstate, and always interested in downstate specifics:

    http://www.nybc.net/about/contact-us/

  • Elizabeth F

    After reading these bills, here are my thoughts on them. Please feel free to use/modify this text when writing to your elected representatives:

    I am a long-time e-bike rider in Westchester County, relying on my e-bike to commutes 15-20 miles from my home — rain or shine — to New York City. I am therefore heartened to hear about Assembly Bill 1018, Senate Bill S2888 and Senate Bill S2282, which together would legalize e-bikes in New York State. Having read through those bills, here are my thoughts on specific provisions:

    1. E-bikes have an extremely low carbon footprint. They are good for our environment while also cheaply relieving congestion and the need for new roads and transit systems. We should be doing everything we can to encourage their use.

    2. E-bike users need safe, reliable routes just like any other bicycle: I am EXTREMELY concerned that (S2282 Section 6) could result in loss of access to bike paths and protected bike lanes in NYC, just where they are needed the most. I depend on these facilities to get where I need to go, and the on-road alternatives are simply not safe: a 1/3hp 20mph e-bike cannot effectively “compete” with motor vehicle traffic going 30-50 mph. Exclusion from bicycle facilities would make my e-bike almost uselsss. It would also subject me to constant harassment by drivers yelling “get in the bike lane” whenever they have to slow down to 20mph behind me. MAINTAINING FULL ACCESS TO BICYCLE FACILITIES IS MY TOP PRIORITY WITH THESE BILLS.

    3. New York City has a valid interest in maintaining safety on its protected bicycle lane network. I therefore support parts of (S2282 Section 6) that would allow municipalities, including NYC, to set speed limits on bicycle facilities. Many of us believe taht 12-15 mph is reasonable for Manhattan’s protected bike lanes; although NYC also has many miles of bike paths where the full 20mph is safe and reasonable. As with highways, appropriate speed depends on conditions.

    4. (Section 1238-A (c) and (D)) prohibits tampering iwth the 20mph governor on e-bikes. I support this provision: people who wish to travel faster than that on two wheels can ride a motor scooter in New York, while using roads and a helmet designed for higher speeds. However, I am concerned that this provision needs to be narroly worded. Note that “modded” e-bikes are arleady illegal, and would continue to be so under these bills, because they no longer fit the 20mph definition of an e-bike. On the other hand, overly-general laws against “tampering” with an e-bike could have unintended consequences. For example, I recently disabled my throttle with duct tape, converting my e-bike from Class 2 to Class 1. Would I now be subject to misdemeanor charges? Or what about all the other minor post-sale modifications that have been made to my e-bike? Would e-bike drivers become a sitting duck for over-zealous police precincts?

    5. I fully support a minimum age of 16 to operate an e-bike (S2888 Section 2; A1018 Section 1238-A). However, I disagree with the prohibition against carrying children on e-bikes. E-bikes, with their stronger frame, are better suited than manual bikes to carry the weight of a child. The electric motor also allows operators to travel at “noraml” bicycle speeds (10-15 mph), which is not otherwise possible with a child on the back. There is no good reason to prohibit carrying a child on an e-bike, in a properly designed child seat. I have carried my child extensively on my e-bike when she was young — first in an approved child seat, and later on a trail-a-bike. Her child seat and helmet provided excellent protection for her, regardess of status of my bike’s motor.

    6. A proposed e-bike helmet law (S2888 Section 3; S2282/A1018 Section 1238-A) would not enhance public health or safety. Although I wear a helmet myself, I do not support helmet laws for bicycle riders over the age of 18. An e-bike helmet law would also make an e-bike share system impossible.

    7. One proposal of (S2282/S2888/A1018 1238-A) requires that the motor is disengaged when the brakes are applied, or when a switch is released. I support both of these regulations. Unfortunately, not all e-bikes on the road today conform to them. How will users find an e-bike shop willing to upgrade existing e-bikes into compliance? I believe these bills should require e-bike shops to perform necessary upgrades, at a reasonable fee, on existing e-bikes.

    8. In my experience, there is no significant safety difference between Class 2 (full-throttle) and Class 1 (pedal assist) e-bikes: they both weight the same, accelerate the same and have the same top speed. A throttle can be useful for low-speed control in crowded settings, and also pushing a bike + panniers up bike ramps on stairways. Therefore, I do not support portions of (S2282/S2888/A1018 Section 102-C) that prohibit Class 2 e-bikes. A good compromise would be to allow e-bikes that can go under throttle control up to 3mph: pedal assist would be required over 3mph. In any case, Class 2 e-bikes are common in NYC today, and some thought should be put into how they can be brought into compliance with these regulations. Is it enough to disable the throttle? If so, what are acceptable ways to disable it? And will e-bike shops be required to make these modifications for existing users?

  • Elizabeth F

    > definitely don’t allow local municipalities to create their own rules
    regarding e-bikes. I can easily see the idiots on the City Council
    banning them once Albany makes them legal.

    Joe R… can you write your elected reps with your concerns about this provision? It’s in (S2282 Section 6).

  • Joe R.

    Yes, I can do that. If we let NYC start restricting access to bike facilities then we drastically decrease the utility of e-bikes. I also share your concerns about the helmet requirement, prohibition of class 2 bikes, and the wording of the tampering provision. In truth, I think the tampering provision should be stricken from the bill entirely as it gives the NYPD a pretense to pull over e-bikes just to check for tampering. That’s probably why they wanted it there in the first place.

    I don’t have children myself, but I see your point on the prohibition against carrying children on e-bikes. It really makes no sense.

  • E-bikes should be legalised.  But they should not be allowed in bike lanes.

    Whether a scooter is powered by an electric motor or by a gas-powered motor, it is a motor vehicle and not a bicycle, and thus has no place in a bike lane (or on any other bike infrastructure, such as a bike path going over a bridge). A gas-powered 50cc scooter goes only 20 miles per hour; and that vehicle is not allowed in a bike lane. 

    Those motorised scooters certainly aren’t bad things; I would consider riding one if/when bicycling becomes too difficult due to age or injury or for some other reason. But we should be clear that they are not bicycles.

    Legalisation of e-bikes should result in the same rules that currently apply to 50cc scooters: helmet, licence, insurance.  (While many states do not require a motorcycle licence for a 50cc scooter, New York does.)

    The prohibition of e-bikes is preferable to allowing those motor vehicles inappropriate access to bicycle infrastructure.

  • Elizabeth F

    Ferdinand… a manual bicycle + rider weights 200lb and goes 20mph. An e-bike+rider weighs 230lb and goes 20mph. An SUV weighs 6000lb and goes 30-50mph. E-bikes are appropriate for bike lanes and paths because they are the same general weight and speed as manual bikes — and quite a bit slower and more vulnerable than automobile traffic. Especially on the up-slope of NYC bridges. E-biking in New York City traffic is dangerous for the same reason that manual bikes are dangerous in such traffic: an e-bike cannot effectively “compete” with two-tone SUV’s going 30-50 mph. That is why we have bicycle facilities… to safely allow vulnerable street users to get from point A to point B.

    Automobiles maim and kill thousands of people each year in New York City. E-bikes have killed no one. E-bikes have already been using NYC’s bike paths and lanes for years, without major incident. Their exclusion from bike lanes and paths would be tantamount to a ban, since they cannot be safely used on many New York City streets or taken across New York City bridges in traffic.

    Mixed-use paths have always accommodated… mixed uses. That means everything from families going for a walk, baby strollers, toddlers running in circles, bicycle “Sunday drivers,” and Freds going up to 25mph. And largely without incident. Adding e-bikes to the mix at 20mph does not fundamentally alter the equation.

    This is why e-bikes are, and have always been, classified as “bicycles” and not “motor vehicles” in Federal law.

    > Legalisation of e-bikes should result in the same rules that currently
    apply to 50cc scooters: helmet, licence, insurance. (While many states
    do not require a motorcycle licence for a 50cc scooter, New York does.)

    Class C mopeds do not require insurance in New York. Helmet laws for adults are a waste of ink because they serve no public health purpose. I would not be against requiring license and registration for e-bikes.

    https://dmv.ny.gov/org/registration/register-moped

    However, Class C mopeds are not nearly as compelling a vehicle as modern e-bikes. They are heavy, dirty, expensive… I see ALMOST NO mopeds in NYC (of any class), but many e-bikes. Unless they become popular, here is not much point in discussing whether they should use bike lanes. But I’ll point out that they are quite a bit heavier, noisier and more polluting than e-bikes. Given the availability of modern e-bikes, there is really no point in the “traditional” Class C 50cc motor scooter. ICE’s in general are beginning a long, slow decline…

  • Vooch

    Ferdinand,

    you have good theoretical arguments, but the data shows that e-bikes are not dangerous in bike lanes.

    I dislike them immensely, but they are a pesky nuisance rather than dangerous.

    Let’s focus our efforts on data driven decisions.

  • Joe R.

    If we ever hope to get widespread support for more bike infrastructure in this city then legalizing e-bikes, and treating them just like regular bikes with regards to using bike infrastructure, is the way to go. E-bikes open up biking to the elderly, frail, or anyone who might need to go further or faster than they’re physically able to under their own power. They also cater to the demographic who can’t arrive at work sweaty. Once e-bikes are legal, the majority will see bike infrastructure as something they can potentially use, not something only useful to the young or fit.

    Any barriers to e-bike use, like helmet or license or registration requirements, will only hinder their adoption, along with decreasing support for bike infrastructure. Requiring them to use motor vehicle lanes is a non-starter because they can’t physically keep up with motor vehicles.

    If there are any problems with e-bikes on existing bike infrastructure, perhaps it’s because such infrastructure is mostly poorly designed and/or overutilized. Any good bike infrastructure should be able to accommodate speeds from 6 mph up to perhaps 30 mph, with room for faster riders to safely pass slower ones. There also needs to be enough room for the volume of bike traffic to free flow. Quite a bit of NYC bike infrastructure, indeed most of it, fails to meet these basic criteria. If we legalize e-bikes, there would be widespread political support to fix that.

  • Reggie

    I was on the Hoyt Street bike lane the other day, riding at about the same speed as the vehicular traffic. I swerved slightly to the right to avoid an irregularity in the road and almost got hit by an e-bike going much faster than any of the other traffic. Didn’t honk, didn’t shout. Not my only experience like this either but certainly the scariest. fwiw, I am with Ferdinand on this one. As a coda, the fact that e-bike riders wear motorcycle helmets and not bike helmets is a self-admission of which class of vehicle they belong in.

  • Vooch

    and on same day, drivers killed 2 NYrs and maimed 140 innocents.

    eliminate every e-bike and traffic violence will only increase

  • Reggie

    Wait, I am having trouble with the math here. TA likes to say that vehicular deaths are now roughly equivalent to homicides, so that puts the numbers at around 300 annually. Did the year get seven months shorter?

  • Vooch

    traffic carnage might even be worse

  • Elizabeth F

    I was crossing Sixth Avenue last year. I waited for my walk signal and started across the Avenue. When I had gotten ALMOST to the other side (5 second later??), I encountered a manual bike rider who had chosen to run the red. I chose not to stop, we collided, and he fell down. Five minutes later, he caught up with me and started beating me up. WE SHOULD BAN BICYCLES!!!

    Then there was the time I was driving on the freeway, and some idiot came careening through at 100mph, when traffic was going only 50, weaving in and out of lanes. I nearly had a heart attack as he came inches from sending me into 360’s. BAN SPORTS CARS, AND REQUIRE GOVERNORS AT 70MPH!!!

    Oh yes… I remember the time that some jerk in a pickup truck yelled “get in the bike lane” — when there were two empty lanes available, and no bike lane. BAN PICKUP TRUCKS!!!

    Not to mention the selfish jerk I encountered today who PARKED HIS CAR, blocking the bike path at the wheelchair/bike ramp where it crossed the street. This is the burbs, there were plenty of other places he COULD HAVE parked. He acted indignant when I asked him to move his car because it was blocking the path. He justified his actions by showing me how he was fixing his daughter’s bike, getting it ready for a ride. BAN MINIVANS!!!!

    If that’s not enough, maybe this video should convince you we just need to BAN FIXIES!!!

    Not to mention crazy manual bike riders who race 30mph+ on the downslope of NYC bridges, or who hang on your tail up and down the Hudson River Greenway. Or the nice Fred folk who think it’s OK to harass, verbally insult and even hit people for no reason other than they’re riding an e-bike. Did I already suggest that we BAN MANUAL BICYCLES!!!

    So there you have it, this is NYC and there’s no shortage of jerks.

  • Elizabeth F

    Hey Reggie… I ride an e-bike, I wear a bike helmet, and I ring my bell before passing anyone. It is my vain hope that once we stop bickering over what KIND of vehicle is OK / NOT OK, that we start building a shared consensus on bicycle etiquette and norms. Ringing before you pass should be required, just as turn signals are required for cars.

    And no, it doesn’t matter how you got your passing power. I’ve seen too many Fred types who think they’re too good for a bell, and cause heart attacks when they pass. I’ve also had plenty of pedestrians and bikers thank me as I pass, because I rang my bell.

  • AnoNYC

    Electric bikes/scooters are fine in bicycle lanes so long as they maintain a reasonable speed for the conditions (likely 15-20 MPH tops).

    Most ebikes nowadays travel between 15-20 MPH tops, the vast majority.

    Gasoline powered scooters/motorcycles are usually larger and emit all kinds of nasty particulates. They should be prohibited.

    And a 50cc scooter like the Honda Ruckus goes 30-35 MPH.

  • AnoNYC

    Agreed. The problem is reckless riders, not the technology.

  • AnoNYC

    That sounds like a problem with the rider, not the technology.

    Either the ebike rider found it safe enough to pass and you were surprised, or they were following too closely.

  • AnoNYC

    eBikes and eScooters are much better than any class C vehicle at this point. They have good enough range for the most part, and most have good enough speed.

    Why bother with the hassle of registration and licensing (drivers license)? Very few mainstream scooters fit the designation, and mopeds are pretty unpopular.

    eBikes and eScooters make a whole lot of sense in NYC.

  • Vooch

    Gasoline powered MOTOR VEHICLES are usually larger and emit all kinds of nasty particulates. They should be prohibited.

    fixed for you 🙂

  • Pat

    I agree with your assessment about the type of helmets they wear. I don’t like the current class of e-bike riders because they can be seen smoking and talking on the phone while carrying packages at high speeds. So they have no chance of performing an emergency stop or swerve.
    However, the exact same things and much more can be said of drivers.
    I’m a professional NYC bike messenger, the biggest fish in the ocean.
    I don’t ride in bike lanes because thats where all of my worst accidents have occurred. Pedestrians stepping off the curb as if the green strip isn’t a lane is a big problem.
    As for your accident, I can tell that it was your fault. You made a lane change without checking your rear its that simple. If there was room for a passing lane, 30 inches. then you should have spotted the dangerous road conditions 15 feet away and checked before changing lanes.
    I do it hundreds of times a day and not even e-bikes are fast enough to overtake me.

  • kevin

    In most other countries bike lanes are much wider, so if a lot of people started using the bike lanes it makes sense to widen them.

  • Solo500

    Pat, one issue here is that the bike lanes are supposed to make city biking more accessible for inexperienced/young/old cyclists. E-bike speeds make the lanes worse. / Agreed that bike lanes are still problematic but I don’t think allowing motorized vehicles on them is going in the right direction.

  • mariposaman

    Class one and class two was only created to apply to California trails because of the power of a “throttle” could rooster tail on softer trial material, It was never meant to apply to hard surfaces or streets. I warned them of the misuse of this classification to enforce a prejudice against those ebikes with the speed controller on the handlebar instead of the pedal crank assembly (known as pedelecs). Where the speed controller is located should not make a difference on streets, whether on the hand grip, pedal, or even a straw stuck up your nose.

  • John Lieswyn

    Throttle activated e-bikes require more rider attention than pedal assist (“pedelec”) bikes. In surveys I conducted of hundreds of users in New Zealand, there were numerous reports of unintended or jerky acceleration and a few reports of confusion and crashes amongst new users of throttle e-bikes. They also offer less health benefits than pedelecs.

  • mariposaman

    You have given no reason to ban handlebar speed control, aka throttle. Certainly new users might have a learning curve when using a new device. What has health benefits got to do with riding a bike if one just wants to get to point A to B without a car? Beside, a lot if not a majority of pedelecs are sold with a throttle in the North American market, (and would probably do so in Europe if they had not banned them for no good reason,) giving the purchaser the option of using either. I just get annoyed when I am denied the choice for specious reasons, usually by cylists who have no intention of using ebikes.

    Granted there are some advantages to a pedelec, but they also tend to be more expensive and next to impossible to retrofit your favorite bicycle with a kit. Really the market should decide what people want in an ebike, throttle or pedelec or both, not some dictator in an ivory tower.

  • John Lieswyn

    As I stated already, and I will rephrase for you – my personal view on not allowing throttles is based on two reasons – safety and reduced health benefits. Regarding safety, why wouldn’t we want to reduce injuries if there is an alternative technology (torque assist pedelecs) that is rapidly becoming as affordable as throttle e-bikes? Secondly, health outcomes have a lot to do with overall social costs of transport. I believe that wider economic benefits should be included when setting policy and writing legislation. If you think that makes me a dictator in an ivory tower, then so be it. By the way, in response to your insinuation that those people not in favor of throttles are cyclists without intention of using e-bikes, note that I for one am opposed to throttles and I ride a cargo bike every day – retrofitted with a Bion-X kit. It has no throttle. So when you say that pedelecs tend to be more expensive and are “next to impossible” to retrofit, I say it is certainly possible. Torque sensors are now well under $100 and still dropping in price. Look at the current marketplace and you will find torque assist pedelec kits becoming available and the price differential between magnetic sensor throttle e-bikes and torque sensor pedelecs is rapidly narrowing.

  • mariposaman

    I heard what you said and find it irrelevant. The extensive Canadian study when they were legalizing ebikes found no safety difference between throttle speed control and pedelec speed control and therefore legalized both equally. In fact they found the throttle speed control slightly safer and more convenient. You however would deny a whole continent the choice of having a throttle speed control based on some obscure New Zealand survey. People fall down when learning to walk and learning to ride a bike, skiing, tight rope walking, any sport or activity requiring a skill, we do not ban it. I had not difficulty with a throttle ebike at all so why would you ban it for me?

    Health benefits really have no place in forcing or denying transportation choices otherwise we would just legislate everyone get out of their cars and use pedal bicycles. There are other ways of keeping fit, or not, it would be my choice, not yours. Really the delivery drivers want to get the food to their customers in the easiest way possible and I want to give them the choice on what kind of speed control device they have on their electric bikes, you do not.

  • John Lieswyn

    An entire continent has agreed with me (Europe). The EU is now allowing throttles, but only on type certified cycles (i.e. those that meet more stringent motor vehicle standards, not equivalent to a standard bicycle). What is the “extensive Canadian study” – author, date, publisher please. No, I simply mentioned my survey of e-bike users – I don’t base my opinion based on just that. Regarding health benefits, comparing cars and bikes is ridiculous – there are many uses and needs for cars that bikes cannot satisfy. My study found that the issue of throttles vs no throttles is the most contentious topic by far (even more so that what the top motor assisted speed should be), as so clearly illustrated by your vehemence.

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