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.

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

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  • 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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  • Jonathan Vaucher

    LOL,what a closed mindset ! Shoot your own hating attitude ! There is a very very very wide spectrum of eBikes power ranges. Most of them being in the 200-750W range (0.3 to 1.0 hp). I’ve seen some very experienced custom builders making racetrack eBikes capable of 48kW or 56hp. But for eBikes or eBike kits you can buy readily, they typically have a top speed ranging from 15 to 20 mph. Some can do 25 mph (at 750W). Many motorcycles can go past 200 mph ! woooooo….. And they weight 10 times more than a bike … That mean a lot of inertia. Inertia and kincetic energy is what kills people in the end. Ask yourself, would you rather get hit buy a skateboard or a 10 wheel truck ? Not rocket science… just basic physics laws. BTW, an athlete in good shape can generate up to 450-500 Watts of power through it’s legs… I can probably sustain 200W for an hour.

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    I think throttle controlled eBikes should also be legal. Why not? When you drive your car, you choose to press on the gas pedal when you want… But of course you have to comply with the speed limits. Common sense here.

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    It’s not about the speed. It’s about where you use that speed. People riding on sidewalks just lack common sense and judgment. Nobody care is you have a lambo, but people would hate you if you endenger others by driving it wreclessly, going 60 mph on narrow and busy streets of a dense and populated city. Take it on the highway, or even on a private closed racetrack if you want to push it, Otherwise just conform to the speed limits. No need to ban cars altogoether like this reterd law did it on eBikes in NYC. I think eBike should be allowed 20 mph on streets and bike tracks (I can human pedal 20 mph easily too), as at these speeds, most brakepads would do an awsome job on quick emergency stopping distances. Any eBike rider will tell you, there’s no point going faster than 20-25 mph anyways, as drag builds up at high speed and energy efficiency (read as : battery range) then starts to drop steeply (more Watt-hours consumed per mile done). An eBike just doesn’t have sufficient room to accomodate a very big battery, so going slower is the only way to minimise wind drag and maximize range on lithium batteries which are not so fantastic. People who make law don’t know that well… they neverm even tried eBikes to begin with. They talk and make descision on machines they are clueless about…

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    Sorry but 750W is not overpowered at all !!!
    250W just WONT do any steep hilll, plain and simple… Hill are why ebikes were build in the first place LOL. So choosing a 25W is a bit of a nonsense IMHO. 250W is just barely okay to go 15 mph top speed on an always flat terrain, with ultra sluggist acceleration. Dont ask for a steep hill, you will overheat and fry you 250W motor.

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    To go 100 mph on a eBike, you need at least a 20000 W (20 kW) motor. Do they even exist ????? And assuming such huge motor could exist and not weigh a 150 pound, you’d have to carry a monter of a lithium battery to feed them enough amps… That means the battery would probably weight another 50 kilos. I think you’re a dreaming about going 100 mph on a US eBike. In USA, the maximum nominal power is limited to 750W (MECANICA) power output… That should make you reach top speeds of 25 mph at the very best. On the other hand, high end race eBike with motorcycle forks, heavy dyty frame and big battery packs are usually build around hub moters that can sometime go as haigh as 8kW or 10kW….. They can reach 65 mph, but were still very far from 100 mphs. REMEMBER, wind drag resistance increases exponentially (and so doeas the power required) to reach high speeds…. So good luck finding an eBike that rides 100 mph under 40000 USD. You might then be better of buying a real gas motorcycle in the end then. High speed was never the purpose of eBikes. Law people just don’t get that. Stop blaming the bike, blame the person behind the handlebar.

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    Very good point. Stop it with that inertia and kinetic energy being so high and deangerous for eBike of 60 pounds compared to 40 pound human powerd bike. Just put a fat guy the pedal bike and you’ve just beat the ebike’s weight by far. I’t not a Kawasaki Nija 200 motorcycle capable of 200+ mph and weighting 500 pounds.

  • Jonathan Vaucher

    Lawmakers can’t see that because their eyes a full of shit from all the pollution they encourage.

  • Jonathan Vaucher


  • Jonathan Vaucher

    Not having to pay for all this is not a problem. it’s a benefice… unless you like beeing a good citizen and pay more and more and more and more taxes. People are tired of having to bend over. Ebike is a good alternative.

  • Miles Bader

    Er, I was just exaggerating for effect. U.S.-style ebikes are often capable of going way too fast, but I didn’t think they’re capable of going that fast… :]

  • Michael Santiago

    I understand that riding a regular bicycle or an e bike on the sidewalk should be illegal cause it can hurt someone. I received a fine of $199 for running a red light on my regular bicycle, which was surprising cause I didn’t know that there was a law against that. I was following an advent professional biker with the whole getup, like a bike helmet skintight suit and peddle shoes, while I was trying to catch up to her lol I lost the race. This girl was fast I mean really fast and she was taking red lights like an Ebike delivery guy does, again should be very illegal to anyone. But they decided to stop me and I have very many ???? on that. A moped is like the equivalent of an E bike but has to be registered as motorcycle cause it has a motor, again understandable. I seen a moped the other day and the smoke coming out of the tailpipe was the same as a school bus. My question to that. Do mopeds have to also take emissions test like a car while registered. ( have almost everyone screaming (GLOBAL WARMING) but yet we still haven’t come up with a solution and I say a hellooooo. I’m 50 years old and I have bad knees and very bad ankles but I can still work with pain relievers. I had to take the B12 in Brooklyn fro the first time which is voted the worst line as far as bus routes. On my first ride with B12 I found out why. The busses were so crowded that people had to fight there way off the bus and scream at the driver, I’m getting off please. A week after taking the B12 after I got off of work I couldn’t believe it I finally got a seat it was like heaven had rained down on me and as usual the B12 started to get crowded but not just with passengers but with the elderly. I stood my ground and said my knees and ankles are just as bad as yours so please take a younger mans seat. Then this woman taps me on the shoulder while I’m playing Angrybirds and she says can you give her your seat. Of course I said but the woman that she pointed to she said it’s ok I don’t need your seat. OMG my knees are saved. The B12 started to unload and my knees were finally rested so I stood up and gave this elderly woman my seat. My dignity was restored. At one stop I seen this Ebike and I started to enquire about sales on the internet. I figured hum I wonder if I was to purchase Ebike would it get me there faster so I spent $480 on one and it got me there in 20 minutes instead of 45, OMG the freedom of riding this modern miracle of technology but also respecting the laws of the road. I finally have my freedom, not only from burning fossil fuels but the freedom of not contributing the effects of what mopeds are doing. Ok the jist of my story is, what the hell is wrong with this city. If you really have to crack down on Ebikes take away from the riders who are breaking the law by riding on sidewalks and running red lights. Please don’t take away from the riders who do obey the laws. I have bad knees and bad ankles. Please revise your laws and think of the bigger picture, CLEAN ENERGY.

  • SGram Bxhomie

    If everyone started riding e-bikes there would be less cars on the road. Less money for insurance companies and less gas being sold. Less money coming in from tolls as well. The poor would get money faster and the rich would get money slower. The cost of owning a car in NYC is insane. High gas prices, insane tolls (17 dollars to cross the Verrazano bridge), tickets from hungry meter maids, and insurance. That’s a lot of money that will be lost due to these e-bikes. The city knows exactly what they are doing.

  • SGram Bxhomie


  • SGram Bxhomie

    Serious fact, and a lot of gas stations would be out of business. It would be a financial disaster for a lot of people.

  • Andrew

    The city spends far more to accommodate motorists than it collects from them.

  • fsurfer4

    No one seems to notice that the ugly hand of special interests. The insurance companies want these registered so that they would be required to get insurance. I suspect politics in a big way here.

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