De Blasio and NYPD Should Talk to Delivery Workers About E-Bikes

The mayor is rushing ahead with a punitive approach to e-bike use instead of shaping policy based on how the food delivery business actually works.

Mayor de Blasio speaking yesterday on the Upper West Side. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor de Blasio speaking yesterday on the Upper West Side. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office

So far this year, NYPD has confiscated 923 e-bikes and issued nearly 1,800 summonses to people who’ve committed the crime of riding an e-bike, according to City Hall. Mayor de Blasio wants you to know that’s just the beginning.

Starting in January police will also ticket businesses that employ workers who ride e-bikes with an initial $100 fine and $200 for each subsequent offense, in accordance with 2012 city council legislation that NYPD had previously said was “impractical” to enforce.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday on the Upper West Side, the epicenter of NYPD e-bike enforcement, de Blasio said the crackdown is part and parcel of his administration’s goal to eliminate traffic fatalities. “Vision Zero is about making us safe regardless of what the threat is — making us safer when it comes to our streets,” de Blasio said.

But he admitted that e-bike riders had not actually caused any fatalities — the enforcement is based on complaints. Neither de Blasio nor NYPD Chief of Patrol Terry Monahan could cite injury or fatality data to justify the crackdown. The mayor said the city would provide available collision data following the press conference, but NYPD officials later told Newsday that they “do not track to [that] level of specificity.”

“I’ve had a lot of people at town hall meetings say to me that they are concerned that they want to make sure we address reckless behavior by these electronic bicycles,” de Blasio said. “We got more and more complaints from people around the city so it’s obvious that something that used to not be as big a problem had gotten really substantial.”

Chief among the complainers is Matthew Shefler, an investment manager from the Upper West Side whose one-man quest to get e-bikes off city streets was profiled by WNYC over the summer. In August, Shefler called in to the station’s “Ask the Mayor” segment to directly confront de Blasio on the issue.

Yesterday, a little over two months later, the mayor delivered on Shefler’s request, with no apparent input from delivery workers or the businesses that employ them. “It’s a very good thing when one citizen thinking of his own community and thinking of thousands of other people, steps up, brings up an issue, brings up a way of solving an issue, and puts the kind of time and energy in that Matthew did,” de Blasio said.

The focus on businesses reflects the mayor’s belief that “employers purchase the bikes.” That’s not how the food delivery business actually works, however. Most delivery workers own their bikes, according to Do Lee, a researcher at CUNY Graduate Center and an organizer with the Biking Public Project, which collects delivery workers’ stories.

Most delivery workers are independent contractors, Lee told Streetsblog. And NYPD has said independent contractors will have to pay the fines themselves.

Even looking at the issue through the prism of nuisance complaints to 311, the mayor’s reflex to respond with fines probably won’t do much to change the status quo, because City Hall and NYPD have done little to understand the punishing economics of the food delivery business, which all but ensure that workers will seek to augment human-powered bicycles.

For a delivery worker, income is a function of how many deliveries you can make in a day, and delivery zones are expanding as apps like Seamless and GrubHub introduce new incentives for restaurants to cover more turf. Especially for older delivery workers, e-bikes are the only feasible conveyance for daily shifts that routinely clock in at 12 to 16 hours long. On top of it all, many immigrant workers are paying off tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the networks that smuggled them into the country.

“The city has never really talked with delivery workers about their own conditions, and how to design a system around delivery work — about streets, about the commercial cycling ordinances, about e-bike laws,” Lee said. “We’re totally ignoring the people who have the most intimate knowledge of city streets.”

The fine for operating an e-bike on city streets can be as high as $500. That, along with the seizure of property worth several hundred dollars, can upend the life of delivery workers getting by on tips and little else. Even the fines on businesses can trickle down to workers’ pocketbooks.

“If they don’t get their bikes back, if they can’t afford to get a new bike, they’ve lost their livelihood,” Lee said. For undocumented immigrants, the inability to pay that fine could lead to deportation. “It’s troubling because we’ve seen that ICE has picked up undocumented folks at all sorts of court levels, even at traffic court,” Lee said.

De Quan Lu runs the Chinese Mutual Group, a collective of a few hundred Fujianese delivery workers based in Chinatown. He said the crackdown poses a direct threat to the lives of the workers he represents.

“I’m very disappointed that the mayor is only listening to powerful people, and has never come to Chinatown to listen to what the workers have to say,” Lu said through a translator. He said that workers would have to go on strike in response to any crackdown.

“I fear that a lot of delivery workers, a lot of Chinese, are going to leave Chinatown because they can’t make a living here [otherwise],” Lu said. “We’re willing to be regulated if they can have speed limits, if they can have some rules and licenses for the e-bike riders, but this [crackdown] is definitely wrong.”

A non-punitive approach to the issue might involve encouraging the use of pedal-assist bikes for delivery work, which amplify human power but require the rider to expend some energy. De Blasio said older delivery workers should use those bikes, which are not banned under NYC law, unlike e-bikes that can be powered by just a motor. But instead of talking to delivery workers and trying to reach a solution that fits the demands of the job, the mayor and NYPD have jumped straight to penalizing them.

“I want to stop the status quo right dead in its tracks, then we can talk about what that idea will be,” de Blasio said. “I personally don’t have a strong vision of what that idea is. I know what I don’t like and I want to address that.”

“If because of the area they’re delivering to they need to use a car, use a car,” he continued. “If someone couldn’t make those deliveries anymore, my hope would be that they can find some other type of work with that restaurant or that business, but I have to put public safety first, that’s the bottom line.”

Advocates slammed the mayor for confusing 311 complaints with substantive public safety risks. “Clearly, this e-bike crackdown is about listening to the loudest complainers, not listening to the data. In the Vision Zero era, there is no place for complaint-driven enforcement,” said Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Caroline Samponaro. “Rather than attacking the livelihoods of hard-working, predominantly immigrant delivery cyclists, the Mayor should follow the lead of California and work with the New York State Legislature to pass common sense e-bike legislation that establishes a framework for safe, pedal-powered, low-speed models.”

  • Obviously. And if a radical street redesign which reapportioned space more sensibly and more justly were proposed, then I would be entirely in favour of it.

    But I took for granted the assumption that we’re operating here within the bounds of current political reality, according to which the only way we’re getting a two-way bike lane is by splitting the one that is there.

  • dr2chase

    I’d like to push hard on that current political reality, because I think it is badly broken. NYC would work much better with many fewer cars, never mind climate change, etc.

  • Vooch

    better question

    how many people have been killed by car drivers ?

  • Joe R.

    Obviously I meant have two-way bike lanes which are wide enough for safe operation. That fixes the “wrong way” problem.

    As I’ve said many times, NYC might have more luck getting cyclists to obey traffic laws if riding legally didn’t require stopping and waiting for 45 seconds every two or three blocks. There’s a reason traffic signals are used much more sparingly overseas, even for motorists, and very rarely used on bike lanes. They realized there are a limited number of times you can ask cyclists to stop before they just start disobeying red lights. NYC has yet to catch on to this fact. Remove most of the traffic lights, pass an Idaho stop rule, and you’ll have much better compliance.

  • Like I said: until you have nearly had your kid hit by one it will change the way you see them. I am a big guy I can handle them, though I don’t feel comfortable if one whizzes by. In Jackson Heights I have seen two times an ebiker has knocked down an older person and child pretty seriously. But again I also stated clearly that I don’t want to see anything draconian here – just make sure the laws are enforced – bikes, mopeds, ebikes, motorcycles, whatever they shouldn’t be riding on sidewalks, especially in heavily busy business streets. Just write the tickets. We don’t need more laws.

  • Urbanely

    The e-bikes are a greater danger to themselves, honestly. I have seen two e-bikers riding recklessly (wrong way on a one-way street and blowing stop signs) get hit by cars. Both bikers picked up cycles and kept going. A car will survive the crash every time, but why take the chance?

    I don’t see why they can’t just stop at stop signs and red lights and not ride the wrong way in the street. It’s not complicated and they might save their own lives. It would also avoid all this nonsense regarding a crackdown.

  • Vooch

    agreed

  • Joe R.

    Or at least slow down enough to stop if necessary, look, and give right-of-way to anyone who legally has it. And also not ride at high speeds on sidewalks. I get it that sidewalk riding makes their jobs easier but only do so at nothing above jogging speeds. Also avoid riding on busy sidewalks altogether. If they did all these things, the complaints about them would slow to a trickle.

  • Joe R.

    I mostly agree but I’d take a more nuanced approach. If they’re riding slowly on non-busy sidewalks let them be. Same thing when they’re slowing/looking before passing red lights. I have mixed feelings about wrong-way riding. Yes, it’s dangerous to everyone, particularly other cyclists. I personally loathe anyone who does it. That makes me inclined to think we should ticket for it all the time. However, I might let it go in places where there’s enough room, and also if the wrong way rider is going slowly and deferring to traffic going the right way.

    Letter of the law enforcement is just going to hurt these people’s livelihood without making anything safer. Stick to ticketing truly dangerous stuff. That might get the message across.

  • AnoNYC

    You would think that the NYPD by this point would dedicate a few officers in each precinct to hang out around the popular bike lanes.

  • dr2chase

    As I read this, since de Blasio can’t come up with good reasons for this crackdown, you’re going to come up with good reasons for this crackdown. Why are you doing this? We don’t have statistics showing that we need to do anything much about e-bikes at all, certainly not compared to trucks straying off truck routes (unlike e-bikes, actually killed people this year) or cars driving onto sidewalks (unlike e-bikes, actually killed people this year). If we thought this was a problem, we could take the time to collect those statistics and see if there’s a real problem — since they haven’t killed anybody yet, we can take the time to do this with not too much risk.

    Your anecdotes are a little alarming (that you’ve seen two is a little worrisome) but on the other hand, they “picked up cycles and kept going”. If we’re going to make inferences from your anecdotes, the two things we can say are (1) e-bikers seem to get into crashes with cars and (2) those crashes do not result in serious injuries (that’s literally what you observed, right? No fair only picking the bits that support the argument you want to make while ignoring the others, right?)

    The other problem with getting rid of e-bikes is that it will make people MORE likely to violate certain traffic laws, not less likely. People on bikes don’t like to stop because it’s a pain to go all the way to zero and then pedal back up to speed. That’s easier with an e-bike, harder without. With e-assist, delivery people will run more red lights. In NYC, people ride wrong-way partly because there are so many one-way streets; going right-way might require you to go 2 blocks out of your way to pick up a right-way street. Those extra two blocks are harder without e-assist, so without e-assist, more delivery people will ride wrong-way to conserve their own personal energy.

    The other reason you might want to watch out for nanny-state reasoning is that if you look at the big picture (“all deaths matter”) the most important thing we can do is to get people out of their cars for short trips. We have very good statistics on the benefits of exercise, and we have pretty good statistics on the benefits of biking to work (4 studies in Finland, China, Denmark, and either England or Great Britain). People who bike to work have notably annual mortality risk, crashes and all — or to put it differently, people who drive to work have notably higher annual mortality risk. If we’re going to be all nanny-state about preventing people from making deadly choices, getting people out of cars is very high on the list of things we need to do. That is, unless this is not actually about preventing people from making poor choices.

  • wklis

    Aren’t mobility scooters or power-assisted wheelchairs similar to e-bikes, except with 4 or even 3 wheels instead of 2? Some can go just as fast, if not faster. Maybe NYC should get grandma’s and grandpa’s to do deliveries with their electric wheelchairs.

  • Urbanely

    I actually don’t see the point of having a “crackdown”. Not everything needs to be a law enforcement situation. Most of these so called crackdowns are just feel-good ops for politicians. That said, people should just follow the law. I’m all for better transit, more walking and biking instead of car trips, etc. I just don’t think that should preclude people (pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers or whomever) from following the laws of the road. I certainly am not advocating for elimination of the ebikes.

    The two examples I cited were about people who didn’t sustain injuries. That is likely due to the fact that both of those instances involved cars that stopped at stop signs. Had it been a situation where a driver had a green light and an e-biker blew a red, they might not have been so lucky.

  • qrt145

    I must have been only to the “wrong” parts of the city because I’ve never seen a delivery worker ride fast on a sidewalk. I seen them ride on sidewalks sometimes, but my impression is that it is only for the last half-block and not fast because it is neither necessary nor practical.

    Either that, or the problem is the subjective definition of “fast”.

  • Toddster

    “Lots of ebikes but only for residents. I honestly never saw a delivery person on an ebike.”

    Delivery people are also residents.

  • Rex Rocket

    Car drivers, trucks, tourist buses, MTA buses, motorcycles, ambulances, fire engines, etc. One person killed by a bike a few years ago, but it looks like only street sweepers and food carts have spotless records.

  • Vooch

    so one person 4 years ago versus 2,000 NYrs killed by drivers over same period.

    appears that drivers are 2,000 times more of a danger than cyclists

  • Joe R.

    I really haven’t, either. I’m just going on the assumption the complainers aren’t lying. In truth, a lot of these people say a bike is going fast if it’s at anything over jogging speed. When I say riding fast on sidewalks, I generally mean 20 mph or so. I personally haven’t seen a delivery bike do that. I’ve seen older kids riding that fast on sidewalks occasionally.

  • Rex Rocket

    “I don’t see why they can’t just stop at stop signs and red lights and
    not ride the wrong way in the street. It’s not complicated and they
    might save their own lives. It would also avoid all this nonsense
    regarding a crackdown.”

    Great advice for motorists! Ask them to stay sober, too, and not to speed, and make sure they are licensed with insurance.

  • Sid

    As is with most new things, the masses (and politicians) dont quite understand how e-bikes are being used and misused. Why would anyone want an alternative mode of transportation that can cut down on emissions, traffic and even promote wellness and exercise to those who cant pedal up hills be a bad thing or something that needs to be “banned”. All that is being mentioned is the negative. I could walk out my door and get hit by the paper delivery man. Nothing can protect us all, all of the time. Only education and training and proper infrastructure can help the situation. Decide to be proactive and fix the issue rather than putting tape over over the hole in the damn.

  • sandykoz

    Looks like a great potential for a class action suit against the city. Though it may be hard to find a Republican lawyer in NYC. Real question is an e-bike a bicycle or a motorcycle?
    Or, it could be a new class of transportation that will require a separate set of laws. In either case the legislative body concerned, be it the state or city, needs to set the definitions. In the meantime the confiscations without supporting laws should be punished by the courts.

  • juaniflaco

    The real problem is not the bikes but the business model. The restaurant should pay them as employees, not as independent contractors, and own/be responsible for the bikes and anything that comes out of that. And if take out costs more as a result, so be it.

  • Isaac B

    “E-bikes” is a dog-whistle for “all bikes”. DeBlasio is beholden to the car and real estate interests. He was never the friend to people who walk or bike that he pretended to be. He benefits from knowing that this constituency has no better choice.

  • Isaac B

    The thing about bikes vs. ebikes is that while a typical cyclist can cruise at 10-15 MPH, an ebiker can effortlessly go 20, faster if the bike’s been modified. So people on foot experience ebikers going consistently faster.

    Still, I don’t believe that when people campaign against ebikes, that they don’t also mean “all bikes”.

  • TO BLACKS

    YOU ARE A DUMBFUCKING MORON

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