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.”

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