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De Blasio Moves to Permit Pedal-Assist Electric Bikes on NYC Streets

5:45 PM EDT on April 3, 2018

E-bikes confiscated by the 19th Precinct

The de Blasio administration plans to change city law to explicitly permit pedal-assist electric bikes, City Hall announced today. Advocates welcomed the softening of the mayor's hard-line stance against e-bikes while calling for further steps to help delivery workers do their jobs with pedal-assist bikes without being subject to NYPD overreach.

De Blasio announced plans in October to crack down on restaurants and delivery workers who use e-bikes. At the time, he said that workers could still use pedal-assist e-bikes, which are not explicitly prohibited under city law.

But the city rules for "motorized scooters" are vague, and enforcement is left to the discretion of NYPD officers. Through the rule-making process announced today, DOT plans to modify the law to explicitly allow pedal-assisted e-bikes. DOT will soon set in motion a 30-day public comment period followed by a public hearing.

Once finalized, the new rule will permit the operation of pedal-assist electric bicycles with maximum speeds of 20 mph. Other types of e-bikes, with propulsion that doesn't require pedaling, remain prohibited under state rules.

"We're clarifying what we think is New York State law," DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told reporters at a briefing this afternoon. "E-bikes, true electric bikes, which can generally go over 20 miles an hour, are not legal on the streets of New York, but pedal-assist bikes, which typically go at speeds lower than that, [are]."

The city has yet to produce data showing that e-bike riders pose a significant public safety risk. Despite being framed as a component of Vision Zero, the effort has been premised on complaints and anecdotes, not injury statistics. (No e-bike riders have fatally struck other people going back at least several years.)

Asked today for details, including crash data, on the safety threat posed by e-bike users, Trottenberg deferred to NYPD. "I'll freely admit, it's anecdotal," she said. "I don't have great statistics for you."

Despite the mayor's repeated assertions that businesses, not workers, would bear the brunt of e-bike enforcement, delivery workers do pay directly. Last month, NYPD officials readily admitted that workers themselves bore the costs of having their bikes confiscated.

For over a year, NYPD precincts have been ticketing e-bike riders and seizing their bikes. Since the official "crackdown" began in January, the department has issued 238 summonses for e-bike operation and confiscated 48 bikes, according to NYPD.

Pedal-assist bikes have not been targeted during the crackdown, Trottenberg said. In a statement, Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials said the new rule for pedal-assist bikes would benefit delivery workers by providing them "an alternative that is legal, sustainable (zero-emission) and safe."

Whether NYPD will change its punitive approach to delivery workers riding e-bikes remains to be seen. There were no police representatives at today's announcement. In the press release, NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said only that "NYPD supports the clarification of the legal status of electric bicycles being operated on New York City streets,” and "NYPD will continue to work closely with the Department of Transportation to ensure the safety of the city’s bicyclists.”

Ultimately, the legalization of pedal-assist bicycles is a first step toward creating a system that's not set up to penalize delivery workers. As Biking Public Project organizer Do Lee pointed out on Twitter, police can still abuse their discretion, and workers with limited English proficiency remain vulnerable to harassment and excessive enforcement.

In December, more than 200 delivery workers took to the steps of City Hall calling for the mayor to abandon the e-bike crackdown. Since then, a coalition including the Biking Public Project, Transportation Alternatives, the Asian American Federation, Legal Aid Society, and Make the Road New York has pushed the city to scale back the fines and help equip workers with pedal-assist bikes.

"Until City Hall establishes a way for workers to convert their bikes to comply with the new law, buy back or legalize their bikes, workers will continue to be criminalized," the coalition said in a joint statement.

Trottenberg said the city will be reaching out to delivery workers in the weeks ahead.

"We are going to be working very closely, as we already do, with delivery groups around the city, immigrant groups, to help educate and work with them to encourage them to avail themselves now," Trottenberg said.

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