Pedal-Assist E-Bike Legalization Leaves Delivery Workers Out in the Cold

The mayor and NYPD's crackdown on throttle-powered e-bikes has ravaged the city's immigrant delivery workforce.

Delivery workers testifying in May at a DOT hearing on pedal-assist bikes. Photo: David Meyer
Delivery workers testifying in May at a DOT hearing on pedal-assist bikes. Photo: David Meyer

Mayor de Blasio’s legalization of pedal-assist electric bikes goes into effect on Saturday. But for the city’s delivery workers, the policy change is not only meaningless, but cruel and unusual.

Most delivery workers use throttle-powered elected bikes — and have been the subject of an NYPD crackdown that began in earnest in January. But the mayor — in part to promote his dockless bike share pilot program and, in part, as a concession to critics of the crackdown — legalized only pedal-assisted e-bikes.

And that doesn’t help delivery workers, who can’t afford those pricier models.

“It’s great that some of the laws have been amended, but it doesn’t help the communities that we work with. The only people it helps is the corporations,” Asian American Federation Executive Director Jo-Ann Yoo said.

As the legislation was being hashed out, advocates lobbied DOT to allow workers to do their own conversions from throttle control to pedal-assist. They also called on the city to provide resources and education to workers who need their bikes converted.

The rule that goes into effect tomorrow makes only marginal concessions to advocates: The initial rule-change proposal required that bikes be “equipped at manufacturer” with pedal-assist capabilities [PDF]. The adopted rule now also allows for a manufacturer-labeled motors instead the bike itself [PDF].

DOT’s final rule, timed to coincide with the rollout of dockless bike-share, still prohibits true DIY conversions.

“That really does nothing,” said Make the Road NY’s Mel Gonzalez. “The problem is that if you convert your bike, you’re not going to get a label that comes from the manufacturer.

“What we had proposed to them was to make a label that didn’t come from the manufacture, that it could come from DOT or it could model state-level legislation, which doesn’t require that the label have to come from anywhere,” Gonzalez added.

The agency has promised to “work with manufacturers to facilitate appropriate aftermarket compliance” and amend the rules accordingly.

Meanwhile, the city is providing no resources to help immigrant delivery workers with the new regulations.

“There’s no outreach plan in place to let food delivery workers… to let them know that their bikes still are not legal,” said Biking Public Project organizer Helen Ho. “There’s no plan to convey this very basic information to the largest subset of people that are riding e-bikes currently, and there’s no plan to help get them legal vehicles.”

Speaking at an event in Staten Island yesterday to unveil bike-share company JUMP’s dockless e-bikes, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told AM New York the city has been meeting with advocates and is considering a program to aid throttle-to-pedal conversions.

But advocates say the city’s dragging its feet — and the livelihood of its immigrant workforce hangs in the balance.

“I appreciate that the city is listening and there were some modifications made,” said Yoo, of the Asian American Federation. “Unfortunately, the modifications don’t help the folks that we are advocating for.”

The mayor’s crackdown on e-bikes continues to wreak havoc on delivery workers. The $500 tickets for e-bike usage often result in the bikes being confiscated, a real hardship given that most workers provide their own bikes and work as independent contractors.

“My coworkers and I have been criminalized for using e-bikes,” delivery worker Clemente Martinez, 44, said at a hearing earlier this year. “On the other side, my boss is also demanding that I use e-bikes.”

  • Elizabeth F

    > And that doesn’t help delivery workers, who can’t afford those pricier models.

    Delivery workers can disabled or remove the throttle from their current bikes.

  • BrandonWC

    As the article makes clear, it’s still not legal because the bike/motor still lacks the required certification label from the manufacturer.

  • Casey O’Neill

    That isn’t allowed under the current law.

  • Danny G

    What would it take for every restaurant in this city to simply refuse to make deliveries to any city or state government building in this city until we pass realistic legislation? Our incompetent denial of the economic realities that delivery workers deal with day-in and day-out is pathetic.

    Thank you Streetsblog for staying on top of this story.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    Wow if only these guys were smart enough to buy pedal assist bikes or convert them. Why don’t they?

  • Elizabeth F

    The DOT just went through a rule-making process by unelected bureaucrats, now a law-making process by elected officials. Rules must implement the law, they cannot change or contradict the law. The actual law says nothing about stickers, therefore stickers are not required by law.

    So we’re in a situation where the rules do not comply with the law. If NYPD impounds a stickerless pedal assist e-bike, then the victim would have the right to have the case argued before a judge. Given the importance of this issue, someone among TA, NYBC, AAF, BPP would find a lawyer to take that case. And the case would have a good chance of winning.

    Someone in NYPD / DOT probably understands this. Moreover, Trottenberg has expressed interest multiple times in finding a way to convert e-bikes to pedal assist. Therefore, there is a high chance that even IF a stickerless converted pedal assist e-bike is impounded, that the case would never make it before a judge. More likely, Trottenberg might see it as a model of how to convert e-bikes.

    But so far, nobody has tested these ideas. As long as people keep riding class 2 e-bikes around the city and don’t even TRY to comply with the law, there is really no recourse. In the meantime, my recommendation is, disable your throttle, put duct tape over it, put a sticker on your bike, and hope for the best. It’s really not that hard.

  • Reader

    The problem is that the mayor is almost singularly focused on bicycle sharing as a solution to mobility problems. Someone told him that these private companies will do all the work for the city without taking parking, and that’s fine with him. Sure, it helps to get more bikes into more places, but he has no larger vision for a network of very safe, all-ages infrastructure that would get people out on all kinds of bikes without having to force New Yorkers to sign up for memberships with private companies. It’s not progressivism. It’s neoliberalism.

  • Elizabeth F

    Why don’t they convert? My best guess is they get their understanding of the law from word of mouth, they’ve received conflicting messages, and so they do nothing.

    Why don’t they buy pedal assist to begin with? Because the local bike shop that sells e-bikes catering to the delivery market only sells class 2. They spec their bikes in China and have them built there; then import them to NYC to be sold and serviced. They could easily spec the same thing without a throttle . But they don’t.
    Even though selling class 2 in NYC is illegal, NYC has been completely ineffective at actually enforcing this requirement. That law only allows a $1000 fine per e-bike found for sale when inspectors come through once or twice a year. This shop frequently keeps only 0-1 e-bike on hand, limiting the fines to a minor cost of doing business. And they don’t seem to care about the legal liability they foist upon their customers.

    I’ve concluded that if NYC doesn’t want class 2 e-bikes on the street, they need to get serious with the bike shops. Unfortunately, nobody is talking about that. All we talk about is harassing the delivery workers.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    These guys know the law.

  • Elizabeth F

    Can you elaborate on that? Specifically, what interpretation or understanding of the law that they know?

    I’ve spent a LOT of time reading and understanding NYC law surrounding e-bikes. The law that has been used to confiscate e-bikes dates to 2004, was supported by TA at the time, and bans “motorized scooters.” The law defines “motorized scooter”, making it clear that something has to be able to self-power to qualify as one. It has been widely interpreted, and affirmed by courts, that e-bikes with throttles qualify as a “motorized scooter.” It’s also become clear the past few years that e-bikes without throttles do NOT run afoul of the “motorized scooter” ban. That has also been affirmed in court.

    The 2004 law does NOT define “e-bike”, nor does it have any requirements about labels. The DOT rule we see today simply clarifies what was already the law.

  • ortcutt

    Can someone explain to me why New Yorkers get so much food delivered? I’ve lived in this city for two years now and I’ve never had food delivery. Why can’t people get off their asses and walk to the restaurant and either pick it up or, better yet, sit down and eat? I really think that Italians have it right in criticizing our American delivery/takeout culture. Most days of the week, you should eat homemade food. Eating non-homemade food should be the exception and require going out in public.

  • slappy76

    Wow.. two years *slow golf clap*. How about the elderly, sick, amputees, moms with young children, office workers.. and this just off the top of my head.

  • ortcutt

    I have a young child. If still rather go out than get delivery. If someone has mobility issues or a third-party (e.g., work) is telling you to get delivery, I don’t see the issue, but that’s only a fraction of the deliveries. The rest are by choice. We should really question what kind of society we’ve become where people get delivery multiple times in a week.

  • slappy76

    I think you’re small town thinking underestimates the density of our city. I rarely order take out as well. I’d say 4-6 times a year. I think if the AVERAGE city dweller orders just once a month, that’d be more delivery traffic than you’re currently seeing now. Sure I think there are people from each building that order at least once a week or more. But your statement of “New Yorkers, by choice, act like they are shut-ins” is purely anedotal and unscientific.

  • slappy76

    Really? The federal law that allows 20mph ebikes with throttle only or federal law allowing the 28 mph limit for speed pedelecs, or the local city laws that are muddy and vague, at best. Asking for a friend.

  • As a native New Yorker, I share your bafflement about why so many people order food delivery. (And I am sure that you were not referring to people with disabilities or mobility issues; it is clear that you were talking about people who order delivery purely by choice.)

    I can’t remember the last time I called to have food delivered. Was it 20 years ago? 30 years ago? I have no idea.

    There’s no good reason not to pick up your meal on the walk home from the subway, stopping at a supermarket, a bodega, or a restaurant, all of which abound throughout our City.

    Calling for delivery seems like something that one would do out in some cultural wasteland where restaurants are miles apart, rather than all over the place.

  • William Lawson

    Amputees are condemned to eating takeout food? I was completely unaware of this consequence of losing a limb.

  • William Lawson

    It’s baffling. To me, takeout/delivery food is something you eat once in a blue moon. How can you trust it? We all know what goes on in these kitchens. And can you trust the ingredients? Is it all fresh? How much is organic? How much was not fit for a dog but they cooked it up anyway? How many mice pissed against the open hole of the bag this rice came from?

    Yet a frightening number of young people in this city almost *never* cook for themselves. Back when I was dating I would frequently look into a girl’s fridge only to find nothing but a 6-pack of Evian, a half eaten box of Chinese food and a few vials of some expensive looking skin serum. And they never use their stove, ever. I’ve seen stoves covered with wooden boards so they could store more junk on the top. I once dated a girl in Murray Hill who lived with two other girls. Their stove had a wooden board over the top, and a mirror leaning against the back. The board was covered in makeup and makeup accessories. I floated the idea of cooking a meal on Halloween and she said she didn’t even know if the stove worked. We never did find out.

  • disqust101

    Simple solution. Buy an.ebike w/o a throttle.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    they know that the police are cracking down on them. How much more do they need? it’s been in all the chinese newspapers and word of mouth.

  • And they never use their stove, ever. I’ve seen stoves covered with wooden boards so they could store more junk on the top.

    I never used my stove. On top of that, it was a source of stress because the pilot light kept going out. So I had it removed. I have put the space to much better use.

  • Joe R.

    Only time I get delivery is when a friend of mine visits and we order from a Chinese place which is about 1.5 miles away. He refuses to drive there to pick it up. I might start taking my bike to pick up the food because delivery seems silly to me.

    I’ve walked 3/4 of a mile in all kinds of weather to pick up my own food. I don’t get it that so many people have food delivered virtually every day.

    I do however cook regularly, but I prefer either a toaster oven or a microwave over a stove. The stove is only used for things which can’t be cooked any other way. I never use the oven part. For me I guess a cook top would suffice.

  • Joe R.

    After reading your second paragraph I don’t feel so bad about not cooking every meal. As I mentioned below, I do in fact cook but not every meal. I’ll order Chinese maybe once every other week (and I pick it up myself). In between maybe I’ll cook most of the meals, but I also occasionally opt for frozen food when I don’t feel like preparing stuff. The last six months my brother has done a lot of the cooking, mostly because he wants my mother to eat better. I still cook maybe once or twice a week. Unbelievable that it seems so many people in this city get take out for practically every meal. Besides costing a small fortune, you never know what you’re eating.

  • Joe R.

    I think the amount of deliveries varies by neighborhood. In Manhattan, particularly the wealthier parts, doubtless many people get food delivered, perhaps daily. In much of the city they couldn’t afford to do that. On my block I rarely see food being delivered. I order out maybe every other week, but I pick it up myself.

  • Simon Phearson

    I’ll cop to ordering delivery with some regularity.

    Why do I do it? Time, mostly. I don’t always get home early enough to get to the grocery stores in my neighborhood before they close. Sometimes I need the 45 minutes it takes me to go to the grocery store and the half hour or more it takes to prepare a meal to do other things, like clean or work. There are spots nearby that I’ll walk to and either carry out or eat in, but delivery allows me to have more variety than Thai/Indian/sandwiches; but, again, it takes time to go to those places.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love the romantic idea of strolling to a neighborhood joint and having a pleasant meal among your neighbors. But that’s an entire evening. I really don’t have the time for that kind of thing, usually.

  • ortcutt

    You can’t make a sandwich or eat leftovers? I don’t understand how people become adults without learning to cook food a pot or dish of food that will last more than a few days. If you’re cooking a meal every night, you’re wasting a lot of time.

  • Simon Phearson

    Hey, fuck you too. I didn’t volunteer a perspective here just for you to criticize my upbringing or question how I organize my life.

    For-your-fucking-information, as a matter of fact, no, I was not raised with any meaningful cooking skills, such that my abilities are limited to a lot of things that are easy to make but bad for me. Having lived with an extremely dysfunctional relationship with food for most of my life, I have finally found a way to balance healthy eating with a schedule and time commitments that preclude me from putting in the time or effort to develop good cooking skills. And yes, that means every-so-often taking a break from my usual dinner salad routine and having a reasonable meal delivered.

    Jesus Christ – you think I can’t make a sandwich? Of course I can. Leftovers? Do you think I’m a moron? Do you think none of this has occurred to me? Do I have to justify my life choices by divulging more about my decade-long struggle to maintain a healthy weight or my particular obsessive tendencies? Do I need to explain to you how long a loaf of bread lasts mold-free when you’re the only one making sandwiches from it? Or how a pile of produce can go to waste awful quick if you miss your window to make a pot of stew?

    You want to know why New Yorkers have food delivered? I’ve offered a reason: It’s about time. If you don’t understand how even sandwiches and leftovers require meaningful time commitments to shop for ingredients and make food in the first place, then plainly I’m not talking to someone who has any idea at all what it’s like to live in a certain class in this city. Or you hypocritically rely on grocery delivery and food kit services.

  • Joe R.

    Simon has a lot of valid points. The only reason I can cook is because I’m home all the time, work part-time at home, and taking care of my mother is still fewer hours than working a full-time job would be. Back when I worked full-time outside the house just the job and travel alone consumed about 50 to 70 hours per week, depending upon whether or not I had to work overtime. I was spent when I came home and definitely didn’t have the energy to cook. I sometimes got home after the stores were closed, so I couldn’t shop, either. Forget shopping on weekends. The stores are packed, to the point what would otherwise take 30 minutes ends up taking two or three hours between the congestion in the store, and the interminable lines at the register. Besides that, I didn’t want to kill what was sometimes my only day off cooking and shopping. As it was the day or two a week I had off was barely enough to recharge my batteries to get through the coming week. Fortunately, I lived with my parents and my mother (who didn’t work) did all the shopping/cooking. Had that not been the case, it would have been Ramen soup for me most nights. Cheap and easy to make even if it’s not all that healthy. I couldn’t afford take out every night on what I was making.

    So while I agree with you that in general NYers order out way too much, I’m not seeing a whole lot of options for cooking if you live alone and work full-time. If you’re fortunate enough to live with a few people, then maybe you can take turns cooking and shopping. Or if one party doesn’t work full-time, they can take care of that.

    And yes, not everyone is raised to develop meaningful cooking skills. I can personally cook a handful of dishes, but I’ve never been able to give myself a balanced diet like my mother used to when she could cook. Some people have it, others just don’t. To say everyone can cook a balanced diet is like saying everyone can be a doctor, ride in the Tour de France, or conduct a symphony. People typically have a few things they do very well (cycling, electronic design, everything to do with computers in my case), a few more things they do OK (for me gardening, home maintenance, cooking), and a lot of things they do poorly or not at all. For quite a few people, cooking falls into the latter category because they either lack the innate ability, or just don’t have the time/desire to develop cooking skills. If you have to opportunity to earn money with your skills at will, then cooking makes even less sense. For example, I can earn $100+ per hour doing electronic design. Unfortunately, I don’t have more work than I can handle at this point. Point of fact, I have less. However, if a bunch of people were offering me design work it makes more sense for me to not cook as the cooking/shopping would essentially be costing me over $100 per hour.

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  • Jeffrey Kakatolis

    I was looking for an e bike but prefer to have a throttle going to work so I’m not sweating on arrival. I work at lga airport the construction combined with public transportation getting unreliable makes e bikes a more attractive option. In Europe throttles are limited to being something like 15 to 20 mph maximum why not do the same here?