Cuomo Plan Lets Localities Legalize E-Scooters and E-Bikes

The legislation would open the path for the city council to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters.

Photo: Lime Bike
Photo: Lime Bike

Gov. Cuomo has a message for New York municipalities debating whether to allow e-bikes and e-scooters on their streets: Figure it out yourselves.

The governor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget creates categories for both types of currently illegal vehicles — then punts to the localities to decide whether to legalize one, both or neither.

The categories are “locally authorized motorcycles” (what non-bureaucrats commonly call e-bikes) and “locally authorized scooters,” meaning e-scooters [PDF – Page 103]. Localities could then “authorize such operation by local law, ordinance, order, rule or regulation,” according the legislation.

The proposal appears to address a question looming over city policymakers ahead of a city council hearing on the topic next Wednesday: whether state action is necessary for the city council to pass a set of proposals permitting the vehicles on city streets.

A group of council members is all-in for e-bike and e-scooter legalization, but Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson have been more cautious.

For his part, Johnson has said the city lacks the authority to permit the vehicles on its own, because state law does not (yet) explicitly permit the operation of so-called “limited-used vehicles” without registration. E-bikes lack federal Vehicle Identification Numbers and therefore cannot be registered.

Cuomo’s budget speaks directly to that concern. “Locally authorized motorcycles” would be any two-wheeled saddled vehicle “other than one registered or capable of being registered … as a motorcycle or limited-use motorcycle,” the document says.

The legislation outlines a maximum size for e-scooters, which would only be allowed on streets with speed limits at or below 30 miles an hour.

E-bike speeds, meanwhile, would be legally capped at 20 miles per hour. Helmets, lights and reflective clothing would be required for any night-time use of either type of vehicles — and e-bikes would have to yield to motor cars, a prescription for disaster, given the current rules and the differing sizes of the vehicles. But the law also gives municipalities the power to “further regulate the maximum speed, time, space and manner of … operation,” so it is unclear if Cuomo’s language will carry the day.

“It’s a big budget with details on lots of topics to review, including this important one,” Johnson said in a statement to Streetsblog. “As I’ve said before, I have concerns about e-scooters and e-bikes but am open to them in some form if we can work out the legal issues and address real safety concerns.”

  • Jeff

    Reflective clothing? Really?

  • George Joseph Lane

    Reflective clothing, mandatory helmets, maximum speed limits, give way to all motor vehicles. The Governor isn’t legalizing e-bikes, he is trying to look like he is legalizing them.

  • qrt145

    I expected some stupidity in the state’s proposal but this time it really exceeded my expectations!

  • Elizabeth F

    This will make it logistically difficult to use an e-bike at night for transportation. Why are functioning lights not enough? Where’s the evidence-based study showing that reflective clothing improves the situation? Why is reflective clothing needed for e-bikes but not manual bikes, which go almost as fast? Why don’t we also require reflective paint on automobiles?

  • Elizabeth F

    For years, NYBC and other groups have been working to legalize e-bikes state-wide, as is done in other states. For the past year, NYBC has been focusing on class 1 (pedal assist) only at the state level — on a clean bill that would simply define pedal assist e-bikes as a “bicycle” for use on roads, without any extra requirements or encumbrances to the law. With Democrats now in power, the goal of a simple, clean bill legalizing class 1 e-bikes seems more attainable than ever.

    But now we’ve got this bruhah over e-scooters, and then Cuomo stepped into the mix, showing how little he understands about this issue. These developments threaten to derail years of good work on class 1 e-bikes. It throws class 1 and class 2 e-bikes into a single state-defined category, thereby pre-empting the possibility of a statewide bill legalizing class 1 e-bikes. Inevitably some local governments will ban e-bikes. The result will be that class 1 e-bikes become useless as a means of transportation. About all you’ll be able to do with them is to drive to your local park and ride in a circle. That’s a far cry from the vision of standardized statewide laws for class 1 eibkes, which for many can be used a green form of transportation instead of automobiles.

    > e-bikes would have to yield to motor cars,

    This is the most shameful and dangerous provision of this proposed law, by far.

    It would be quite different from the current law, in which bicycles and automobiles have to yield to each other depending on the situation. Imagine the traffic implications of this change: cars turning left have right of way over e-bikes going straight through an intersection. Right-hooking an e-bike becomes legal, because the e-bike “should have” yielded right of way. E-bikes traveling on the main road have to stop for cars on a side street trying to turn onto the main road. E-bikes are not allowed to “take the lane” when required for safety. In the case of a narrow roadway with 25mph speed limit, e-bikes are required to pull over and stop any time some jerk wanting to do 40mph pulls up behind them and starts tailgating. NYC’s “right of way” law would no longer apply e-bikes. And most importantly… e-bikes will be found to be “at fault” for any crash with motor vehicles, 99% of the time. E-bikers will never win civil or criminal cases against drivers, no matter how negligent (or even hostile) the driver was.

    Like pedestrians and riders of manual bikes, e-bike riders are “vulnerable road users.” They require the same physical and legal protection as all other vulnerable road users.

    > No person shall operate a locally authorized scooter in excess of twenty miles per hour

    That’s right… you’re going downhill, speed limit is 30mph, your motor cut out at 20, traffic behind you is impatient because they’re used to doing 40, you’re going 25, and… you get a ticket. Nice way to harass people on bikes!

  • Elizabeth F

    I live on top of a big and steep hill, with a narrow winding 30mph speed limit road going down. This bill would make it both illegal and dangerous to ride my e-bike to the bottom of the hill in a normal fashion on my way to work, and it would legalize harassment by drivers wanting to (dangerously) do 40.

  • Joe R.

    Also there’s the helmet requirement (and upon reading the rules it’s not just for night time riding as this article suggests). Because it’s increasingly hard to tell e-bikes and regular bikes apart, a helmet requirement will result in the NYPD pulling over any unhelmeted rider they suspect is on an e-bike. That would be mostly those who ride at speeds similar to e-bike speeds. They may or may not believe you when you tell them your bike isn’t an e-bike. End result is a ticket which requires you to go to court to fight.

    Ditto for the 20 mph speed limit for e-bikes. If I’m flying down a hill at anything much over 20 mph, I’ll risk an encounter with the police even though I’m not on a e-bike because they can’t tell one way or another seeing me whiz by at speed.

    Easier solution is to do what you said, define any pedal-assist bike as “a bicycle”, subject only to the laws bicycles are currently subject to. That even opens the door for the 28 mph pedal-assist e-bikes. You can have another law which limits the speed of e-bikes without pedal assist to 20 mph. That pretty much makes everything except custom jobs legal.

    This isn’t a bill to legalize e-bikes even if it’s being sold as one. It’s a bill to make e-bikes defacto illegal because using them will require jumping through so many hoops most people won’t consider it worthwhile.

  • Joe R.

    Lawmakers in this state and city have a penchant for pointless regulations. Frankly, I’m not surprised there weren’t more idiotic regulations, like maybe a requirement for an e-bike to be preceded and followed by a regular bike with warning lanterns.

    Let’s dump this bill, and pass one as follows:

    1) Any motorized bicycle which will not operate without pedal assist, and which has a motor of 750 watts or less, is considered a bicycle, and subject to the same rules and regulations thereof.

    2) Any motorized bicycle which may be operated with a throttle is subject to the provisions of #1, and in addition must have the motor assist cut out at speeds over 20 mph when operating without pedal assist.

    3) These rules apply to the entire state of New York, and may not be preempted by local ordinances.

  • redbike

    This proposal (different regulations in different jurisdictions) is absurd. What happens when you ride from one jurisdiction to another?

  • Elizabeth F

    There are many reasons e-bike helmet laws are not a good idea. I didn’t repeat the arguments because they’ve all been argued over the last 2 years, as helmets provisions were added to e-bike laws that ultimately didn’t pass.

    In this case, it could be even worse… NYC is looking at e-scooters primarily for e-scooter share. We already know that bike/scooter share and helmets don’t mix.

    > Easier solution is to do what you said, define any pedal-assist bike as “a bicycle”, subject only to the laws bicycles are currently subject to.

    That’s the position NYBC came to last year, after many unsuccessful efforts at legalizing Class 2 and 3 e-bikes. Push-back on class 2 always came from NYC, with all the delivery e-bike hate. Ironically, now NYC is more serious than ever about legalizing class 2. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us and end up with a law like the one Cuomo proposed above — that would “legalize” class 2, but strip any legal / safety protections from delivery workers, and anyone else who uses an e-bike or scooter for any reason.

  • Daphna

    Your suggestion is a huge improvement, but why even adhere to the 20 mph limit that Cuomo threw in? I doubt riders would go above 20 mph but if they are on a road with a 25mph or 30mph speed limit, and want to go that speed, they should be allowed.

    My take on Cuomo’s actions is that he knows that fully legalizing e-bikes, even those with a throttle, and e-scooters is the right thing to do everywhere statewide, but he is afraid to take decisive action because he is looking out for his political future. So instead he abdicates his leadership role and basically makes a suggestion of what should be done but then punts it to the localities for them to take any real action on the subject. Cuomo is a coward.

  • Joe R.

    The 20 mph is just when the motor cuts out when under throttle only. If the bike goes over that without assist, say going downhill, that would be perfectly legal. There is no cutoff speed at all for the motor under pedal assist, which means class 1 and class 3 e-bikes are treated equally under the law.

    That said, I personally see no good reason any type of e-bike should have motor assist limited to 20 mph. The 750 watt limit already gives an inherent speed cap of ~30 mph. That’s not dangerously fast.

  • Elizabeth F

    Clearly you don’t. E-bikes are a toy used to ride around your local village, not a real tool used to get places.

  • Daphna

    I like Elizabeth F’s suggestion that all e-bikes, whether with pedal assist or throttle and pedal assist, are just classified as “bicycle” and have no restrictions put on them except those put on normal bicycles.

    Riders on e-bikes should not have to wear different clothing than riders on a bicycle; riders on e-bikes should not have to yield at times when bicycle riders do not have to; riders on e-bikes should not be restricted to different travel speeds; just make it simple – treat e-bikes with pedal assist, e-bikes with throttle and pedal assist just like regular bicycles.

  • qrt145

    There will be a sign at the outskirts of town saying “all e-bikes must be checked in at the sheriff’s office”.

  • cjstephens

    OK, this sounds good. But then what distinguishes an e-bike from a scooter? Is it just that the motor is powered by electricity, not gasoline?

  • George Joseph Lane

    +1. The rest of the world legalized e-bikes up to a certain wattage, or with pedal assist up to a certain speed. Why NY is trying to reinvent the electrically assited wheel is beyond me.

  • veej7485

    you dont get your food delivered?

  • veej7485

    yes, so you dont die at night

  • Elizabeth F

    Uhh… I was being sarcastic.

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