Virtually No One Can Understand ‘Fairest City’ Mayor de Blasio’s Crackdown on E-Bikes

Delivery workers recently rallied with State Senator Jessica Ramos (far left) before a state hearing Ramos's bill to legalize e-bikes. Comptroller Stringer supports the bill. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Delivery workers recently rallied with State Senator Jessica Ramos (far left) before a state hearing Ramos's bill to legalize e-bikes. Comptroller Stringer supports the bill. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

“I simply don’t know why.”

That was State Senator Jessica Ramos’s comment when Streetsblog asked her why progressive Mayor de Blasio, who champions New York as “America’s Fairest Big City,” continues to order the NYPD to seize the e-bikes of delivery workers and hit them with fines that are the equivalent of a week’s pay.

The workers, Ramos pointed out, are among the lowest paid in the city and are performing a rush delivery service sought by the well-to-do.

“There is no data to support that these are dangerous vehicles,” Ramos said, just before a State Senate hearing in Flushing on her bill to legalize e-bikes. “We are further criminalizing poverty in a way that is unjust in a city that is supposedly a pro-immigrant city — and in many ways it is, but not in this way. And that needs to change.”

Ramos called de Blasio’s crackdown “a grave injustice,” adding that her legislation “would ensure that the $500 tickets issued by the NYPD would finally come to an end.”

Ramos was certainly not alone in using the occasion of the rare locally conducted state hearing to slam de Blasio’s policy.

Activist Mel Gonzalez shows off the tickets received by an e-bike rider. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Activist Mel Gonzalez shows off the tickets received by an e-bike rider. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Mel Gonzalez of Make The Road NY unfurled a sheath of four, $138 summonses that a delivery worker received on the way to the hearing. Two of the tickets were for the very violations that would be obviated by Ramos’s bill: riding an unregistered motorbike (because e-bikes cannot currently even be registered under DMV rules) and operating without a license (cyclists don’t need them, but motorcyclists do).

“State law creates a gray area,” Gonzalez said. “And every cop knows he can pull people over because these bikes can’t be registered. So it’s easy money. New York State benefits from this gray area, extracting millions of dollars from some of the most-vulnerable people in the state, yet everyone benefits from the work these people do. Even the mayor has gotten deliveries from workers on e bikes.”

To supporters of Ramos’s bill, that’s not just hypocritical, it’s disgraceful.

“The crackdown continues the horrible tradition of discrimination of immigrants,” said Do Lee of the Biking Public Project, which advocates for delivery workers.

There is obviously a political calculation going on for the mayor — who does indeed hear from constituents who sincerely, but wrongly, believe that cyclists present a serious threat on New York’s roadways, where drivers killed more than 200 people last year and cyclists killed none. So Streetsblog asked Council Member Rafael Espinal what he thinks is going on in the West Wing of City Hall.

“To this day, I’m just confused,” said Espinal, who has a local bill that would require the Department of Transportation to fund the conversion of the currently illegal bikes into legal, pedal-assist bikes. “The bikes are not any more dangerous than a conventional bike. the injured that the policy is having on workers is clear. To this day, I’m just baffled why the mayor doesn’t see that. … Delivery workers are being hurt.”

At the hearing itself, many delivery workers testified to their horrible working conditions in all weather, bemoaned the crackdowns that rob them of their livelihoods and spoke of injuries received from poor roads and random car doors. Ramos asked one worker — who came to the hearing with his own stack of tickets — if the NYPD officers are respectful when they stop cyclists.

“Police officers from the 13th Precinct and the 17th Precinct may be racially biased when they stopped us,” said the worker, Jin Hua Li. “And there were instances when the officers confiscated bikes that had been modified into legal bikes. The precinct ignored [us]. Police officers should protect us, but they charge us.”

The testimony appeared to deeply affect Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo).

“It really brings it home to hear that you get $500 tickets, which can truly devastate a family,” he said.

Council Member Rafael Espinal rallied supporters of the bill. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Member Rafael Espinal rallied supporters of the bill. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

But the bill is also receiving support from the business community, which has been inconsistent on cycling in general, with some merchants claiming that bike lanes, for example, hurt their bottom lines. John Choe of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce testified that cycling does just the opposite.

“We support the full legalization [because] these micro-mobility technologies … support local economic development, especially small business owners who would benefit from increased foot traffic,” he said. “If New York were to fully legalize these new transportation options, e-scooters and e-bikes could become an affordable, reliable, and viable option for the New Yorkers who need them the most: low-income residents, low-wage workers, and business owners struggling to make ends meet.”

Choe’s group is one of roughly a dozen business organizations that have come out in support of the bill. Officials from Lime, a scooter and bike-share company, have been pitching such comments to show the broad support for the bill. The business groups mostly focused on mobility issues, as scooters and e-bikes would help commuters in “transit desserts.”

“Lacking access to quick and reliable transportation limits the ability of those who live in these outlying communities to share in … economic resurgence,” said Hope Knight, president and CEO of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.

Officials from Lime and Bird, another scooter company, were also on hand to call for legalizing the devices they hope to deploy in the thousands on New York City streets. Even though the firms need legalization to boost their bottom lines, the topic of justice for workers was not far in the background.

“Legalizing micro-mobility options, such as e-bikes and e-scooters, will greatly improve the daily lives of New Yorkers — including delivery workers, and others who rely on these options to make a living,” Phil Jones, senior director for Strategic Development and Government Relations at Lime, said in prepared remarks distributed before he testified.

He said the bill, if passed, would allow Lime and other companies to “provide New Yorkers the freedom to get around their own city regardless of their background, bank account or ZIP code.”

De Blasio has consistently justified his crackdown because throttle-controlled electric bikes are currently illegal (indeed, just as the hearing started, the 70th Precinct tweeted images of its latest crackdown). But last week, he appeared to back the Ramos bill, saying, “My hope is that the legislature will act … to come up for a regulatory approach that makes sense or to defer to localities and let localities figure out that regulatory approach.”

That said, Connie Fishman, executive director of Hudson River Park Friends, testified that she does not want the waterfront park’s extremely well-used greenway included in the bill.

“The greenway … has never allowed motorized vehicles on it. It is not a street,” she said. “Adding electric bikes and e-scooters to this already complicated mix [of users] will make it even more dangerous for the 17 million annual park visitors. … The bikeway is very narrow.”

She did not call for widening the bike path. But she did condemn the installation of extra security bollards that have made the bike and pedestrian path ever more congested.

“This has made walking and biking side-by-side impossible,” she said. “The bollards are a major safety concern.”

Under questioning from Ramos, park officials admitted that there have been only two crashes this year involving e-bikes along the greenway — the busiest in the nation.

“The problems you cite are not related to e-bikes,” added State Senator John Liu, who was also on hand as a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. He disagreed that the greenway needed to be carved out of the bill, as e-bikes could later be regulated by the city if the Ramos bill passes.

  • crazytrainmatt

    I rode the Hudson greenway in the 40s and 50s during rush hour for the first time in ages. It is too narrow for the amount of bike traffic it now gets and feels more dangerous than it used to. Fixing the bollards and other confusing bits would help but it won’t be easy to widen.

    The PBLs on 1st and 2nd have the same problem, but could be widened much more easily.

    But much of what DOT has rolled out recently is too narrow for a mix of ebikes, scooters, etc. (e.g. the cattle chutes on 26th/29th in Manhattan or the so-called bike lane in Times Square). Unless there is simultaneous pressure for better infrastructure, the default solution will be to funnel everything into the existing bike lanes without improving the infrastructure to accommodate more traffic at a higher range of speeds.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s generational, Senator Ramos.
    For DeBlasio’s generation, or at least those older by a few to 25 years, “progressivism” came to mean protecting existing interests and prerogatives and preventing change. Think of endless environmental and land use reviews and litigation, and the right of existing “community” interests to extract concessions in exchange for allowing new people, businesses, buildings, lifestyles, anything to even exist.
    It all came out of the 1970s. The idea was change was bad, at least for those who already had their place. Blockbusting and urban decline when minorities moved in, gentrification when whites moved in (even young people with very little money). More traffic and less parking for your own car when something got built that wasn’t there before. Allowing anything other than one-family housing, or the conversion of one-family housing to multi-family housing, might mean “crime” moves in.
    That isn’t what “progressivism” meant 100 years ago.
    And it isn’t what “progressivism” means to anyone under age 50, and thus shut out of all the deals, entitlements, favors and privileges, unless the are part of particular niches in the political/union class or the executive/financial class. By generation (barely) and perhaps even inclination (based on what he says) DeBlasio might be inclined to be a rebel, but after a few decades in the political/union class with career advancement requiring kowtowing to already privileged interests, he just doesn’t see it.

  • Joe R.

    The Mayor’s continued insistence that e-bikes are dangerous, despite repeated attempts by advocates showing him data which say they’re not, is stunning to say the least. Every lie you tell is a debt to the truth, and eventually the debt must be paid (quote from the miniseries “Chernobyl” which is very relevant here). This and the repeated lies told by the NYPD remind me of business as usual in old USSR. If by some unlikely chain of events the Soviet Union reappears, the Mayor would be perfect as a political officer. The “truth” will be whatever those in charge want it to be, which is apparently something the Mayor is onboard with.

    Ramo’s bill should have two changes. One, localities shouldn’t be allowed to set their own rules regarding e-bikes. Two, all the tickets issued thus far under the pretense of these vehicles being illegal should be refunded in full with interest. A $500 ticket is enough of a hit to a person making decent money. These guys make something like $2 an hour plus tips. I don’t doubt a $500 ticket could set them back two weeks or more.

  • DoctorMemory

    Fixing the bollards and other confusing bits would help but it won’t be easy to widen.

    As an engineering project, widening it is simple: take the westernmost traffic lane from 12th Avenue.

    As a political project…yeah, good luck. 🙁

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Localities shouldn’t be allowed to set their own rules…”

    Be careful what you wish for. Note the Categorical Imperative by Immanuel Kant:

    “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

    Regardless of your issue with city ordinances, the state legislature is always worse. Term limits see to that. Ramos is new, it is true. Was she appointed by her predecessor, or a real new voice?

  • Joe R.

    What I generally favor is the higher tiers in a hierarchy making rules which prohibit more restrictive laws but not less restrictive ones. In other words, if the city ordinance is more restrictive than the state ordinance it’s not allowed, but the city ordinance can be less restrictive than the state ordinance. Same thing with federal versus state rules.

    The biggest problem I see is the little Napoleons in localities making all sorts of silly, pointless laws. State and federal legislatures generally have far less time for such micromanagement.

    Here we should have any state law on e-bikes trump more restrictive, but not less restrictive, local laws. My personal preference though is for a federal law which treats class 1, class 2, and class 3 e-bikes like regular bikes. States and localities will be free to make less restrictive laws (i.e. say allow a maximum power of 1000 watts instead of 750 mph, or higher speeds) but not more restrictive ones.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “In other words, if the city ordinance is more restrictive than the state ordinance it’s not allowed, but the city ordinance can be less restrictive than the state ordinance. Same thing with federal versus state rules.”

    It works the exact opposite of the way you would like.

    Let me give you an example. When the Republicans took Congress and the White House in the early 2000s, they exempted the oil and gas industry from the Clean Water Act. Full stop.

    But states such as New York can still prohibit the oil and gas industry from, for example, dumping toxic wastewater from fracking into NYC reservoirs.

    Unless, in the term used by the courts, Congress had a clear intention to “pre-empt the field.” Which is why when the financial industry bought off Congress, states were unable to stop the predatory lending of the 2000s.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  • Alien Wired

    I live up in Tioga Co….. It’s kind of funny to read about NYC problems..

    One of the poorest and highest taxed counties per capita in NY state….

    You folks have problems with Bikes being left all over, we have problems with people piling their junk cars in their front yards. LOL!

    Not to mention the people who live in a trailer down the road that shares their yard with farm animals.

    Ohh and the horse that people park in their attached garage and walks into the house whenever….

  • Joe R.

    A lot of it depends upon the types of laws. Obviously, the reach of Congress should be limited for things that directly affect people’s health so that states can make more restrictive laws there. I’m mostly referring to quality of life laws and micromanagement. Is there any overriding public interest for localities to regulate e-bikes any more stringently that the federal laws already do? No, there’s no safety or other reason for doing so, despite what the deBlaso’s of this world say about how dangerous e-bikes are.

    The bottom line here is that the ability of states and/or localities to make a crazy quilt of pointless laws needs to be limited, both for practical and commerce reasons. If there’s a safety reason for doing something, fine. For example, NYC and other densely populated areas can make a great health/safety case for regulating/restricting conventional motor vehicles far more than the federal government does. But NYC has a whole host of ridiculous laws which would be nice to scrap under a system where federal rules preempt state/local rules, unless you can demonstrate a safety/public health reason for keeping the rules in place, complete with data to back it up.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As a percent of income Tioga’s state and local tax burden is higher than the U.S. average, but not nearly as high as in NYC. Or at least that was the case as of FY 2012, with data another Census of Governments in FY 2017 perhaps coming out this fall.

    Download the “Tax All State and County” spreadsheet and you’ll find the data for Tioga vs. NYC on the Tax All County tables tab.

    Tioga’s state and local tax burden was 11.7% of county residents’ personal income compared with 15.7% in NYC. But this assumes that the burden of state taxes was equal in both places at 6.8% of personal income. It isn’t. For one thing, MTA taxes are counted by the Census Bureau as state taxes, but they are only collected downstate.

    The U.S. average was 10.0% of personal income. The average for the Downstate Suburbs was 13.9%, with 12.4% for upstate urban counties (including Broome) and 13.0% for Upstate Rural counties like yours.

    Jefferson County had the lowest state and local tax burden as a percent of its residents’ personal income at 10.8%, but Tioga was tied for second lowest in the state.

    Of course I assume there aren’t a lot of public services up there, but NYC’s tax burden is going up and I wonder what services are going to be left down here in the long run. And basically with enrollment falling, the schools are being run as a high-end welfare program in much of the state, and that costs money too.

    Between Census of Governments years, the Bureau only puts out data on a statewide level, though I can also get if for NYC and therefore the Rest of NY State by subtraction.

  • bolwerk

    Bill de Blasio and his ilk, explained:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of
    its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under
    robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber
    baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be
    satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us
    without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ? C. S. Lewis

  • relevantjeff

    Luckily, NYC has the best of both worlds – a robber baron in the White House, and a do-gooder in City Hall.

  • Alien Wired

    Thanks for this, I just repeated what I was told a few years ago, without ever looking the actual information up.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Compiling all this data on state and local finance over the years (decades), I continue to be surprised at the extent to which what I have heard and read doesn’t line up with the numbers.

  • Ishamgirl

    We also have a mayor who has left the city to run for president because he swears he has a snowball’s chance in hell is getting some moron to vote for him.

    We have a homeless problem.

    We have a filth problem.

    We have a gang problem.

    We have a violence problem.

    We have a transportation problem.

  • dfiler

    Fascinating. This makes me wonder what the comparison would look like when figuring in income brackets. What percentage is paid by people making less than $50000 a year, 50k-100k, 100k-500k, etc.

  • Alien Wired

    Sounds like you have typical American problems, that has always been problems since the founding of this nation.

    Really nothing new.

    It’s funny though when Republicans whine about filth until their homey gets elected, then suddenly, it all just “magically disappears”, lol!

    Welcome to what’s ALWAYS been there.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is just the total tax take from one source, divided by the total income from another.

    The closest to what you ask is the District of Columbia government, which provides a comparison of the state and local property plus income tax burden for homeowners in the largest cities in each state. Looks like it hasn’t been updated in a while.

    But of course most NYC households are renters, and the city’s property tax hits them harder than homeowners. And the big difference is all the tax breaks for seniors, particularly retired public employees.

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