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City Council Could Make Gov. Cuomo Irrelevant in E-Bike Debate

12:01 AM EST on December 17, 2019

State Senator Jessica Ramos continues to call on Gov. Cuomo to sign her bill legalizing e-bikes. Photo: Dave Colon

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New York City doesn't have to wait for the governor to legalize the e-bikes used by delivery cyclists — but it will need a mayor willing to end his war on thousands of the city's lowest-paid workers. And it can happen right now.

City Council Member Rafael Espinal says he will press ahead with his bill to not only legalize the currently illegal throttle-controlled e-bikes that delivery workers favor, but also cap their speeds at 20 miles per hour — answering a crucial concern of the de Blasio administration, which has not engaged on the topic. Espinal's bill would complement a state bill legalizing the bikes that passed overwhelmingly in the legislature earlier this year, but Gov. Cuomo has refused to sign it.

He has 15 days to do so before the bill expires, but it is increasingly likely that he will not unsheathe this pen, thanks to an unrelated conflict with the bill's sponsor, State Sen. Jessica Ramos, The Post reported.

As a result, Espinal "definitely plans to pass his legislation regardless of what happens in Albany," his spokeswoman Lauren Liles told Streetsblog last week.

Espinal's bill would correct what advocates call a double-standard: Mayor de Blasio continues to crack down on the throttle-controlled e-bikes that virtually all delivery workers use, but are technically illegal under state law, even as he champions the use of pedal-assist cargo e-bikes and electric-assist Citi Bikes, which are also technically illegal under state law.

It's all a bit confusing, but also easy to explain:

    • State law does indeed say that a "motor-assisted bicycle — a bicycle to which a small motor is attached" are illegally because it "cannot be registered or operated on New York State sidewalks, streets or highways." The state law makes no distinction between pedal-assist e-bikes and throttle-controlled e-bikes.
    • But Section 19-176.2 of the city administrative code carved out an exception for pedal-assist electric bikes, like those provided by Citi Bike or being used by corporate delivery workers with Amazon or UPS. The city effectively overwrote state law by allowing those bikes because city law only bars the kind of e-bike "that is capable of propelling the device without human power."

Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives says the city could just overwrite the state again.

"The City of New York/DOT has legalized pedal-assist e-bikes through rule-making, in part because New York City has extensive home-rule powers in this area, powers that other jurisdictions in New York State do not enjoy," Conner said.

The best scenario is Espinal's bill, which would eliminate any gray area by legalizing throttle-controlled e-bikes, as long as they don't exceed 20 miles per hour. That bill would also reduce the fine for faster e-bikes to $100 — and only allow the NYPD to impound the vehicles themselves if they are "operated in a manner that endangers the safety of the operator or the safety or property of another."

Currently, e-bike delivery workers are hit with fines of $500 for operating the illegal bikes, which are frequently seized by the cops, eliminating the workers' ability to earn a living.

Even if Espinal's bill does not pass (or, more likely, the mayor vetoes it), the city could still reduce the impact of the NYPD enforcement crackdown against delivery riders. Council Member Margaret Chin and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou have called on the city to establish a conversion program to make delivery riders' bikes street legal. And Conner told Streetsblog that the fine for using a throttle e-bike should be dropped to just $50 and simply eliminate the NYPD's authorization to seize e-bikes. The mayor has resisted such calls in the past, claiming that constituents have told him they are afraid of e-bike riders, even though statistics do not provide any evidence that the public is indeed being endangered.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso called on Mayor de Blasio to just stop "the ridiculous penalization" of delivery riders.

“To allow for corporations like Amazon to use e-bikes while actively penalizing low-income, immigrant workers for their use of the same mode of transportation would be hypocritical and flies in the face of justice," Reynoso said in a statement.

Ramos said that she's still holding out hope that the governor will just end this squabbling with a single stroke of the pen.

"I don't think there's any sense in criminalizing people trying to earn a living in an honest way. We should be honoring that," Ramos said at a rally on Friday urging the governor to sign the bill.

The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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