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Protected Bike Lanes

Upper West Side Panel Sees E-Bikes as the Threat — But de Blasio Disagrees

Delivery workers — independent contractors or employees with rights? The National Labor Relations Board is once again asking.

Editor's note: This is the latest in Streetsblog's ongoing coverage of revanchist movements across the city to remove bike lanes, eliminate open streets or discriminate against delivery workers by a small minority of New Yorkers who own cars. It is not Streetsblog's mission to give a voice to motorists who oppose street safety, but periodically, we do like to focus on their complaints so that members of the larger movement for livable streets can see what the opposition is up to. This story is part of that effort.

Members of an Upper West Side community board again put the safety of delivery cyclists secondary in passing a resolution on Tuesday night demanding that they be banned from protected bike lanes — a notion that was quickly sent into the dustbin of history by Mayor de Blasio.

"It does not make sense to ban [e-bikes] in bike lanes because they certainly shouldn't be out in the flow of traffic," the mayor said at his Wednesday press conference, one night after Community Board 7's Transportation Committee voted 7-3 to demand that e-bikes be barred in protected bike lanes. The mayor said he was sensitive to larger safety issues of pedestrians, but banning e-bikes in bike lanes is "not the way to do it."

The mayor's comments came after the latest in a series of revanchist moves by Community Board 7 to address what it believes is a primary safety issue in the neighborhood — delivery cyclists who are working to satisfy the demands of their customers for food and other items.

It is no secret that delivery cyclists prefer e-bikes — and that those now-legal e-bikes go faster than regular bikes — but the number of crashes caused by delivery cyclists is so low as to be not statistically significant. Meanwhile, in the area covered by Community Board 7 last year, there were 1,039 reported crashes (nearly three per day), injuring 84 cyclists, 80 pedestrians and 150 motorists — all but 40 crashes caused by a car or truck driver.

But car drivers were not the target of the resolution that passed on Tuesday night. Instead, the committee focused on the tiny number of crashes that have involved cyclists, including one fatality earlier this year in which a pedestrian entered the bike lane after getting out of his car mid-block and was struck.

The text of the resolution complained that "the use of electric assisted bicycles and scooters has increased dramatically" and that "virtually all delivery bicycles ... are now electric/assisted." The resolution also complained, without evidence, that NYPD enforcement against cyclists "has been virtually non-existent," countering persistent complaints from delivery workers that they are, indeed, the target of selective enforcement by the NYPD and wealthy business groups, as Streetsblog has documented.

The resolution demanded three things:

    • An immediate ban e-bikes in bike lanes.
    • An NYPD crackdown on e-bikes "particularly with regard to obeying traffic signals."
    • A study of "additional safety measures" such as helmet requirements or registration for e-bike riders (a notion that DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman has already said he does not support).

In response to the proposed resolution, Transportation Committee member Ken Coughlin made his own proposal, which was seconded — to audible groans on the Zoom call — by committee Chairman Howard Yaruss, that instead of banning e-bikes in bike lanes, the city should start building bike lanes with multiple segments for vehicles of differing speeds, much like roadways have multiple lanes for car drivers to safely get around, say, a slow-moving truck or bus.

On the record, the board's Chairman Steven Brown accused Coughlin of "subterfuge" in that his resolution was an end-run attempt to get more bike lanes. If by subterfuge, Brown meant that Coughlin wanted to keep cyclists safe, Coughlin admitted he was guilty as charged.

"My understanding was that the reason for the resolution's ban on any type of e bike is the perceived conflicts between different users in the existing bike lane — and, indeed, that is an issue," Coughlin told Streetsblog on Wednesday. "So the solution to me is not to just ban electric bikes from the bike lane and make them go play in traffic — that's not safer for anyone, including pedestrians and motorists. The solution, to me, was to create more lanes."

That resolution was defeated.

Yaruss said Coughlin's resolution (which had been drafted on the fly) "wasn't perfect," but said it was at least an attempt to find a solution beyond the measure on the floor.

"The resolution they ended up passing will definitely make the streets less safe," Yaruss said. "It will force e-bike riders to go into city traffic or ride on the sidewalk, neither of which is safe. To have a senior on a pedal assist e-bike navigating city traffic is not safe. That's a fact."

The larger issue, of course, is that the city has spent much of de Blasio's tenure to create more bike lanes in an attempt to reduce driving in the city in favor of a less carbon-intense, less space-consuming, congestion-busting form of transportation. Yaruss suggested that the CB7 committee — which he still chairs (at least on paper) — is ignoring that some change can be good, albeit if properly planned for.

"E-bikes are here to stay, period, full stop," he said. "There are people on that committee that don't want safety. The board's central focus should be 'What will keep people safe?'"

That was Transportation Alternatives' take, too.

“What is Community Board 7 thinking? This is a recipe for congestion, carmageddon, and criminalization," said Cory Epstein, the spokesman for the group, which is pushing a plan to reclaim for the public 25 percent of the majority of street space taken up by the movement and the storage of cars. "They should be focusing on the real problem, which is cars that inefficiently hog our street space. Taking space from cars to build better bike lanes will do a whole lot more for safety than throwing police resources at immigrant delivery workers who kept us fed us through the pandemic.”

It is very rare for Lyft-owned Citi Bike to get involved in the day-to-day scrum of politics — indeed, the company has repeatedly declined to comment on the state's ban on Citi Bike pedal assist e-bikes on the Hudson River Greenway — but Tuesday night's resolution was so discordant that the company was moved to issue a statement.

"Why are we talking about restricting a safe, green, and wildly popular form of transportation when we're in the middle of a climate change-induced heat wave and seeing traffic soar? Let's move on to more serious issues," said Caroline Samponaro, the head of Transit, Bike and Scooter Policy for Lyft.

The company added that it has hosted more than seven million e-bike rides and crashes caused by its e-bikes occur at generally the same rate as those with "classic'" Citi Bikes. The company also said that Citi Bike pedal-assist e-bikes are extremely popular on both the Upper West and Upper East sides.

"Bike lanes are a critical way to protect all bike riders from vehicular traffic and e-bike riders deserve the same protection," the company added in a statement.

The issue of crowded bike lanes is one that Streetsblog has been documenting all summer as the bike boom continues. Earlier this year, we discovered that there are more cyclists using the two-way bike lane on Kent Avenue, for example, than there are drivers using the much wider roadway. First and Second avenues in Manhattan also have very high cyclist to car ratios.

The mayor saw that as something to address — but not with something that would reduce cycling, but actually encourage it.

"More and more [are] people using bikes. That's a total blessing for New York City," he said. "You know, the announcements we made for the Brooklyn Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, for example, give more space to bicyclists and pedestrians. That works. That makes total sense. In a lot of places, we're finding there is more need and we should act according to that need. ... I think this is all about the rebalancing of New York City and that needs to continue. And it's been working. It's been making the city a better place.

"There's been opposition from day one to Vision Zero. There's been opposition from day one to bike lanes, including the right kind of bike lanes that have been very successful," he continued. "I always want to hear the opposition ... but in the end, I've been really clear, we're doing Vision Zero, period. The future is mass transit. The future is biking. The future is walking. It's not the individual automobile."

It's not the first time CB7 has targeted delivery workers. Earlier this year, a Coughlin resolution to simply ask restaurants to allow delivery workers to use the bathroom was shot down as "disgusting" and "embarrassing."

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