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State Pols Call on DOTs to Counter E-Bike ‘Demonization’

12:01 AM EST on March 10, 2023

Education is needed to push back on the “demonization” of e-bikes, according to pols.

Change the narrative.

Transportation officials must promote the safe riding of e-bikes and e-scooters and improve education on proper battery use to counter the growing "demonization" of the popular mobility devices and the people who use them, a group of state senators told the heads of both the city and state departments of Transportation.

"We cannot allow a narrative to build against a vital, green, and growing mode of transportation. Nor can we allow for the continuing demonization of already marginalized migrant communities who disproportionately use e-bikes and e-scooters and make up a large proponent of the ‘deliverista’ workforce," state Sen. Jessica Ramos and colleagues wrote to state and city officials on March 2.

"With the increase of migrants arriving in New York, the use of e-bikes and e-scooters by these communities will only increase. As will the need for new arrivals to be educated on safe riding to reduce the potential for accidents to occur."

The missive to state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez and her city DOT counterpart Ydanis Rodriguez [PDF] was co-signed by 14 other state senators, and called on the agency honchos to raise awareness to help reduce crashes involving the devices and prevent fires sparked by shoddy batteries and makeshift charging hubs.

Inaction by the two agencies could give state lawmakers or local municipalities a political opening to ban e-bike and e-scooter use completely and claim they are acting to assure safety, the senators warned.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos
State Sen. Jessica Ramos
State Sen. Jessica Ramos

"Unless the DOT is proactive in properly educating e-bike and e-scooter riders on their safe use, we risk new legislation or local municipalities banning e-bike and e-scooter use completely on safety grounds," wrote Ramos, who led the successful state-level push to legalize some e-bikes in 2019.

The letter comes amid a surge in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, which FDNY officials and others have routinely blamed on "e-bikes" — even when the fires were caused by other vehicles or if they couldn't be tracked to a specific device. The fires have fueled the flames of outrage for longtime opponents of e-bikes who view the vehicles as a dangerous addition to city streets, despite significant evidence to the contrary.

Recent proposals at the federal, state, and city level have taken aim at the mobility devices, in particular their batteries which city Fire Department officials have blamed for a surge in serious blazes.

Bills to ban low-grade or second-hand lithium-ion batteries passed in the City Council last week, with similar proposals pending in Albany. Another piece of legislation in Congress would set safety standards for the power packs and bar bad models from being imported into the country.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, the influential chair of the upper chamber's Finance Committee, also signed onto Ramos's letter. Krueger sponsored a pair of battery bills in the state legislature, along with another one that would make hit-and-runs with e-bikes and mopeds a felony similar to fleeing collisions in a car.

Most of the politicians behind the bills claim they don't want to unfairly target the city's 65,000 delivery workers who rely on e-bikes to do their essential work, but more conservative politicians like Queens Councilman Bob Holden are pushing to ban the mobility devices entirely claiming they're inherently unsafe.

"Whether it's speeding on sidewalks, riding against traffic, or battery fires that have cost eight lives and upended the lives of hundreds, we see how dangerous these devices are," wrote Holden on Twitter late last year.

Meanwhile, the city's vision to repurpose vacant city newsstands as safe charging hubs and rest stops for delivery workers has already hit opposition — on the Upper West Side where Community Board 7 cast a symbolic vote on Wednesday against a proposed rest stop and charging station outside the entrance to the subway at 72nd Street.

Speaking to Streetsblog on Thursday, Ramos cast blame on City Hall for not putting up clear signage and exploring its own local regulations for e-bikes and e-scooters after her bill legalized them in 2019, which included a provision specifically giving cities the power to regulate these growing modes of transportation.

"In that respect, New York City has failed," she said. "There should be speed limits posted in places, there should be street design considered and implemented in order to accommodate for the increasing use of e-bikes and e-scooters. ... I don’t want to see them be set up for failure because city and state government couldn’t get it together on educating them for the proper rules of the road and posting the correct signage accordingly."

Agencies have taken it upon themselves to ban the electric mobility devices from their territory like state DOT prohibiting e-bikes from its portion of the Hudson River Greenway, or the city Parks Department barring them inside their green spaces.

Traffic deaths involving e-mobility devices surged during the pandemic from six fatalities in 2019 to 19 in 2020, and 32 each in 2021 and 2022, and another four so far this year, according to city DOT stats. (Over the same period, compared to those 93 deaths, 998 people were killed by car and truck drivers, city stats also show. And compared to the nine pedestrian killed in crashes with e-mobility devices, 498 were killed in crashes with car and truck drivers.)

E-mobility traffic fatalities are on the rise. Graphic: DOT
E-mobility traffic fatalities are on the rise, but mostly because e-mobility use is up. Graphic: DOT
E-mobility traffic fatalities are on the rise. Graphic: DOT

Agency spokesman Vin Barone said the increase tracked with more people using e-mobility modes of transportation, adding that DOT has worked with NYPD, FDNY, and delivery worker organizations on education campaigns and is using $2.9 million in federal grant money to develop a pedestrian and micromobility toolkit to better plan streets.

"DOT understands the important role delivery workers play in New York City’s economy and the challenges they face every day on the job. That’s why the agency is taking a holistic, multi-pronged approach in addressing the safe and lawful use of e-bikes and emerging micro-mobility options, focusing on point-of-sale enforcement, education, on-street targeted outreach, engineering, and policy," Barone said in a statement.

But Ramos said officials should have PSAs on TV, and plastered on the sides of buses and in bus shelters, while working with the delivery app companies to ensure their workers know the rules of the road.

"It falls on both DOTs — city and state — to provide a public service announcement campaign and work with these companies and therefore the workers themselves so that they understand the rules of the road in their native language," she told Streetsblog. "I know that that might be a little bit of a haul, but, hey, it’s worth it, because it’s about saving lives."

There were 216 fires in the city caused by lithium-ion batteries in 2022, injuring 147 people and killing six, according to city stats. In Ramos's Jackson Heights–Corona district alone — home to large immigrant communities that disproportionately work in deliveries — one person died and another 28 were injured, including 18 children, in two incidents this year related to the batteries.

Dominguez told Ramos at a transportation hearing last month that a state committee on traffic safety known as the Governor’s Traffic Safety Council could look at how better education signage, and the lawmaker also requested the top official give an update on that in the letter.

"Not just by language, but literally by international global signage that people can understand. What are the rules, quote-unquote, of the bikeway, what are the rules of how you operate a motorized vehicle," Dominguez said during a transportation oversight hearing in Albany last month.

The state DOT's press office did not respond to a request for comment.

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