The Explainer: What’s With Council Member Bob Holden’s Bill to Register E-Bikes?
A very controversial bill from a noted opponent of efforts to boost cycling has everyone in town — except its supporters — talking.
12:00 AM EDT on September 1, 2023
More and more people believe that New York City streets have become a "Wild West" of motorized vehicles competing for finite amount of space. That perception is also driving policy, including a new bill by Queens Council Member Bob Holden that would require the DOT to issue license plates to be affixed to the back of all stand-up scooters, electric bikes and other motorized vehicles that are currently legal. The bill is gaining support, even from people with pro-biking street cred. It's a confusing topic, so let's have The Explainer break it all down for you.
So tell me about this bill
Intro 758 was introduced by Holden late last year and quickly garnered support from a handful of reliable anti-cycling Council members such as Brooklyn Republican Inna Vernikov and Kalman Yeger, also of Brooklyn, who claims he is a Democrat.
The bill itself [PDF] states that "Every bicycle with electric assist, electric scooter and other legal motorized vehicle shall be registered with the [Department of Transportation] and provided a distinctive identification number and a license plate corresponding to that distinctive identification number."
"Electric scooter" is defined under state law as what is commonly referred to as a "stand-up scooter," the kind that are being used by many individuals and are widely available as part of a massive "scooter share" program in the East Bronx.
The bill is not about illegal mopeds.
License plate? Isn't that a DMV job?
Yes and no. Only the state Department of Motor Vehicles can issue license plates. But e-bikes and e-scooters aren't registrable with the DMV because they have been legalized differently. But Holden's bill seeks to create an entirely new form of registration for these legal vehicles, which may end up being similar to the way the city issues plates for police squad cars (though those non-state-issued plates are not trackable in the Open Data portal).
"Each ... plate shall identify whether the bicycle with electric assist, electric scooter or other legal motorized vehicle is personal or commercial in nature," the bill states.
The bill provides no funding for DOT to administer what would be a fairly large program. It also does not outline punishment for cyclists who do not register their bikes. It does not mention enforcement.
Registering commercial e-bikes — which are mostly used by delivery workers — is in vogue right now. State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal has a bill that would force the registration of such bikes, even though they are currently legal.
But Holden's bill — which now has 23 sponsors — would go further, targeting the non-commercial users of various legal forms of micro-mobility in an era many politicians are focused on reducing the carbon footprint of transportation on roads currently dominated by cars.
You guys are always going on about cars! Aren't mopeds the problem?
Yes, we write a lot about the destructive force that 4,000-pound cars going 50 miles per hour unleashes on the human body and less about the same forces marshaled by 150-pound mopeds going less than half that speed. As a result of that asymmetric warfare, pedestrians, cyclists and, indeed, other drivers are far more endangered by car drivers than by moped riders.
Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 18, 132 people were killed in crashes involving cars, trucks, buses, and SUVs, including 54 pedestrians and 14 cyclists, according to city stats compiled by Crash Mapper. The same database showed that just one pedestrian was killed this year by a motorcycle rider. None was killed by users of other forms of micro-mobility, the statistics show.
And tens of thousands of people have been injured by car and truck drivers. A tiny fraction of that number have been injured by electric bike riders.
Nonetheless, Streetsblog has written extensively about the moped crisis in this city. And people who are struck by an illegal moped would be aided in their attempt to hold the driver accountable if the device had a license plate as currently required. But this bill is entirely focused on users of legal electric bikes, including Citi Bike e-bikes, vehicles that the state DMV has decided do not require registration because of their low speeds.
So what's the problem with that?
First, just as helmet laws end up making cyclists less safe because they reduce cycling, there is evidence that forcing cyclists to register their bikes also reduces bike riding, which reduces the "strength in numbers" effect of cycling.
Worse, bike registration laws are rarely enforced, but when they are, they often have a racial bias. Just ask those kids in Perth Amboy from that viral video a few years back. Or ask Black people unfairly targeted in Chicago. Or ask the unhoused people who were targeted in Seattle. Or ask the Black people stopped by the NYPD for "jaywalking" — a crime that's almost never enforced against white people.
Presumably, Holden's bill is seeking to register electric bike users to increase accountability if an e-bike rider injures someone. But it's unclear if this bill would achieve that; there's nothing in the bill about crashes, and under state law, e-bicycles are not considered "motor vehicles," and therefore their operators are not required to remain on the scene of a crash. This bill would not change that.
And no vehicle, motor or not, is not allowed to exceed the posted speed limit. Police can, and do, give tickets to bike riders despite the absence of plates on the back of the two-wheeler.
Still, 23 sponsors is a lot, right?
Yes. Many of the sponsors are the usual suspects whose names frequently come up in news coverage of efforts to bolster car use at the expense of bikes or transit: Oswald Feliz (D-Bronx), Farah Louis (D-Brooklyn), Mercedes Narcisse (D-Brooklyn), Vickie Paladino (R-Queens), Ari Kagan (R-Brooklyn), David Carr (R-Staten Island) and Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island).
But the list of sponsors includes people who know about the racial bias, worker discrimination and safety problems associated with bike registration. We reached out to many of them, including Brooklyn Democrats Justin Brannan and Sandy Nurse, Bronx Democrat Pierina Sanchez, and Manhattan Democrats Erik Bottcher and Julie Menin. All we heard were crickets, except from Nurse.
She didn't want to talk while on vacation, however, but referred Streetsblog to her recent tweet (from her personal, not Council, account) on the subject:
We also reached out to Holden's office, asking neutrally, "Does Council Member Holden have a chance to talk [about the bill] today?" Here is the unedited response we received:
“The vast majority of New Yorkers want to take back our streets from the lawless e-mobile scooters and bikes that regularly disregard almost every NYC traffic regulation. The fact that Gersh Kuntzman opposes my bill shows that he cares little about safety and more about promoting his views of a bicycle culture at any cost.” [Editor's note: This reporter is a respected journalist who cares deeply about safety and has not expressed an opinion about the bill beyond pointing out that it will reduce cycling and, thus, make cyclists less safe.]
Given that Holden opened the door, this reporter feels obligated to point out that he has frequently expressed an opinion about drivers who recklessly speed through city school zones. Holden's BMW (pictured above, but with the license plate pixilated out of courtesy for the pol's privacy) has been nabbed five times since October 2021 for exceeding the speed limit by at least 11 miles per hour near schools — the most-recent ticket coming on June 9, 2023 on Furmanville Avenue at 82nd Place in Queens. (Perhaps more offensive to some New Yorkers: Holden's front plate is held in place with a frame boasting of the success of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
Update: After initial publication of this story, a Holden spokesman said that the BMW is registered to Holden's wife, who has accrued all the tickets on that car and who has "exclusively" been driving that car for more than a year. (Streetsblog witnessed Holden driving the car more than a year ago.) The spokesperson said that Holden drives an electric Volvo C40 and has had "one ticket in his entire life since getting a license." The spokesman called Streetsblog's reference to the Dodgers plate frame "a low blow" because Holden is a lifelong Dodgers fan, dating from when the franchise played in Brooklyn. Holden was born in 1951. The Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957.
Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who is chair of the Transportation Committee, also did not respond to several requests for comment. If the bill reaches 34 sponsors, Brooks-Powers will have to hold a hearing on it.
What are advocates saying?
The big name groups all have an opinion about the bill — and it's not favorable:
StreetsPAC, the city's only political action committee dedicated to street safety and transportation equity, sent all the sponsors a detailed, four-page letter on Wednesday [link] outlining why the bill is "misguided."
"We strongly oppose this bill and believe its passage would have several detrimental effects," such as hindering Citi Bike use, inhibiting commuters from adopting sustainable transportation modes, and undermining the work of delivery workers and the mobility of the elderly, Executive Director Eric McClure wrote.
"Mandated registration of e-bikes would stop their widespread adoption in its tracks, at a time when the shifting of trips from cars to bikes is overwhelmingly seen as beneficial," he added.
The letter also complained that "a registration requirement would likely be an invitation for police officers to conduct pretextual stops of black and brown people."
Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans (which shares a parent company with Streetsblog), focused on all of the serious safety issues that are entirely not address by this "reactionary and reductive" bill.
"The city was caught unprepared for a micromobility boom of any kind," she said. "We don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate all these new riders, which is creating very real friction on the streets. But we need to ask ourselves what solutions would actually create more order? Putting a license plate on an electric Citi Bike isn't going to do it.
"Yes, most bike lanes are too narrow for fast riders, but this bill doesn’t fix that," Lind continued. "Yes, murky point-of-sale regulations are allowing unsafe mopeds to slip through the cracks and onto our streets. Again, this bill won’t fix that. The only thing it will do is sabotage mode shift while targeting nonwhite delivery workers. Our elected officials need to focus on ideas that will actually encourage safe e-micromobility and create a more harmonious experience on the streets."
Elizabeth Adams of Transportation Alternatives put the licensing requirement in the context of current events.
"As we confront both the climate crisis and the onset of congestion pricing, it’s critical that we shift trips out of cars and into sustainable options like bikes and e-bikes," said Adams, the group's deputy executive director for Public Affairs. "This bill would make that transition harder and more painful. Mopeds are already required to be licensed and registered in New York City, so this bill would only impact e-bikes, e-scooters, and other micro mobility — the exact transit options New Yorkers need. We need to focus on encouraging people to choose bikes and e-bikes."
And, off the record, lots of people who advocate for delivery workers are livid about the bill.
"This reeks of racism," said one industry source. "The electric bike is an affordable, sustainable way for immigrants to make a living in this city and now Bob Holden wants to take that away. That's insane, but it's especially insane during a migrant crisis."
Others were frustrated by Council members who misdirected their legitimate concerns about safety.
"When you look at the list of supporters, it includes many people who know better, but are obviously concerned about the genuine fears that their constituents have about mopeds," one city political insider said. "But this bill isn't about mopeds, so opponents of this bill have to do a much better job of informing the supporters why this isn't the right bill for safety or for the right of workers to make a living."
What about the industry?
We reached out to Citi Bike, whose very popular pedal-assist electric bikes would be affected by the bill, but the company declined to comment. It's worth noting that Citi Bike might be exempted from the bill because its bikes already have identification numbers on them.
Ligia Guallpa of the Worker's Justice Project, which represents the 65,000 delivery workers, said the bill "overlooks the real issue and creates additional hurdles for low-income New Yorkers ... to make a living."
"The growing dependency on e-bikes is fueled by the demands of multi-billion dollar food delivery apps, who recklessly widened delivery radiuses without notice, forcing delivery workers to travel longer distances to fulfill orders as soon as possible," she added. "We are committed to working with city and state leaders to make New York City's streets safer for all. This includes building safe, more equitable micro-mobility infrastructure, educating deliveristas about traffic laws, and ensuring that every worker in our city is protected and safe on the job."
And Gustavo Ajche, a delivery worker who has emerged as a leader of his colleagues through his organizing efforts, is opposed to the rules as written.
"We are in favor of all regulations that provide safety for everyone, but [the city should] implement more rules to encourage means of transport that are friendly to the environment and that thousands of workers use — the electric bicycle is a work tool for us," he said. "We hope that this law will not complicate us being able to work."
We also reached out to the Department of Transportation to discuss whether Holden's bill would represent an onerous mandate on the agency or hinder the agency's longstanding goal of increasing the delivery of freight via electric or pedal-assist cargo bikes. Spokesman Scott Gastel said only, "We are reviewing the legislation."
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