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Opinion: Holden’s E-Bike License Proposal Misses the Mark on Pedestrian Safety

A bill backed by a majority of City Council members would create a bureaucratic nightmare and discourage e-bike use while ignoring the root of the problem: lackluster infrastructure and unsafe work standards.

Photo: Josh Katz|

Robert Holden’s bill would not make roadways safer, argues Austin Celestin.

I am a victim of e-bike violence.

One Friday evening last June, a delivery worker struck me as I crossed Amsterdam Avenue at 65th Street. He was traveling quickly and didn’t see me from behind a parked car — hitting me in the process. As a result of the collision, I couldn't walk on my left leg and needed crutches for a week.

Austin Celestin

It wasn't the only time I was hit by a person on an e-bike, and I've had plenty more close calls. Speeding, running red lights, and riding against traffic or on the sidewalk have given rise to a growing movement of politicians and organizations seeking to rein in and restrict micromobility use. At the helm of this campaign is Council Member Robert Holden, who has proposed a bill — co-sponsored by a majority of his Council colleagues — to require licensing for e-bikes of all types.

At face value, Holden's 400-word bill has two obvious flaws: First, it fails to create or specify a streamlined process for users to obtain a license — placing a new, tedious, and possibly expensive burden on the shoulders of the individual. Second, Holden's bill ignores the growing presence of illegal mopeds on city streets that state law already requires to be licensed.

But the bill's biggest flaw, and the problem with proposals like it, is its insistence on creating a new regulatory regime that will discourage micromobility use — all while ignoring the root causes of conflicts between street users: lackluster infrastructure and unsafe work standards.

New York City already has limited space for pedestrians. That, coupled with cars frequently obstructing the crosswalk, leads pedestrians to spill into the city's often-obstructed and largely disconnected bike lanes. Micromobility users have frequently expressed frustration with inadequate bike infrastructure that forces them to contend with speeding motorists that pay them no mind, prompting them to take dangerous risks.

The circumstances of delivery work compound those challenges. Many delivery workers will take as many orders as possible from every part of the city. The deliverista who hit me near Lincoln Center was delivering to Washington Heights. Speed was a necessity for his bottom line, even if he endangered himself and pedestrians like me in the process.

Holden’s bill does nothing to rectify the fundamental issues of inadequate space and dangerous workplace practices. Whatever improvements to pedestrian safety come from this bill’s passage would couple with a reduction in micromobility and safety, since those riders depend on safety in numbers — highlighting the jarring false dichotomies and tradeoffs we cannot accept. 

Better solutions exist

To protect pedestrians without compromising micromobility usability, we must push for both to have a proper place on our streets.

That means wider sidewalks, protected and bi-directional bike lanes, and e-bike charging stations. Deliveristas need protections like a decent wage and more relief from the financial incentive to travel so fast.

Alongside these fixes, there are regulatory actions that will protect pedestrians. We could enforce existing bans on sidewalk operation or exceeding the speed limit, pass Sammy’s Law to allow New York City to lower the speed limit, introduce the Idaho Stop and implement universal speed cameras.

As for identification, state Sen. Brad Hoylman’s legislation for employer-provided vests and identification is a better alternative to Holden’s bill, as it provides a path for obtaining identification that would tie violators to their employers, allowing us to hold them accountable — without discouraging casual or non-vocational use of the electric micromobility devices.

Proper enforcement and fines matters as well — keeping in mind the NYPD's history of racial bias in e-bike and moped enforcement. Fines should be proportional to income, as a flat fine would not deter affluent violators. Cops should reserve confiscation for illegally unregistered mopeds and paired with a vigorous education campaign to educate riders about the regulations surrounding those vehicles.

If pedestrian safety is actually the end goal, Holden and company ought to apply the same pressure to car drivers — as they are exponentially deadlier than e-vehicle operators and are far less law-abiding than elected officials choose to believe. Illegally parked cars and unattentive drivers are often the root cause of dangerous actions by micromobility users. If we remedy that, everything else starts falling into place. For structural changes to work, Holden and his colleagues must be willing to sacrifice travel lanes and parking.

More micromobility regulation is necessary. One pedestrian death or injury is one too many. But New Yorkers should embrace e-bikes and e-mopeds as a cheaper, greener, safer transportation option critical to our climate goals. Two-wheelers and pedestrians deserve an equitable share of our streets, and our efforts to protect them should not cannibalize each other.

Street safety activists will gather on Wednesday for a protest ride to City Hall from Union Square. Click the embedded tweet below or this link for more info:

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