New York City "Clarifies" Rules, Allows Pedal-Assisted E-Bikes Under 20MPH

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CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ cars and delivery bike on 9th. Lloyd Alter/ cars and delivery bike on 9th

It seemed so odd; at a time when many are falling in love with e-bikes, when Sami says Yes, e-bikes really are magic and I write that E-bikes will eat cars, In New York City the mayor and the police department were on a tear, complaining about e-bikes and taking them off the street.

But now the Mayor and the Department of Transportation have looked at the issue again. David Meyer of Streetsblog explains that Pedalec e-bikes that don't go faster than 20 MPH will be permitted. Pedalecs don't have throttles but the motor kicks in when the rider pedals; they are electric assisted bicycles, not scooters. It's the European standard, used because they can play nicely in bike lanes with regular bikes.

“We’re clarifying what we think is New York State law,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told reporters at a briefing this afternoon. “E-bikes, true electric bikes, which can generally go over 20 miles an hour, are not legal on the streets of New York, but pedal-assist bikes, which typically go at speeds lower than that, [are].”

It is all a bit confusing; according to Meyer writing last October, pedelecs were always legal.

A non-punitive approach to the issue might involve encouraging the use of pedal-assist bikes for delivery work, which amplify human power but require the rider to expend some energy. De Blasio said older delivery workers should use those bikes, which are not banned under NYC law, unlike e-bikes that can be powered by just a motor.

But it is hard to tell them apart; visually, the difference is subtle, whether there is a throttle or not. And often, bikes can do both. At least now, with the acknowledgement, the police have one less excuse to harass immigrant delivery people. Meyer writes:

Ultimately, the legalization of pedal-assist bicycles is a first step toward creating a system that’s not set up to penalize delivery workers. As Biking Public Project organizer Do Lee pointed out on Twitter, police can still abuse their discretion, and workers with limited English proficiency remain vulnerable to harassment and excessive enforcement.

It's not just the delivery people that are a problem; it's the roads.

Fifth Avenue with two way traffic

Ephemeral New York: Two way traffic on Fifth Avenue/via

A real problem in New York that is not often discussed is that there is a real incentive to break the law because of the way the streets have been given over to domination by cars. All the streets and avenues are one-way and the streets are really long, so a driver wanting to go just a block or two might have to go all the way to the next avenue and just to legally travel with traffic in the right direction. This is a very strong disincentive to doing the right thing. Meyer notes:

For a delivery worker, income is a function of how many deliveries you can make in a day, and delivery zones are expanding as apps like Seamless and GrubHub introduce new incentives for restaurants to cover more turf. Especially for older delivery workers, e-bikes are the only feasible conveyance for daily shifts that routinely clock in at 12 to 16 hours long.

Fifth Avenue 1934

Fifth Avenue 1934/Public Domain

It might be too much for New Yorkers to imagine, but cities all over the world are converting one-way streets back to two-way. New York's streets are narrow and have been one-way for almost a hundred years, but the avenues are wide and according to the New York Times, they were not converted to one-way until after the Second World War, between 1951 and 1956, the era when cars really took over our cities.

The real answer to the problem is to convert the Avenues back to two-way. It would be easier for many drivers too.