New York's New E-Bike Rules Are a Botch That Miss the Entire Point of the E-Bike Revolution

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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 simply doesn't recognize that some e-bikes are just bikes with a boost, and is unfair to older or disabled riders, and long distance commuters.

New York, both the city and state, have long been confused about what to do about e-mobility. We have complained about the way they treat delivery people on e-bikes and and can't figure out how to regulate them. It appears that there will finally be new rules that solve many of these problems.

But there is a fundamental flaw in the legislation. All over the world, older riders, the disabled, and long-distance commuters are part of an e-bike revolution, getting more people on bikes, going longer distances. They are riding what are essentially pedal-assist bikes and, in most of the world, are treated like bikes. With these new rules, New York is totally missing the point and screwing it up, treating pedal-assist bikes the same as higher-powered throttle-controlled almost-motorcycles.

Under the new laws, there are three classes of "bicycles with electric assist," all of which have operable pedals and a maximum 750 watt motor power.

Class One is an e-bike "that provides assistance only when the person operating such bicycle is pedalling," and stops assisting at 20 MPH – essentially, a really powerful Pedelec.

Class Two appears to be the same thing, with a throttle, no requirement that it is only pedal assist. Same bike, with a throttle.

Class Three is, again, pretty much the same thing, only it can go up to 25 MPH and can only be used in a city with a population of 1 million or more.

All of these classes of bikes could look exactly the same, and are in fact so similar that there is a whole section of the law that requires every e-bike to have a big label in a prominent location listing the class, motor-assisted speed and motor wattage.

And all of them are lumped together so that authorities can ban any of them from "specific areas or prohibit entirely the use of bicycles with electric assist within such city, town, or village." All of them are subject to bans on public trails, "greenways" or properties under any city or town's jurisdiction. As Gersh Kuntzman of Streetsblog notes,

The new version of the bill specifically bars e-bikes and e-scooters from the Hudson River Greenway, the world’s most popular bike lane. Officials from the Hudson River Park had testified earlier this month against allowing the new mobility devices on the greenway. Apparently, they won.

Because they lump all the e-bikes together, they have the power under the legislation to ban them wherever they want.

But most e-bikes – the ones built to the EU standards in particular – are really just bikes with a little motor, 250 watts maximum. They are designed to go where bikes go, and are treated like bikes. They have been hugely popular with older cyclists in Europe, with people with disabilities, and with people who want to ride seriously long distances. They are bicycles, not motorcycles.

CC BY 2.0. Gazelle Medeo at the Fort York Museum, Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

Gazelle Medeo at the Fort York Museum, Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

So my new Gazelle is not going to be allowed on the Hudson River Greenway. It can be banned from wherever some anti-e-bike legislator who saw somebody ride against traffic without a helmet once wants to, on a whim, because it is just another e-bike. But not all e-bikes are the same, and the legislation's class separations are totally silly.

There is a reason that the Europeans set up their rules the way they did, to ensure that e-bikes that were in bike lanes were basically bikes. Now New York is ignoring all that and treating them as some high-powered vehicle that can't mix with bikes.

It's just dumb and wrong and discriminates against the vast numbers of older or disabled riders who are having their lives changed by e-bikes – or, for that matter, the many who are using them to commute longer distances than they otherwise could on a regular bike. As commenter Elizabeth on Streetsblog noted:

You gotta be kidding... Sorry, I don't live in Brooklyn or Queens. I live uptown (WAY.... uptown, like near the Tappan Zee Bridge). And the Greenway is absolutely essential to my commute. I know what I'm talking about, I've tried other routes.

Elizabeth continues:

Advocates are "mostly pleased"? In the process, they're throwing suburban e-bike commuters under the bus: the ability for local municipalities to ban e-bikes, and the Hudson River Greenway ban, would both make class 1 e-bikes LESS useful than they are now. Makes me think these "advocates" have a narrow 5-borough understanding of e-bikes; and they're just hoping the rest of the state doesn't realize how bad this bill is for everybody else. Thanks for nothing.

Another commenter gets this as well:

Kind of discriminatory towards the elderly and people with mobility issues, no? Anyone who might benefit from taking a long ride on the Greenway but who would otherwise be unable to without a pedal assist bike won't be able to now. These politicians are just so dumb about this stuff.

To use words that I don't like to throw around lightly, the law is ageist and ableist and discriminatory. The whole world is buying these things because they make cycling easier for so many people. And New York just screwed everyone who rides them, lumping them together with quasi-motorcycles and scooters. This is such a step backwards.

UPDATE: People are beginning to recognize the problem. See Streetsblog, Hey, West Side Greenway, Citi Bike Called and It Wants Its Bike Lane Back!