Streetsblog's Guide to Micromobility Shows What a Mess We Are In

We have to rethink regulation of micromobility in North America.

A cartoon of a man on a motorcycle and a woman on an electric skateboard.
Illegal in NYC Bike Lanes.

Bill Roundy/Streetsblog

Here at Treehugger, I have often asked why are e-bike regulations so random? I have complained about the rules in New York City, in particular, which miss the entire point of the e-bike revolution. It is so confusing in New York that Streetsblog NYC felt compelled to produce a "Field Guide to the Micromobility" (and large, annoying, deadly, and virtually unregulated vehicles) of New York City so everyone can figure this out and realize how silly, incomprehensible and counterproductive these rules are.

The guide—written by Henry Beers Shenk, Gersh Kuntzman, and Vince DiMiceli; with graphics by Bill Roundy—starts off with a "letter" quoting Dermot Shea, the Police Commissioner, demonstrating he has no idea of what is legal or what is not, and how to tell them apart.

"I’ll tell you from the policing side, it’s very complicated between electric and gas and different sizes and throttles. There’s probably, you know, an opportunity there to really look at the entire landscape and how do we accomplish what everyone wants but do it a little more safely.... What I am seeing lately is more bicycles, scooters, dirt bikes, skateboards with engines on them, and I could go on and on – I think New Yorkers see it, too – that are not stopping at stop signs, going the wrong way in bike lanes, and I could go on."

But as Kuntzman tells Treehugger, some of these are legal and have a right to be in the bike lane, and some are not, because the rules are so confusing. "There is no distinction between gas or electric mopeds. We don't know what to even call these things," says Kuntzman.

You can buy electric Vespa-style mopeds in unmarked repair shops, where they say you don't need a license, but you do. They are all zipping down the bike lanes at high speed when they are not allowed to be there. As they write in the preface to the field guide:

"All the two-wheeled motorized devices on the market today are potentially far safer to vulnerable road users than the four-wheeled 3,000- to 5,000-pound conveyances, they seek to supplant. But it doesn’t feel that way right now because users of illegal mopeds are often speeding through bike lanes, surprising pedestrians with their speed. Of course, the moped rider is choosing the bike lane, where he or she will be far safer from the true behemoths on the roads: cars and trucks.
So the roads — not the modes — are the problem."

The key point here is that they are called bike lanes for a reason: They are for bikes. In Europe, where electric bikes were first regulated, the rules were set so that e-bikes were just bikes with a boost, with a maximum powered speed that played nicely in the bike lanes.

I wrote earlier: "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 did not have a throttle because they were designed to help you with your pedaling.

Class 1 e-bike
Class 1 E-bike.

Bill Roundy/Streetsblog

When e-bikes came to North America, there seemed to be no comprehension of why the rules existed, there was no national standard, so People for Bikes tried to develop a model electric bike law that had Class 1 e-bikes which are the closest to the Euro standard. Streetsblog notes: "Often seen passing normal bikes with a sense of superiority, these pedal-assist bikes are the slowest category of electric bikes. They operate at 20 mph or less and their boost only kicks in when the user is pedaling. "

The reason they are often seen passing normal bikes is that they go 20 mph when the European Union rules limit them to 15 mph. But hey, everyone says the U.S. isn't Europe and the distances are greater and they need more speed. I will say that I have a Class 1 e-bike and I like being able to go 20 mph.

And even though it is really just a bike with a boost, in New York City they are not allowed on the Hudson River Greenway or in many parks, which readers previously noted: "[it is] 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." Again, the whole point of e-bikes in the first place was to help older people or those with disabilities to keep biking.

Class 2 e-bikes are the same as Class 1, except they have a throttle. Some people like this because they don't want to or have trouble pedaling. They do not exist in the EU.

Class 3 bike

Bill Roundy/Streetsblog

Class 3 e-bikes can go up to 25 mph, but the rider must wear a helmet Streetsblog writes: "Class 3 e-bikes are the most common electric bikes on the roads today, thanks to widespread adoption by hard-working, frequently exploited delivery workers." They are allowed in bike lanes, and as far as I am concerned, shouldn't be when the bike lane is full of kids and older people and basically people on bikes. And because of New York City's system of one-way avenues, those hard-working delivery drivers often go the wrong way in the bike lane; it is a fundamental design flaw in a city that still worships the car.

Class B moped

Bill Roundy/Streetsblog

The field guide then gets into all the other vehicles that are in the bike lanes but shouldn't be. Of course, there are cars, trucks, and police vehicles. The latter is described: "White and blue vehicles, more often than not SUVs, carrying two police officers. Interiors smell of coffee and human effluvium. Routinely spotted parked in bike lanes outside donut shops, in front of station houses, and, sometimes, on the Boardwalk at Coney Island."

Then there are the mopeds, of which "there are so many varieties in this category that it boggles the mind." They are supposed to be licensed and travel in the car lanes, but "many delivery workers are choosing this mode, but then using bike lanes for their own safety." Here, the regulatory system is a mess: State law says a Class C moped is "actually a motorized bike without pedals." It is often indistinguishable from a B or A moped that can go 60 mph.

Other electric vehicles that are illegal in bike lanes are sit-down scooters, electric skateboards, and electric unicycles. The field guide doesn't even get into the new threat, the super-e-bikes proposed by VanMoof and BMW. There is also, surprisingly, no mention of cargo bikes or cargo e-bikes.

It does all boggle the mind. It should be simple: Bike lanes are for bikes and for other e-vehicles that can co-exist with bikes without driving the bike riders out of the lane out of fear. Basically, the issues are weight and speed. Rules should be simple and clear. As transportation expert Anders Swanson of Vélo Canada Bikes told Treehugger earlier:

 "That utter lack of clarity is how we can simultaneously have this how-big-can-you-build-an-SUV-before-its-technically-an-armored-personnel-carrier arms war, where cars get complete amnesty while somehow bring gaslighted into believing it's some dad taking his toddler and a pumpkin home from the store in an e-bike that deserves to be scrutinized”.
Field Guide Cover

Bill Roundy/Streetsblog

The Field Guide to Micromobility is a fun read, but it could have been a lot more. It gets that "it's the roads, and not the modes, that is the problem but makes no suggestions as to what might be done to fix that, such as two-way bike lanes on the Avenues, or fully separated bike lanes everywhere." It should perhaps note that if the roads weren't filled with SUVs the size of armored personnel carriers, perhaps the moped drivers would feel safe enough to use them.

And of course, Streetsblog could write an entire field guide to the places that police park, how they mistreat cyclists and totally disrespect even the concept of a bike lane.

But it is fair to say that the function of this guide was to clarify who and what is allowed in the bike lanes we have under the ridiculous laws that we have, and it does that in a lighthearted and entertaining manner. The fact that they can be so lighthearted in the face of all this is perhaps a characteristic of New Yorkers: If you are going to have to put up with all this crap, you might as well have a little fun. And with some slight local variations, cyclists everywhere in North America will see parallels and get something out of it.

Get your Field Guide from Streetsblog here.

View Article Sources
  1. "Alerts and Advisories." Hudson River Park, 2021.