Around the world, electric bikes are becoming a mainstream urban mobility option. In dense cities such as Madrid, Paris and Shenzen, new versions have been rolled out by various companies, and sometimes incorporated into existing bikeshare networks. But in New York - which would be the likeliest U.S. city for such expansion - ebikes remain illegal. And under the direction of Mayor Bill de Blasio, their use has become more and more targeted.
Ebikes are illegal because of state laws that prevent the use on any street of bicycles with motors. In New York City, these laws were - under the spirit of localism - long flouted, but during de Blasio's first term, have been more heavily enforced. In October of 2017, the city stated that its year-to-date confiscation and ticketing of ebikes was up 170%; and it announced that starting in 2018, ticketing policies would grow even stricter. Currently, ebike riders are subject to confiscation and $500 fines. Starting in 2018, the NYPD can also hit businesses whose employees use ebikes with fines starting at $100. These businesses mostly include restaurants that deliver food.
The rationale for this crackdown is that...well, it's hard to figure out the rationale. City officials claim that ebikes draw resident complaints for the way they are ridden - i.e. recklessly on sidewalks and between cars. But automobiles and bicycles are both used recklessly in New York City, and the common solution has been to police them, not ban them. Officials have also cited the supposed danger of ebikes. But as several local and national publications have noted, the de Blasio administration has failed, even when asked by the media, to provide data proving their danger.
Rather, the city is cracking down on ebikes in apparent contradiction of its own stated goals. In 2014, the mayor launched the Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths and encourage alternative transportation uses. Ebikes, which make bicycling faster, easier, and thus more scalable to the masses, is the quintessential example of an alternative use - and something that could multiply they city's current bikeshare growth, as it's done in other cities. Yet the technology itself is illegal.
The policy also contradicts New York City's status as a sanctuary city for immigrants. A common target from these laws have been immigrant deliverymen, who often hail from Asia and Latin America, and bike long distances for low pay. This is why a protest held earlier in the week outside City Hall attracted over 200 people, including immigrants holding up signs in multiple languages.
But the main idea threatened here is that the New York City government, under mayor de Blasio, is actually interested in innovative problem-solving; or is just a bureaucracy that regulates and fines its private sector over minor issues. As Alex Logemann, a policy director for the advocacy group PeopleForBikes, noted, the U.S. city that would best support mass ebiking may be the one now most hostile to it. As he told Bicycling.com, “I would struggle to come up with an example of another city taking New York’s approach.”
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanist.
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