Why Are Electric Bikes Illegal, Anyway?

It’s getting to be a task keeping up with pending City Council bills that deal with electric-assisted bikes. Legislation proposed by Council Members Jessica Lappin and Dan Garodnick would hike fines for riding an e-bike, and two new bills would reportedly shift fines away from delivery workers to their employers and grant enforcement power to DOT and Parks Department personnel, who, if the bill passes, would have the authority to confiscate bikes. Meanwhile, Council Member Brad Lander wants to establish an e-bike task force — a possible sign that lawmakers are looking to streamline the council’s seemingly haphazard e-bike offensive.

Under New York code, this man is an outlaw. Photo: NYT

One question that tends to come up when an e-bike bill surfaces, or resurfaces, is why they’re illegal in the first place. Restaurant workers do long shifts, in all weather and terrain conditions, for very little money. Not all of them are young. Why would the City Council expend so much effort to take away a tool that makes their jobs easier?

We called up Transportation Alternatives’ Juan Martinez for the lowdown on e-bikes in New York. About 10 years ago, Martinez says, the federal government passed a law that classified certain electric bikes as bicycles, exempting them from regulations that apply to street-legal motorcycles. But Albany never updated state code to reflect the change. Since electric bikes don’t come from the factory with vehicle identification numbers — because VIN plates aren’t required by federal regulations — they can’t be registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Many e-bikes used by restaurant workers weigh about the same as conventional bikes and have a top speed of around 20 mph. Yet in the eyes of the law, they are unlicensed motorcycles driven by unlicensed operators.

Martinez says the Assembly routinely passes out a bill that would bring state code in line with federal law, but the Senate has yet to pass a companion bill — not because there is opposition, but mainly because, well, it’s Albany.

And why doesn’t the City Council simply adopt a home rule message urging state lawmakers to finally make e-bikes legal to ride, like conventional bicycles? “That’s a rhetorical question,” says Martinez.

In the meantime, council members are desperate for a solution to constituent complaints about sidewalk riding. “They’re hearing about this every day,” Martinez says. “There’s a reality that they’re responding to.” Since NYPD does not keep data on electric bike summonses or crashes, however, it’s impossible to gauge the extent of the problem.

We have a message in with Gardonick’s office concerning the latest e-bike bills.

Again, Martinez notes that not everyone who wants or needs to ride a bike is physically capable, at least not to the extent necessary to keep a job as a delivery worker. He points out that other cities have e-bikes as part of their transportation mix without the attendant problems that NYC can’t seem to get a handle on. “It’s not the type of bike that’s going to make people safer,” Martinez says. “It’s the way the bike is being used.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that some council members who are hot to regulate delivery cyclists have been less receptive to making streets safer for them to ride on.