photo by John St John
I commuted from the suburbs to jobs in New York City for nine years, back in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Back then Wall Street was booming, and so was the business of bicycle messengers: those crazed daredevils who tore through Manhattan streets as though they were training for the Tour de France.
As a pedestrian trudging nearly a mile each way up Fifth and Sixth Avenues from Grand Central Terminal, the messengers seemed like more of a hazard to life and limb than the city’s gridlocked taxis, trucks and private cars. The bikes moved much faster, and were not above riding the wrong way in the streets or mounting the sidewalks. Then-Mayor Ed Koch tried to accommodate bikers, and not just the messengers, with the city’s first modern bike lanes in 1980. Koch ripped them out again seven years later.
Today, depending on your point of view, bike lanes have made strong progress or launched a full-scale invasion of New York City streets. Former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg installed more than 350 miles of bike lanes during his tenure and championed the installation of a bike-share system in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Citi Bike has since expanded, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office reported that the bikes provided nearly 14 million rides in 2016. Like his predecessor, de Blasio has long emphasized expansion for bike lanes, and this summer his Department of Transportation pledged to add 10 miles of protected bike lanes and allocate 50 miles of regular lanes annually starting in 2017. The number of bike paths in the city has more than doubled in the past decade, Crain’s reported.
All this has been good news for cyclists (even if they sometimes wish pedestrians would get out of those bike lanes). There are an estimated 450,000 bike trips per day in the city, about one in five of which is by a commuter. But with all the emphasis on expanding bike riding, and with the city’s self-proclaimed welcoming of immigrants and ethnic diversity, I don’t understand the current crackdown on electric-powered bicycles and the people most likely to be on board: takeout delivery people and the little storefront restaurants that employ them.
There is a gap in the laws regulating these unwelcome hybrids. Federal law treats them as bicycles rather than motor vehicles, so they don’t need to have all the equipment found on a street-legal motorcycle. But New York state law treats the motorized bikes as motor vehicles, despite the fact that the state provides no clear way for them to meet the registration requirement. City ordinance outlaws e-bikes outright – with the arguable exception of bikes equipped with motors that merely provide a boost to pedal power, depending on who you ask.
The upshot, apparently, is that commercial bike use is legal, but only if you have the physical conditioning of a world-class athlete, like those old bike messengers. (Bike messengers are still around, but the field is steadily shrinking thanks to modern technology. Although I seldom go to Manhattan anymore, I still make occasional visits, and I haven’t had to jump out of the path of a death-eating messenger in years.)
The New York Police Department has long issued fines and confiscated e-bikes. The Department of Transportation also enforces rules with the delivery riders’ employers; commercial cyclists already face stricter regulations than individual cyclists in the city, regardless of bike type. But recently, de Blasio announced a new policy that would actually fine employers, in addition to riders, who are caught using e-bikes to do business.
“If it takes a couple more minutes for your delivery to get there, you’re going to live,” de Blasio said at a press conference. But it is not the customers ordering from Seamless who are, on balance, going to suffer from a crackdown on electric bikes. It’s the people delivering their food and the establishments they are ordering from.
I just don’t get it. If a vehicle is as light as a bike, and has two wheels like a bike, and travels like a bike, why not treat it as a bike? If the NYPD needs to enforce traffic laws against bikers, which is a perfectly sound idea, why not make sure all bikers obey traffic signals and ride in a manner that doesn’t endanger themselves or others? Why pick on the poor people, mainly immigrants, who rely on bikes for their living but lack the stamina to pedal 50 miles a day? Assuming they ride the same way the pedal-pushers do, who are they hurting?
Apparently the most recent crackdown arrived because someone complained. In my experience, particularly but not exclusively with New Yorkers, someone will complain about absolutely anything and everything. When it comes to police action, there has to be a higher standard than that. More than one local journalist wondered after de Blasio’s announcement whether the city had any statistics on deaths or serious injuries caused by e-bikes, rather than just the number of infractions of a law that arguably does not make sense in the first place.
Although I will likely never ride a bicycle inside the New York City limits again – the last time was when I was a high schooler in the Bronx – I will go ahead suggest this standard: Tackle a problem when you can identify a problem. From here, I just can’t see how hooking an electric motor to a pair of wheels can automatically create a problem worth solving. It is certainly not the kind of problem I faced when I was scooting out of the way of those hell-bent messengers all those years ago.