Brooklyn Boro

A tale of two e-bikes: City moves ahead to help rich cyclists, while thousands of deliverymen suffer

May 16, 2018 By Trevor Boyer Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Two cyclists riding e-bikes have been killed so far this year. Eagle file photo.

It’s a rolling hypocrisy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to punish hard-working deliverymen for using low-cost battery-powered bicycles but is moving ahead to legalize high-end versions of the supposedly rogue roadsters.

Currently electric bikes are illegal to ride, but the city is moving forward with an exemption for pedal-controlled electric bikes — the ones favored by well-heeled commuters. There are two main differences between the bikes used by deliverymen and those used by the wealthy: a typical delivery e-bike costs $1,500 and is controlled with a hand throttle, while the motor on the more-expensive bikes is controlled with the pedals. 

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Supporters of deliverymen, who get the vast majority of the $138 tickets for operating an illegal electric bike and pay the $500 when they’re confiscated, are crying foul.

“It’s not fair that others will be able to use electric bicycles while we workers continue being criminalized,” delivery worker Clemente Martinez, 43, said through a translator.

A concession to the rich?

The city rule change would legalize pedal-assist electric bikes, whose motor kicks in when the rider pedals. Such bikes are available in high-end retail shops like Fort Greene’s Propel Bikes, where $5,000 price tags are common. The “separate but unequal” irony was not lost on worker advocates.


“Those are not the kind that delivery workers have had,” said Mel Gonzalez, an advocate with the immigrants’ rights group Make the Road New York, which objects to the Department of Transportation rule change to legalize only the more-expensive bikes. 

The mayor hopes to double the city’s active cyclists by 2020, and motorized assistance could help non-cyclists such as senior citizens feel comfortable going up hills on two wheels. And there’s big money behind Jump, the Brooklyn-based e-bike-sharing company that Uber acquired last month. Jump is spending $25,000 a month lobbying city and state government to pave a path for its pedal-assist e-bike sharing business model. Deliverymen do not have such a gilded megaphone.

The city has cited speed as its rationale for deciding which bikes will remain illegal. The motors on pedal-assist models cut out once the bike reaches 20 mph, but critics note that many throttle-triggered motors have the same top speed. And, of course, non-electrified cycles can also exceed 20 mph. 

So if speed is the main issue, why not just punish speeders, e-bike supporters ask. 

“The city should be going after the behavior of the rider, not the vehicle,” said Councilmember Rafael Espinal (D-Bushwick).

Make the Road has joined Transportation Alternatives, the Biking Public Project, and the Asian American Federation to ask the city to fund a conversion program so delivery workers can make their bikes legit. They suggested a range of possible solutions, including providing technical help in converting the motor’s trigger to a pedal-driven mechanism, to a full buyback program that could help fund delivery workers’ purchases of legal e-bikes.

The advocates claim that e-bikes are not inherently more dangerous than regular bicycles — though no one knows because the city does not record data of e-bike crashes.


How did we get here?

Electric bicycles have long been illegal to operate in New York City, though they are ubiquitous as their technology has become cheaper and better – and as more and more food delivery apps have sprung up. As the apps have proliferated, delivery zones have widened. And the technology has created speed expectations that distract many users from digesting one essential fact: a human being still has to deliver the food. And that human being has to hustle like mad just to make a living.

That’s why many deliverymen — and they are almost exclusively male — use the Arrow 7, a rechargeable, battery-powered bicycle whose speed can be regulated with a hand-throttle.

The bikes represent an investment of about $1,500, but users say they allow them to ride farther than traditional bikes, and keep their jobs well into middle age. They are cheaper and much more environmentally friendly than motorcycles or cars.

But last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, citing unspecified safety concerns, stepped up enforcement of rules barring e-bikes. At the time, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill called e-bikes “too often a danger on the city’s streets and sidewalks,” though no specific incidents were cited. A press release issued by the city at that time also quoted several Manhattan public officials who complained that e-bikes are unsafe, but also did not cite any specific examples.

It would be difficult to offer frightening statistics for one simple reason: The NYPD does not keep crash statistics specific to e-bikes.

One official, State Senator Liz Krueger hailed the NYPD for focusing its enforcement on “businesses…that encourage illegal e-bike use,” but the enforcement strategy of the NYPD suggests that workers are bearing the brunt of the new police effort.

In the first 10 months of 2017, cops seized 923 e-bikes compared to 341 during the same period of 2016. And the pace of enforcement is quickening: In the first quarter of this year, police issued 459 e-bike summonses and seized 320 bikes, according to WNYC. Retrieving a confiscated e-bike costs $500 — and something impossible to replace: time.

Mostly, deliverymen complain of the fines. Roberto Camacho, 39, a pizza deliveryman at Fornino’s in Greenpoint, uses an Arrow to get around. Last month, he got two tickets from an 83rd Precinct cop, one for being an “unlicensed operator” and another for having an “unregistered motorcycle.” His reaction cannot be printed. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer Affairs has hit 36 businesses for selling motorized scooters since 2016, with most of those violations issued during a four-month burst in 2016.

Damon Victor, owner of Greenpath Electric Bikes, a shop near Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, received four tickets for selling the illegal motorized scooters.

Victor said he spent about $25,000 challenging the city’s enforcement in court. He beat two of the $1,000 fines but was found guilty of another two. Aside from his commercial interest, he advocates for e-bikes for their environmental, fitness, and traffic benefits.

The exterior of the Arrow shop in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Trevor Boyer

“For every 10 bikes I sell, if I take one car off the road – and I know I have – I’ve done something,” he said.

Arrow E-Bikes/MNC International Trading, on the Lower East Side, has been found guilty of multiple counts, too. The company now claims it only repairs Arrow cycles, but does not sell them.

Propel Bikes, the Fort Greene retailer, has not had to pay any fines because he’s stuck to pedal-assist models only — but supporters of deliverymen find it hypocritical that his bikes are, apparently, not considered contraband. Owner Chris Nolte said he backs the rule change so that customers can legally buy bikes such as the Riese & Müller Mixte GH Nuvinci for $6,600 and then use them without the same fear felt every day by deliverymen. 

“We’ve always been selling pedal-assist bikes because we’ve known if anything’s going to be clear in the legal landscape, it’s pedal-assist bikes,” Nolte said. 

Advocates say the city enforcement strategy is misguided.

“The majority of our e-bike riders are immigrants, the people who live in our neighborhood, and want to be able to make a paycheck, to go home, and help their family with food, with college, with medicine,” said City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park). “And so a moratorium on enforcement is not too much to ask for. A moratorium allows us to say pause, to push the pause button and get this right.”

The Department of Transportation will hold a public comment session on May 29 at 1:30 p.m. at 55 Water St. in Manhattan. Call (212) 839-6500 to register to speak. You can also email comments to [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment