The NYPD recently tweeted a picture of dozens of confiscated electrically powered bicycles. In some tweets, social media-savvy cops referenced Vision Zero, the traffic-safety initiative embraced by the mayor and bike advocates.
E-bikes, which are illegal on NYC streets, are often the transportation of choice for delivery workers, many of them hardworking immigrants zipping food to our homes and offices. Many of the bikes in the photos represent an encounter with police, possibly ending in a fine or an arrest. Fines go up to $500, and some workers say they, not their employers, pay for and replace bikes that cops confiscate.
Are police targeting people of color, or are they simply enforcing the law? Both. Retired and current cops have said this type of low-level enforcement is a slam dunk against working-class blacks and Latinos because we don’t have, like affluent whites do, political power to fight crackdowns.
Delivery workers who are in the country illegally get a particularly raw deal because the risks are higher. Contact with the criminal justice system can open the door for immigration officials. Few people in the city risk as much to make ends meet. Those who use e-bikes do it mainly out of necessity. New Yorkers with insatiable appetites drive demand, which can result in long shifts for low pay. Imagine biking up and down the city all day. You’d want an e-bike, too.
NYC banned e-bikes in 2004 — along with other motorized vehicles that couldn’t be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Groups have tried to reverse the ban. However, as biking advocates have tried to sic cops on their greatest nemesis, car drivers, police execute Vision Zero to include e-bike crackdowns. Are e-bikes dangerous? Anything traveling more than 20 mph can be a danger, but we don’t ban cars and we shouldn’t ban e-bikes. Regulating them to go less than 20 mph would render them no more dangerous than ordinary bikes.
Unfortunately, the NYPD genie won’t easily go back in its bottle. Biking advocates want to cut traffic deaths, a worthwhile goal. But they should insist that New Yorkers of color like delivery workers, caught between the needs and pet peeves of the city, aren’t criminalized — or worse, put at risk of deportation.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.