Electric pedal-assist bikes are in the Citi Bike fleet, but what about for delivery workers?

Electric pedal-assist Citi Bikes are now circulating. What about similar bikes used by delivery workers?
Electric pedal-assist Citi Bikes are now circulating. What about similar bikes used by delivery workers? Photo Credit: Getty Images/Ilya S. Savenok

If you’re a Citi Bike user, by now you may have had the chance to nab a futuristic electric pedal-assist bike — one of the ones with a motor that gives you a nice kick even when you’re barely peddling.

If you’re a pedestrian or driver, you might have noticed the bikes, too, or just caught a glimpse of the wild grin on the face of the rider, surprised to be breezing by.

The bikes can go up to 18 mph, and they zoom with the first tap of the pedals.

Two hundred of the souped-up bikes were released into the system at the end of the summer. By now, bikeshare employees have gotten quicker at changing the batteries and keeping the bikes moving, and maybe one has cycled through to a rack near you. The vehicles are part of a pilot program to test them for a bigger purpose this spring, when the L train stops running into Manhattan and 1,000 pedal-assist bikes in the area will help riders get over the Williamsburg Bridge.

That’s as much as Citi Bike will say about any bold electric future, but it’s easy to see how pedal-assist could become more popular as the bikeshare system expands.

Mounted upon one, you can:

  • climb steep trajectories with limited sweating;
  • bike easily for long distances (the batteries last for 35 miles of city riding, according to a spokesman);
  • speed past even the cool bikers with fixed gears and horizontal postures, shrugging your non-messenger-bagged shoulders or just waving humbly as you go.

The bikes are extremely easy to use, and it’s not hard to go fast. That first kick might even surprise you. Powering along a one-way street at a rate that may not be much slower than neighboring cars, you may marvel at the fact that these things are legal.

Well, that’s where things get complicated. Over the summer, the city performed some regulatory jiu jitsu to grant legality to pedal-assist bikes like this even though state legality was murky. But bike-share companies were exploring change and they got it.

Meanwhile, the “combination” or “throttle bikes” often used by delivery workers are not allowed in New York City.

What’s the difference between the bikes? You don’t necessarily need to pedal the throttle ones. They may go faster than the Citi Bike pedal-assists: a fact sheet from Make the Road New York, an advocacy group which has helped the often-immigrant delivery workers, says the forbidden bikes can go 25 mph.

According to a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Hall has no plans to support legalizing throttle e-bikes, which are now often ticketed, and says there are safety concerns.

But there doesn’t seem to be data to convincingly back that up. The NYPD says there have not been fatalities involving an electric assist bike.

Yet these bikes are becoming plentiful as more people order in and ask for delivery. Plenty of people who live in neighborhoods where delivery bikers are endlessly zooming may feel a little uneasy about this new contraption on their streets and bike lanes. And even if they don’t cause an injury, they do move fast, they often pull onto the sidewalk, and you might not see them coming.

Absent hard evidence of danger, maybe it’s just the newness that’s causing some of the fuss, and maybe people will come to an equilibrium. Pedestrians will grow accustomed to fast bikes; the bikers will be more careful of pedestrians. And maybe this will happen when hundreds of commuters and pleasure cruisers hit the streets with the slightly different variant. Or those Citi Bikers will have to do their own delivery.