Last-minute road to e-bike and e-scooter legalization

A bill being considered in Albany would legalize electric bikes and scooters for delivery workers and others, after lots of haggling. 
A bill being considered in Albany would legalize electric bikes and scooters for delivery workers and others, after lots of haggling.  Photo Credit: Public Art Fund

Sometimes big changes for New York City come because of 11th-hour updates in Albany.

That seems to be the case this year with the legalization of electric bikes and electric scooters. Both would become possible with an amended bill re-committed in Albany Sunday night. With the legislative session scheduled to end Wednesday, the legislation came with just enough time for the three days of public review required before voting. 

A spokeswoman for sponsor Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens says there’s a deal on the bill between the State Senate and Assembly, setting up a vote this week. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the necessary third party, has been supportive of the issue.) 

It’s a classic case of the law being a little behind reality, at least as far as bikes are concerned. Maybe you thought electric bikes were already legal in New York City, because you rode a pedal-assist Citi Bike and enjoyed the motor’s spurt of power. Or you saw the regular vision of delivery workers coasting down the street with takeout bags on both handlebars as the city’s Seamless addiction grows.

Except the vehicular legality of both of those sights was murky on the state level. On the city level, Mayor Bill de Blasio was happy to put aside his e-bike safety concerns and clarify that pedal-assist bikes were fine as powerful bike-share companies were muscling into the electronic game. But the throttle bikes often used by delivery workers, which didn’t require the use of pedals, didn’t make the cut and were subject to fines.

Electric for those who can afford bike-share memberships or day passes? A-OK! But for delivery workers looking to save their legs, who hustle for tips in all weather and are often immigrants? Not in de Blasio’s Fairest Big City in the land (™). Instead, the mayor held a 2017 news conference about delivery workers who went the wrong way down the street — not a particularly great practice but also not the point of e-bikes.

A State Senate hearing on the issue on June 7 featured some of the other side. A 62-year-old immigrant who came to the United States under political asylum in 2015 said he had two e-bikes stolen on the street but didn’t call the cops because of the murkiness in state and city law. Another delivery worker talked about the difficulties of the riding life, delivering in snowstorms and being buffeted by high winds.

The Albany deal would regulate the e-bike game, putting rules in place on speeds and usage. And local governments would be able to opt out from allowing the electric vehicles if they so chose.

So what will NYC do?

“We appreciate this commonsense legislation that clarifies the rules around e-bikes on our streets,” said mayoral spokesman Seth Stein in a statement. “Safety for everyone on our roads is our priority, and we look forward to working with legislators and communities as we develop plans to implement the new law.” 

If the (roundabout) point of all that is to indicate that NYC will apply the new Albany rules, then the best that can be said about the mayor on this issue is that he was the last to the party.

How did the e-situation shift in Albany? The Sunday version of the bill has some carefully specific language. For example, it adds a particular definition for the throttle-style bikes that don’t require pedaling and are often used by delivery workers, but the definition only applies in New York City.

E-bikes and e-scooters aren’t allowed on particularly defined greenways unless designated by the overseeing agency.

And the e-scooter legalization has an even more important narrow carveout, saying that the standard shared electric scooter system isn’t allowed in a county within a population range that appears intended to define Manhattan.

This would seem to satisfy some of the concerns of politicians and New Yorkers worried that the busiest parts of NYC would be even more chaotic with e-scooters left in random places, as opponents say can happen in other cities that have embraced dockless scooter shares.

That of course is a complicated and whole different issue from the means of food delivery.

You may be wondering why e-scooters have been lumped in with e-bikes in the first place. They’re similar in that they are light vehicles with a small motor added on, an example of “micromobility,” a new way to get around. But the usage pattern is fairly different at least between the delivery workers who use e-bikes, and e-scooters, which have so far been associated more with entertainment and niche travel.

Scooter share companies, however, are eager to break into New York in a way that some forms of e-bikes already have. And they have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying on the city and state level for legalization.

Which is another way beyond 11th-hour updates that big changes come to NYC.

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