E-bike legalization debate divides city officials, NYPD

Motorized bicycles, known as e-bikes, are illegal on city streets, but officials are considering a change in regulation to allow them.
Motorized bicycles, known as e-bikes, are illegal on city streets, but officials are considering a change in regulation to allow them. Photo Credit: StreetEasy

Mayor Bill de Blasio and officials at his transportation and police departments appear to be at odds over the handling of illegal motorized bicycles, known as e-bikes.

While the transportation department last year said it would look to legalize the bicycles, typically powered by a small motor, the mayor called the bikes “a real problem” Friday during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, where he also voiced disapproval of the NYPD’s enforcement of the issue.

About 700 electric bikes have been confiscated by the NYPD this year, triple the previous year, according to the mayor. But de Blasio questioned why police were fining e-bike operators instead of going after the businesses for which the drivers work. Illegally operating an e-bike carries a $500 fine.

“There is a real potential danger to people created by these . . . bikes. And they are illegal,” de Blasio said in response to a question on policing of the bikes. “So NYPD is turning more of its focus to the e-bikes. But I think his point is well taken. I’m going to definitely look into this. Why not go after the businesses directly? That makes a lot sense to me.”

There are legal versions of e-bikes, where a rider powers the motor by pedaling, but the illegal variety tend to be used by delivery cyclists. They can be difficult to distinguish from non-motorized bicycles — a small battery attached to the bike frame is the most noticeable difference.

While legal in several states, the bikes are not allowed to be ridden on New York streets. Proponents believe legalizing the bikes can increase bicycling accessibility and help reform the delivery of goods, while others fear the bikes are a safety hazard.

On Monday, Insp. Dennis Fulton, of the NYPD Transportation Bureau, said fining businesses, as opposed to e-bike riders, is too difficult a task because police often can’t locate the business owners to issue the tickets.

“We don’t go after [businesses],” Fulton said, “because you have to issue the summons to the agent of business and sometimes they’re not even located in the city. So we’ve felt that the best way to tackle this issue . . . was to issue it to the person who was actually riding it.”

In the DOT’s 2016 strategic plan, the agency outlined that it “will work with its agency partners to develop a sensible legal framework to regulate growing e-bike use and improve safety.”

A bill sitting in the state Senate would legalize e-bikes traveling at a speed of 20 mph.

“I’ll just be honest with you, there are different viewpoints about how to handle it and how to do the enforcement of it that hasn’t really been resolved yet,” said Polly Trottenberg, DOT commissioner. “It’s been a complicated issue. We recognize that there are e-bikes on the street right now and not a totally comprehensive legal framework.

“It was part of discussions up in Albany this past session,” Trottenberg continued. “There are a lot of things up in Albany where we didn’t quite get to the finish line. I think e-bikes is going to continue to be an ongoing discussion.”

Do Lee, of Biking Public Project, which advocates for immigrant cyclists and supports legalizing e-bikes, said the city’s crackdown is misguided.

“We haven’t really seen any evidence that it’s disproportionately less safe to ride e-bikes,” Lee said. “The fixation on e-bikes doesn’t really get to the root of why people use them — the arduous nature of the work, the speed of deliveries — it distracts from those issues.”

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