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New York City’s mobility crisis has reached a tipping point

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And it’s not just the subway

Max Touhey

New York City is often ahead of the curve compared to other large American cities when it comes to transportation. But in one area, it’s lagging far behind: micromobility. The New York City Council finally introduced a bill this month to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters. But there’s just one problem: Mayor Bill de Blasio isn’t on board.

On WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last week, de Blasio expressed skepticism about throttle electric bikes—the kind that don’t require pedaling and travel at speeds over 20 miles per hour—in response to a cyclist who called in concerned about bike lanes becoming more dangerous. The mayor responded: “Whatever we decide, safety has to be our number one concern … right now, I am convinced that the way that the e-bikes are being used particularly by delivery folks wasn’t safe, and that if that happened a lot more we’d have a problem.”

In the same breath, he passed the buck—“a lot of this has to be decided at the state level”—and went into a Vision Zero stump speech, saying, “one of the biggest things we can do is get better mass transit options to help people get out of their cars. But in the meantime, there’s too many people, there’s too little space, and we’ve got to focus on safety.”

But here’s the rub: E-bikes make cities safer, not more dangerous. How? By incentivizing people to drive less.

New York City’s surface-level transportation is at an inflection point. Only when city leadership legitimizes non-automotive forms of transportation—and overhauls infrastructure in response—will it actually be safe to use those forms of transportation. This includes throttle e-bikes, pedal-assist e-bikes, bike sharing, regular bikes, scooters, walking, and skating—essentially anything other than a car. This isn’t a problem that will be solved by building more bike lanes; it will require a fundamental philosophical shift in what modes of transportation are considered the exception and what’s the rule. Until that takes place, car crashes will kill pedestrians, gridlock will worsen, and getting around New York will continue to be a hardship.

Multi-modal streets are an equity issue, a public health issue, and a quality of life issue. And if improving New Yorkers’ quality of life and making the city more equitable aren’t compelling reasons, there’s a staggering economic one, too: Congestion will cost New York City $100 billion by 2023, according to a recent analysis by the Partnership for New York City.

And yet: The majority of our road infrastructure is dedicated to cars and drivers. That ought to change. Transportation technology is moving fast, and New York’s streets aren’t responding quickly enough.

New York City DOT has been updating intersections to be safer for multi-modal travel.
Courtesy DOT

De Blasio talks about regulating e-bikes so they’re safe. But laws mean nothing without enforcement. Look at what’s happening with cars, a “mobility technology” that’s been on New York City streets—and is, in theory, regulated—for over 100 years. Yes, pedestrian deaths are at their lowest since 1910, but even one death is too many. And time and again, drivers involved in fatal crashes face little to no consequences. Red light, speed, and bus lane cameras generate nearly $100 million in revenue for the city every year and would likely bring in more if the network expands. Yet speed cameras were nearly shut off, if it weren’t from an 11th-hour executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Previous efforts to expand the city’s speed camera program stalled due to political differences in the Republican-controlled state senate. With a shift in power to Democrats beginning in the next legislative session, now is the time to enact stronger safeguards.

On any given day, I see bikers ride on sidewalks since the streets are unsafe or lanes are blocked. I see people in wheelchairs use bike lanes because sidewalks are too narrow or in a terrible state of disrepair. I see parents with strollers struggle to negotiate those same poorly constructed sidewalks. I see cars double parking on bike lanes, obstructing one-way streets so buses can’t pass. I see for-hire vehicles occupy bus stops, preventing passengers from boarding in a timely manner. I see drivers speed through intersections and cut pedestrians off. I’ve lost count of how many times cars and private school buses have driven too fast and too close to me while I’m on my bike. Vigilantes opposed to bike lanes stooped so low as to throw thumbtacks on a popular Queens route just a week ago.

As a press conference about newly introduced bills to legalize e-bikes, City Council Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez said he would like the DOT to double its annual goal of adding 25 miles of protected bikes lanes. Considering the city has over 6,000 miles of roads, even 50 miles of protected lanes isn’t ambitious enough. Every single street should be safe for everyone to use, and the only way to do that is by aggressively pursuing policies that get cars off roads: congestion pricing, adequately funding buses and the subway, embracing micromobility, and redesigning roads to move people.

Consider this: when Citi Bike arrived, it was met with a slew of hysteric allegations about being elitist, unsafe, and a magnet for terrorism. After five years of service, Citi Bikes have accounted for 60 million trips and ridership continues to rise. More pedal-assist bikes are coming to the program, and a $100 million investment from Lyft (which now owns Citi Bike’s parent company, Motivate) will help expand service. Politicians and cycling advocates view pedal-assist bikes as a major solution to the imminent L train shutdown. There will always be resistance to new things—and some skepticism is warranted—but it’s up to our politicians to see the bigger picture.

E-bikes aren’t about “getting some exercise” or being “interested personally” as de Blasio flippantly remarked. They also aren’t just an immigrant issue. Bike shares aren’t just “sustainable” and “affordable” ways to travel, as DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has said. These aren’t other nice things to have, or even “alternative” transportation; they’re essential, crucial, viable forms of transit for regular New Yorkers. And the city’s top leadership needs to understand that.