The city offered tepid support for legalizing electric bikes and scooters Wednesday, kicking off a City Council debate on a package of bills aimed at amping up micromobility across the five boroughs.
The electric rides have gained popularity in New York, though they are still illegal to run on the road. Bike share operators such as Citi Bike have brought in pedal-assisted cruisers, while companies like Lime and Bird are hoping to launch scooter-share programs. But at Wednesday’s packed Council hearing, the city’s transportation commissioner reiterated the de Blasio administration’s reservations about giving throttle e-bikes the green light for legalization.
“The city’s concern with these throttle e-bikes has always been their unregulated, illegal nature and particularly their speeds and irresponsible use by some,” said DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “Should state action provide the ability for localities to authorize these devices, we’d be open to a conversation with the council about whether to allow them here in New York City.”
The City Council believes it has the power to legalize the electric vehicles, but the city argues that only the state can authorize the rides, Trottenberg said. The debate may be moot now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in his state budget—which is due on April 1—that local governments have the final say over legalization in their cities.
But a slew of safety and logistical concerns remain over how electric bikes and scooters will function in the five boroughs. One immediate need would be to beef up the city’s network of bike lanes, Trottenberg testified Wednesday.
“I should note more widespread use of both e-bikes and e-scooters would change the experience on our streets, including for conventional bike users,” said Trottenberg, who noted that the city is in the midst of evaluating how other cities have handled the transition. “If legalized, they will no doubt increase the growing demand for more dedicated bike lanes.”
Two of the introduced bills aim to legalize e-bikes with a 20 miles per hour cap and e-scooters with a max speed of 15 miles per hour, respectively.
“It’s time that we do everything we can to finally bring these bikes out of the shadows,” said Brooklyn Council member Rafael Espinal.
The Council’s push for legalization comes amid the city’s ticketing blitz burdening delivery workers—who tend to use the throttle bikes—with fines up to $500 and confiscation by the NYPD. (The de Blasio administration made it legal last summer for companies including Lime, Motivate, and Uber to legally launch pedal-assisted electric bikes.)
Officers seized 1,215 e-bikes in 2018 compared to 1,005 in 2017. Police ticketed 1,154 people for using e-bikes, but only 167 businesses were slapped with summonses. A total of 1,362 moving violation tickets were issued to e-bike riders last year, according to the NYPD’s Legislative Director Oleg Chernyavsky. There has yet to be a single seizure of an e-scooter.
Council members panned the NYPD for over policing and charged the city with creating a class divide of biking in the city.
“They still are doing the job every single day, and every single day they are in danger of getting their bike confiscated, getting tickets,” Manhattan Council member Margaret Chin said Wednesday. She also scolded the city for failing to help delivery cyclists convert throttle e-bikes to pedal assisted versions.
Trottenberg said it “proved immensely challenging” to develop a legal and safe conversion program with bicycle shops across the city. But the Council pushed back, urging the city to get creative in its problem solving.
“New York City cannot be left behind,” said Manhattan Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, the transportation committee chair.