People, Mobility, Place & Social Justice

Tale of Two E-Bikes

Tale of Two E-Bikes

In April 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City (NYC) announced that the City would allow people to ride pedal-assist electric bicycles (e-bikes) while continuing to police throttle e-bikes. The Mayor claimed that this would “increase options for delivery workers,” but because food delivery workers most commonly use Arrow e-bikes with both pedal-assist and throttle functions, their current e-bikes remain criminalized. The Mayor and NYPD justifies the criminalization of “dangerous” throttle e-bikes in the name of Vision Zero, yet they cannot provide any public safety evidence such as crash, injury, or fatality data (there is none) as justification. NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has stated that the safety hazard of e-bikes is “anecdotal” and that she does not have “great statistics” to support such claims.

Describing this new policy, Pedro Rojas, an immigrant Latino delivery worker said, “This new policy is unfair… The city is going to permit only some electric bikes, but not the ones that we, the workers, use.”

With this policy shift, we have seen the racist and classist spectacle of a Tale of Two E-bikes with NYC’s government celebrating the introduction of e-bikes for CitiBike and other corporate bikeshare options like Jump for privileged white-collar commuters while the NYPD continues to hunt for e-bikes used by food delivery workers, who are most commonly Asian and Latino immigrants.

In August 2018, the Mayor’s office celebrated the rollout of speedy pedal-assist e-bikes for CitiBike:

In addition, the DOT featured a picture of Commish Trottenberg enjoying a boost from a Jump pedal-assist e-bike:

In contrast, this NYPD tweet during the same time period proudly showcases confiscations of e-bikes from delivery workers in the name of Vision Zero:

In 2017 and 2018, the NYPD has confiscated over 1900 e-bikes with an approximate street value of over $3 million while issuing thousands of punitive tickets to low-wage immigrant delivery workers.

Critics of delivery e-bikes such as Mayor de Blasio assert that this policing justified because the workers are choosing to ride “illegal” e-bikes.  But in the ways that systems of racism operate, this kind of critique erases the discriminatory history and contours of NYC’s e-bikes law that chooses who to make illegal.

Timeline of a Tale of Two E-Bikes

2002: U.S. Federal Law legalizes the import and sale of e-bikes.

The U.S. Congress enacted legislation in 2002 to allow the import, sale, and ownership of e-bikes, which are basically 2- or 3-wheeled bikes that have a maximum speed of 20mph when powered with an electric motor of less than 750 watts. However, this federal law did not specify how or where e-bikes could be ridden in public space, which left it up to each state to clarify the legality and rules of using e-bikes in public areas.  This federal law also stated that such e-bikes “shall not be considered a motor vehicle.” This means that e-bikes lack a specific and preexisting vehicle classification for states and thus states must enact legislation on e-bikes because without a clear state law, e-bikes cannot also simply legally regarded as bicycles or be registered like a moped or scooter.

NY State has never passed any law regarding electric bikes so the state legality of e-bikes remains murky and in need of clear legislation. This absence of state law results in a perverse on-the-ground situation where it is legal to own e-bikes but they are illegal to ride in New York.

2004: NYC’s E-Bike Ordinance

In this environment of legal ambiguity, electric bikes and motorized scooters began flooding the U.S. market including NYC shortly after the 2002 law.  The roots of NYC’s crusade against e-bikes began by 2004 when city officials reported hearing complaints about “a swarm of locusts” or packs of teenagers and youth on “pocket rockets.”  Pocket rockets or pocket bikes are tiny pocket-sized motorized bikes that stand roughly 16 inches or so as seen in this picture:

Screenshot of a scene with actor Jimmy Tsai riding a pocket bike in the film “Ping Pong Playa.” (Pic Source)

Spurred on neighborhood complaints (sounds familiar), then-NYC Council Member Michael McMahon introduced a bill that became the 2004 local ordinance that the City Council would pass that imposes $500 fines and confiscations for riding motorized scooters like e-bikes. This occurred despite the facts there was no supportive city public safety data presented at the hearing about supposed hazards of motorized scooters and that that NYPD officers were already fining e-bike and motorized scooter riders under state laws. Yet, McMahon argued for a city-level zero tolerance law to severely punish motorized scooter riders beyond state laws:

It seems clear that the Administration would like to have these [motorized scooters] off of our streets and our sidewalks.  I submit to you, the only way to do that is a zero tolerance policy, because that is the only way that this is enforceable.

This essay does not suggest that cities should not listen to its people, but rather that we need to also understand and attend to power relations and inequalities at play.  For example, as Biking Public Project writes:

It is important, when we think and talk about helping people feel safe, that we pay attention to the present power relationships and inequalities. For example, if wealthy privileged people feel unsafe around people from marginalized groups, it does not mean that this feeling of danger should be taken at face-value without understanding the powerful ways in which systems of racism and classism manufacture safety and danger.

During hearing testimonies, McMahon, then-Chair of the Transportation Committee John Liu, and many others justified this punitive law by depicting neighborhoods beset by a “plague” of teens on pocket bikes and to pass this law would be to protect the teenagers from riding dangerous pocket bikes while also deterring air and noise pollution from gas-powered motorized scooters.

During the hearings, a couple of testimonies such as George Bliss of Hub Station/Pedicabs of New York argued this approach to legislation perversely targeted groups of people rather than evaluating the merit of the vehicles themselves:

You are using the fact that a few teenagers abuse the noisy gasoline- powered variety of these scooters as a wedge to drive us from the solutions at hand.  It’s cynical and it’s sad.  To demonize an entire class of vehicle because of an abhorrent behavior among an especially visible group of misusers is not only unfair, it’s logic is perverse.

Then, in the intervening months between the first and second hearing on this bill, the death of teenager, Dante Pomar, while riding a pocket bike prompted then-Council Member John Liu and others to cite his death as compelling evidence for enacting this legislation. While Liu and other Council Members placed the blame squarely upon pocket bikes, they largely omitted the fact that Pomar’s death occurred while the NYPD pursued him for riding a motorized scooter. At this time,  neighborhood and City Council complaints were exerting political pressure on the NYPD to crack down on teens on pocket bikes. The NYPD claimed that they were chasing Pomar for not wearing a helmet, but there’s no such law. In contrast, Millissa Nelson, a friend of Pomar’s, argued:

This isn’t about pocket bikes being dangerous. It’s about a kid getting chased to his death. [emphasis mine]

Dante’s father, Hector Pomar, wept at the scene where his son laid dead. He would also express his deep fury and sorrow for the police’s disregard for his son’s life as he stated, “[The police] left my boy in the puddle to die.”

To rub salt into the wound, legislators carved out a special exemption in this law for Segways and electric scooters with a max speed of 15 mph.  Liu argued that these vehicles were used “in legitimate ways, particularly by people for business and other professional endeavors.” Thus, NYC’s e-bike law began a discriminatory Tale of Two E-bikes pattern of legalizing and criminalizing specific kinds of motorized scooters and e-bikes based on who is riding them.

Initially, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill primarily because the law also penalizes businesses with $1000- $2000 fines for each e-bike available for sale, lease or rental. In his veto, Bloomberg argued that already existing state laws were sufficient for enforcement while this law would hurt local businesses and create confusion in enforcement because of the exemptions for Segways and 15-mph electric scooters.

The NYC Council would override Mayor Bloomberg’s veto. In the override vote, James Gennaro, Pomar’s NYC Council Member, had the enormous gall to state that he cast his affirmative vote for the e-bikes law in Pomar’s memory – a law that would promote the kind of policing that killed Dante.

2013: Update to E-bikes Ordinance

In the decade between 2004 to 2013, new kinds of e-bikes not envisioned in the original law began appearing on NYC streets with immigrant delivery workers beginning to use e-bikes in large numbers. By 2013, the NYC Council decided to amend the e-bikes ordinance because as then-Council Member Daniel Garodnick argued, the 15 mph e-bike exemption made it a “very, very difficult requirement for the police department… It is a loophole in the law that has made the enforcement of this ban very difficult and impractical.”

During hearings, NYC Council Members made it clear the intention of this amendment was to make it easier to target enforcement on delivery workers and dirt bike riders (often young male teens of color) whose vehicles then-Council Member James Vacca described as “dangerous, they are lethal, they are illegal.” Despite describing “lethality,” there have been no people killed by e-bike or motorized scooter riders in NYC according to public safety data.

In addition, Vacca argued that e-bikes posed a heightened safety problem as a “silent hazard,” which stands in sharp contrast to 2004 where the City Council Members derided motorized scooters as a loud nuisance. Thus, the powerful use flexible arguments to criminalize marginalized groups – as such, it doesn’t matter if the marginalized ride motorized scooters silently or loudly, because either becomes proof of criminality according to the privileged.

Furthermore, when asked about data concerning the public safety dangers posed by e-bikes and motorized scooters, both DOT Assistant Commissioner Kate Slevin and NYPD Assistant Commissioner Susan Petito answered that they did not collect specific data on e-bikes to be able to specifically describe the public hazards of these vehicles. So again, the City predicated its characterization of e-bikes and motorized scooters as dangerous despite the absence of any public safety data. Thus, when the previous exemption of 15mph motorized scooters for privileged riders had become inconvenient for policing marginalized groups like youth of color and immigrant delivery workers, the City Council decided to remove this exemption.

In addition, NYPD Assistant Commissioner Petito would also remark that the NYPD opposes “state legislation that would call [e-bikes] bicycles.” This reflects how NYPD has played a role in preventing state legalization of e-bikes, such as in 2017 when Paul Winkeller of the NY Bicycling Coalition described how the NYPD effectively killed state-level e-bike legalization. In this way, the City and NYPD has consistently chosen to keep e-bikes “illegal” at the local and state levels.

In addition, this amendment also made it illegal for restaurants or other employers to utilize e-bikes in deliveries or commercial activities.  It did also amend the Commercial Cycling ordinance to presumably place the burden of fines for e-bike use on employers:

A business using a bicycle for commercial purposes shall be liable for any violation of section 19-176.2(b) committed by any person operating a motorized scooter on behalf of such business.

However, as we will see, workers still bear the brunt of enforcement.

October 2017: Mayor de Blasio announces crackdown

Motivated by a rich white banker from the Upper West Side complaining about delivery e-bikes on the Brian Lehrer Show of WNYC, Mayor de Blasio announced a heavy-handed policing crackdown on “dangerous” delivery worker e-bikes while stating that pedal-assist e-bikes most commonly ridden by wealthier white-collar commuters were safe. At this press conference, reporters asked de Blasio four times for public safety data of which he and the NYPD had none. Since then, our #DeliverJustice Coalition has met with the NYPD at which they stated that they did not need safety data to justify their crackdown on worker e-bikes, they only needed community complaints as justification.

As mentioned in previous posts on Vision Zero Apartheid, de Blasio’s crackdown has been predicated upon faulty assumptions that do not reflect the reality of exploitative working conditions faced immigrant delivery workers (such as they almost always provide their own bikes or e-bikes).  As such, despite the Mayor stating that employers would pay fines, the NYPD has overwhelmingly saddled immigrant delivery workers instead of employers with the burden of e-bike fines and confiscations:

Police officers issued 669 e-bike tickets, 1,383 moving violations, and seized 910 e-bikes in 2018, according to the NYPD. Just 210 businesses were given citations for using e-bikes.

When workers get their e-bikes confiscated, in addition to paying the $500 fine, they also lose wages by being unable to work until they get their e-bike back or by buying another bike or e-bike. Given that Chinese and Latinx immigrant workers averaged $9-$10/hour in wages (incl. tips), paying a $500 fine robs them of at least 50 hours of labor.

Even when employers and restaurants receive the e-bike fine instead of workers, the workers have complained that this still costs them because e-bikes are still confiscated, which means workers are losing wages because of being unable to work, and that some employers fire them or dock wages.  Even should the City’s approach work by heavily fining employers and restaurants, this also means that it would dispose of many older immigrant delivery workers from of their jobs by eliminating e-bikes. For example, the median age of Chinese delivery workers is 46 years old, which means that many of them use e-bikes not just as a speedy vehicle for delivery, but as the necessary assistance to survive the physical toll of delivery work as they get older.

At City Hall in December 2017, hundreds of immigrant delivery workers protest Mayor de Blasio’s e-bike crackdown. Many workers carry signs that say “We want to work and We want to survive.” (Photo by author)

Essentially, the Mayor and the City have hyper-criminalized the survival tactics of immigrant delivery workers who view their job as a long-term profession, not simply something to do when one is young, fit, and loves to bike.

April – August 2018: Pedal-Assist E-Bikes Permitted

As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Mayor de Blasio announced in April 2018 that pedal-assist e-bikes were permissible while throttle e-bikes remained illegal.  By doing so, the Mayor effectively affirmed the legality of privileged and affluent riders who tend to ride expensive European imports of pedal-assist e-bikes while reinforcing the illegality of the affordable Chinese e-bike imports with throttles favored by immigrant delivery workers. Notably, this divide also contains an able-bodied bias – that one must be able to physically pedal to be deserving of an electric assist.

The top e-bike, popular with delivery workers, is the Chinese imported Arrow e-bike with both a pedal-assist and throttle function and sells for $1500-$2000 (Photo by author). Below, a mid-range European imported pedal-assist e-bike such as Riese and Muller is priced from $6,649 at Propel Electric Bikes (photo from Propel).

In addition, the way the City wrote the DOT rules regarding pedal-assist e-bikes, there is no mechanism to allow for worker e-bikes to be converted into the “legal” ones. Since immigrant delivery workers commonly ride e-bikes that have both throttle and pedal-assist functions, these e-bikes could be readily converted to pedal-assist-only e-bikes.  For workers, this would be a major concession as they much prefer to have throttles, but they were willing to do so to end NYPD harassment. Before the DOT hearing, our #DeliverJustice Coalition worked with delivery workers and bike mechanics to propose a workable method by which worker e-bikes can be converted to pedal-assist only e-bikes by disabling the throttle. At the DOT hearing itself on May 29, 2018, over 30 people gave testimony with all but one expressing support of workers and for the DOT rule to allow conversions.

At the DOT hearing, one Chinese worker described the inhumane enforcement he faced:

Hongjian Lin, 54, said he’d been stopped four times and given seven citations in the month of May alone. Last Thursday, he was severely injured by a car door and briefly hospitalized. When police showed up at the hospital, they handed him a $500 ticket.

Honjian Lin testifying at DOT hearing on pedal-assist e-bike rules. (Photo by author)

But when the City released the final NYC DOT rules, they did not include the possibility of converting e-bikes, so even if workers disabled their throttles, the City would not recognize their e-bikes as pedal-assist only.  Cruelly, the City would roll out CitiBike e-bikes within days of this announcement.

Screenshot of CitiBike map on its app where you can see which stations have an available CitiBike pedal-assist e-bike with an electric lightning bolt symbol. (Photo by author)

Effectively, the Mayor and City is honoring a tradition and system of racist criminalization of communities of color and immigrants and justifying it by saying the immigrant workers are using “illegal” e-bikes. This Tale of Two E-Bikes demonstrates how systems of discrimination adapt to changing circumstances. By using the mirage of shifting laws and enforcement that target specific marginalized groups by claiming without evidence (besides complaints from wealthy residents) that their e-bikes are dangerous, Mayor de Blasio and the City engage in what Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists” where “whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding ‘racist.’” When asked about the #DeliverJustice Coalition demand that the City help immigrant workers by funding a conversion program, Mayor de Blasio argues that immigrant workers do not deserve the City’s help because:

For some things there are public sector solutions for some things there are not. I just think we need to recognize this was not legal to begin with, people went and got them and made money with it — fine that is in the past, but I am not comfortable on first blush with the notion of subsidizing people who did something that actually was not legal to begin with and created some real problems.

In essence, this is a core function of shaping laws to stigmatize marginalized communities as “illegal” because then it becomes easy for those like Mayor de Blasio to blame the immigrant workers for the cruelty they experience and to deny them relief.  By simply labeling the immigrant workers as being “illegal,” this strips away the historical context of NYC’s e-bike law and policing that treats “legal” and “illegal” e-bikes depending on who is riding them.

November 2018 through Present: Proposed Bills to Legalize E-Bikes & E-Scooters

Hearing that there was a strong movement to legalize e-scooters from lobbying from corporate interests (Lime, Bird, etc.), the #DeliverJustice Coalition strongly advocated that immigrant delivery workers not be left behind by the City once again. Thus, in late November 2018, NYC Council Members Espinal, Rodriguez, and Cabrera rolled out proposed legislation that would legalize throttle e-bikes up to 20 mph in addition to legalizing e-scooters while reducing fines and limiting confiscations. If enacted, the e-bike related bills would great help immigrant delivery workers and be the first instance of the City actually working to end its Tale of Two E-bikes.

These bills are a strong step in the right direction, although Mayor de Blasio’s did not react positively to these proposed bills – so a lack of Mayoral support continues to threaten this potential relief for immigrant delivery workers.  For a Mayor that ran on a campaign to end a Tale of Two Cities, de Blasio has come to own a Tale of Two E-Bikes instead.

With City Council hearings set to begin on January 23, 2019 on the e-bike and e-scooter bills, the NYPD continues to parade tweets that crow about responding to privileged community complaints by continuing to cruelly confiscate e-bikes from immigrant delivery workers:

By focusing on unsubstantiated claims of immigrant violence, the City distracts from dealing with the very real violence that immigrant delivery workers on e-bikes continue to experience such as a wave of e-bike robberies and assaults, and motor vehicle drivers killing e-bike delivery workers such as M-Din Rajon from a fatal dooring and delivery worker Hugo Garcia from a hit-and-run.

Ultimately, this conflict over e-bikes legalization is not really one about whether e-bikes are safe or not, it’s about whether or not we will continue to tolerate a racist, xenophobic, and classist system that allows privileged and wealthy New Yorkers to criminalize and stigmatize immigrant workers as dangerous and unsafe through the e-bike law.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Forker

    Good rundown of this issue. As a bicycle commuter I experience a few related conditions with ebikes. Riding the wrong way, on sidewalks, through stops is rampant including ebike delivery people. Lack of lights on bikes at night is rampant and with ebikes at 20 mph might be more unsafe than a regular bike. There is simply not enough space at peak times to push all these various vehicles including eskateboards and escooters into puny bike lanes. With Lyft and Uber filling up every available inch of the roadways some reallocation of space needs to be addressed such as higher congestion charges in packed CBD zones. Curbside parking is free across the city and that policy should be looked at as a possible revenue source if a resident fee were required. Finally in defense of riders accustomed to regular bikes having the safety concern, ebikes have a much more rapid acceleration to speeds of 20 mph (which most cyclists do not ever get near) and this will require a learning curve to anticipate traffic moves and safe distances for entering a bike lane. Some trading or public information from DOT might help.

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