The Soapbox: The bicycle purge of 2018

ebikeBy Andrew Paul Grell

Mayor De Blasio announced on October 20th that commencing on January 1, 2018, there would be a crack-down on bicycles with electric booster motors, or “e-bikes,” including targeted enforcement, confiscations, and fines. The policy as described is:

  1. Counter to post-Giuliani New York City transportation policy;
  2. Counter to the mayor’s stated climate change emissions reduction policy of April 2016;
  3. A roadblock on the way to reducing deaths and costly hospitalizations from ozone and fine particulates;
  4. Likely to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and
  5. A hindrance to mechanical, thermodynamic, and economic efficiency.

No pedestrians enjoy being cut off by cyclists, electric or not. No cyclists enjoy having to detour around pedestrians in bicycle priority reservation lanes. No one – driver, cyclist, or pedestrian – quite knows what a mixing zone or a bike box are or how they’re supposed to work. And surprisingly, not many drivers know what “Turning Vehicles Yield to Bicycles” signs mean, even though the sign has pictures on it. Everyone, on or off a bike, wants their take-out food to arrive while it’s still hot. Everyone on this list can be satisfied, and in so doing, can initiate tremendous savings in lives, health, money and time.

There are four basic types of bicycles operating in New York City. Most bikes are ordinary two-wheelers with one seat and are powered solely by human muscle power; there are some two-seat tandems and some tricycles in the mix. Cargo bikes are in the same category as the ordinary bikes, just sturdier and designed to carry loads. Pedicabs, three-wheelers designed to carry passengers, are a sub-category of cargo bikes. And now it gets tricky. Some ordinary-looking two-wheelers have electric motors which kick in when the rider is pedaling the bike and cut out when the bike exceeds 20 MPH; these are “pedal assist bikes,” which cannot go faster than an experienced cyclist can pedal a conventional bike. Bicycles are  regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Administration, and according to the CPSA, these pedal-assist bikes are bicycles.  But according to the New York State and City vehicle laws, they are unregisterable motor vehicles.

Finally, we have e-bikes; bicycles with electric motors controlled by a throttle. These vehicles go up to 25 MPH, considerably faster than most other bicycles, and, of course, also cannot be registered. All of these bikes can travel faster than the average Midtown Manhattan weekday traffic flow of about 12 MPH. Every time a Brooklyn to Manhattan race is held, pitting a conventional bike against a car against public transportation, the bicycle always wins. There is no faster way (except for a fire truck) to get around Manhattan than by bicycle.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated the modern bike lane system in New York (actually, the very first bike lane in the country was in Brooklyn in 1894.) The lane system expanded, grew to protected lanes and a Greenway system – parkways for bicycles. On-street bike parking was expanded, laws were passed so that people could bring their bikes inside where they worked, and now, there are over 1,000 miles of bike lanes in the city and we have one of the largest bike share systems in the world. A person getting to work by bike saves over a thousand dollars per year compared to public transportation.

Much of the Bloomberg innovations, followed by de Blasio innovations, took place in context with the Albany legislature’s refusal to allow the city to impose congestion pricing on cars entering midtown during the week. The resulting miasma of transportation emissions kills about one person per day and hospitalizes several more, and that’s just from particulates. Ozone does a similar amount of damage. Although carbon dioxide itself is not harmful today, we all know from Hurricane Sandy and Al Gore’s map the potential danger to our city due to climate change induced rises in the sea level.

The city’s ongoing transportation policy has been to actively discourage people from driving into Manhattan during the week; almost everyone entering Manhattan has a public transportation option. This policy should continue and grow and should embrace hybrid transportation methods such as pedal-assist bikes and E-bikes.

I am writing this as an arthritic AARP-qualified bike commuter married to an asthmatic wife. I would prefer that my wife continue breathing and I would also prefer that, when I start slowing down, I, along with anyone else requiring a reasonable accommodation for a disability, could avail myself of some electric assistance without interfering with the existing conventional bicycle crowd.

If the city wants to cut greenhouse emissions and reduce pollution and wants to save its citizens some money, and since the city speed limit is now 25 MPH, E-bikes should be part of the mix. No e-bike has ever killed a pedestrian in New York City; conventional bicycles, on average, kill fewer than one half of one pedestrian per year.

Mayor De Blasio, Governor Cuomo: Accept pedal-assist bikes as what the United States says they are, bicycles. Remove the 600-license limit on pedicabs and let them compete as zero-emissions vehicles head-to-head with Uber for local trips. Register e-bikes as what they are, basically the same type of animal as a Vespa. Register them, insure them, enforce their behavior on the roads, keep them out of bike lanes.

Let us all be happy, healthy, easily able to get around, and well-fed on our city’s delicious take-out food.

 The author is a resident of Stuyvesant Town and a member of Transportation Alternatives.

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6 thoughts on “The Soapbox: The bicycle purge of 2018

  1. I have no problem with the author of this column using an electric bike, I have a problem with every restaurant delivery man using them recklessly on the sidewalks of this city. I believe that this is what DeBlasio is targeting, not users like yourself, who can probably get an exception.

    I also love how most of the delivery men on electric bikes are smoking. At least peddling will give them some exercise!

    • We have to take great care of making a distinction between people who work in food messenger jobs & people who commute for usual reasons, unless the basis for distinction is pressure to complete business in a compressed timeframe (which is something we can address with policy and law addressing owners, not messengers).

      I am extremely disturbed by the amount of reasoning that veers toward “they are unwelcome” or “they’re animals out there”. It shows an immediate lack of trust or consideration, and while nobody has to admit they feel that way because of racist sentiments, let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time, and it certainly explains the degree of anger/intolerance over it.

      I’m also disturbed by the habit of business owners to lean on a workforce of undocumented immigrants who aren’t well-trained for the jobs & who already exist in a shadow economy. I wouldn’t wish that situation upon anyone. The notion that they “don’t pay taxes” is only a secondary concern to me, but let’s face it, the restaurant owners (who are decidedly NOT undocumented immigrants) are enabling it on a mass scale, across thousands of staff positions (undocumented, paid-in-cash, paired with countless other labor law abuses), because the situation helps line their pockets. Some common sense: the work should be legitimized, the employees should be secure residents of the city, and bystanders shouldn’t be fearful on the streets of behavior induced by shoddy business practices.

      That’s what it all really comes down to. Issuing moving violation fines upward to businesses only begins to scratch the surface of this problem.

  2. Don’t make me laugh. Transportation Alternatives is a registered lobbying organization that thinks there can never be enough bikes and one car is too many.

    Letting TA dictate street design and traffic enforcement is like having the Tobacco Institute decide our health policies.

  3. The US Federal Government mandated bicycles with an electric motor no larger than 750 watts and a speed of no faster than 20 mph are bicycles and not motor vehicles. There is no differentiation as to where the speed controller is positioned, in the pedals (pedelec) or on the handlebars, often referred to as a throttle. “E-bikes” do not go 25 mph as if they did they are no longer considered bicycle under the Federal legislation.

  4. Thank God I live in Florida. My ebike is my life. I’m 71 years young, with disabilities that prohibit me from walking any distance beyond 100 feet. If I didn’t have an etrike (in my case) I would have to use my van and that would become very expensive. Most everything I need is right around me within two to three miles. My ebike is my main form of transportation. The fastest I have ever gone on my ebike is right around 22.1 mph going down a slight grade. The fastest on a level road was 19.7 mph. Both speeds are way too fast for a trike. I imagine it would be ok for a two wheel bike. I hope the City of New York leaves the legitimate users of both the hybrid pedal assisted motor (i have one of those, it’s a Torker Trike) and the throttle (I have two of those, an Ezip and an ebike conversion) alone, for these bikes and trikes are the wave of the future.

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