Two months after promising to look into complaints about electric bicycles in certain Manhattan neighborhoods, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan on Thursday to address this "growing safety problem" by directing the NYPD to crack down on e-bike scofflaws and their employers.
At a press conference in the Upper West Side, the mayor railed against the motorized bicycles "going the wrong way on streets, weaving through traffic, sometimes going on sidewalks." A new crackdown will begin in January, he said, aimed at "not only going after reckless drivers of these bikes, [but] going after businesses themselves."
While state law requires that these bikes be registered as motorcycles, such registration doesn't currently exist, which has long led e-bikers to zip through a legal grey area. "Because of this regulatory patchwork, e-bikes are legal to sell as bikes anywhere in the U.S. but effectively illegal to ride in New York, since they can't be registered as motor vehicles," according to CityLab.
For years now, enforcement of the law has fallen squarely on e-bike riders—primarily delivery workers, a group largely comprised of undocumented immigrants—who may receive a fine up to $500 and have their bike confiscated. Such a tactic will continue under the new enforcement regime, though the NYPD will also be directed to issue civil summonses to the businesses that employ e-bike riders. Business owners will face a fine of $100, with subsequent e-bike fines costing them $200.
— NYPD 72nd Precinct (@NYPD72Pct) October 7, 2017
"Those at the top of the food chain need to be held accountable," the mayor said in a statement. "That's why instead of merely targeting riders, we're going after businesses that look the other way and leave their workers to shoulder the fine."
Asked to provide data showing that the e-bikes were in fact a threat to public safety, the mayor promised "we'll get back to you." Reached for comment after the press conference, an NYPD spokesperson told us, "Collisions are not broken down to that level of specificity."
Meanwhile, the data that does exist suggests that the crackdown on e-bikes is well underway. During Thursday's press conference, the mayor thanked the NYPD for confiscating 900 bikes this year—a 170 percent increase from the same time frame in 2016.
Up until a few years ago, such enforcement was almost entirely confined to a handful of police precincts in higher income neighborhoods. According to an analysis released last year by the Biking Public Project, 92 percent of commercial cycling tickets issued between 2007 and 2015 were handed out in just four Manhattan precincts covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and parts of Midtown. Those neighborhoods saw commercial cycling summonses issued at a rate 200 times higher than the average neighborhood rate.
Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, has long urged the city to crack down on e-bike riders. "It’s extremely important to hold restaurants accountable for the use of e-bikes when making food deliveries, whether the restaurants actually own the bikes or not," Rosenthal said yesterday. "The onus of enforcement should not just be on delivery people. I look forward to continuing to work with the administration to make our streets and sidewalks truly safe for pedestrians."
But while most complaints come from majority-white, affluent neighborhoods, those on the receiving end of the tickets tend to be immigrants and people of color who rely on tips for a living wage. According to some workers, restaurant owners have been consistently passing the cost of the fine on to them—which can be more than they make in a given week.
"Clearly, this e-bike crackdown is about listening to the loudest complainers, not listening to the data," Caroline Samponaro, a spokesperson for TransAlt told Gothamist. "Rather than attacking the livelihoods of hard-working, predominantly immigrant delivery cyclists, the Mayor should follow the lead of California and work with the New York State Legislature to pass common sense e-bike legislation that establishes a framework for safe, pedal-powered, low-speed models."
Asked if he was concerned that the law could target a majority immigrant population, particularly older workers who require the motorized bikes, the mayor said that he hoped such employees would be able to find "some other type of work" within the business.
"It really fits with everything we do at Vision Zero," the mayor added. "Vision Zero is about making us safe, no matter what the threat is."