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E-Bikes And E-Scooters Head Toward Full Legalization, With A Manhattan-Sized Exemption

Delivery cyclist Dong Shixiang, delivering food on his e-bike last year
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Delivery cyclist Dong Shixiang, delivering food on his e-bike last year Scott Heins / Gothamist

Albany lawmakers have reached a deal to legalize electric bikes and scooters in New York State, according to State Senator Liz Krueger and others familiar with the deal. The Assembly and Senate are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.

But there is one crucial carveout: e-scooter sharing will be illegal in Manhattan. Or, in Albany speak, e-scooter sharing is prohibited in "a county with a population of no less than one million five hundred eighty-six thousand and no more than one million five hundred eighty-seven thousand." (This technically does not exempt New York County, with its population of 1,585,873 as of the 2010 census.)

Elected officials are concerned about crowded sidewalks and injuries, though they have not produced much in the way of hard evidence to justify their fears.

"It’s a mistaken assumption that the e-scooters are dangerous and that they are automatically going to litter sidewalks," Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives said.

It’s not a given that Governor Andrew Cuomo will sign the bill but, speaking on WAMC Monday, he said it seems like a good bill to sign. “I think the general concept is a good idea. I understand the traffic concerns and you would need safety precautions, but yeah I think it's a good idea.”

Other than the Manhattan carve-out on e-scooters, Conner hailed it a “huge step forward” in terms of reducing car traffic, and addressing the ticketing of e-bike delivery workers who use the throttle-powered bicycles to get around.

“Hopefully, long term, e-scooters will prove themselves in the outer boroughs, and we've seen in other states and cities where they’ve have operated and replaced car trips at significant rates," Conner said.

The legislation was tweaked on Sunday to include the e-scooter ban in Manhattan, and also to ban e-bikes on the Hudson River Greenway. E-scooter riders do not have to wear helmets, but are expected to stay in the bike lane. E-scooters, throttle and pedal-assist e-bikes with max speeds of 20 mph are legalized statewide by the legislation, but throttle-based e-bikes with a max speed of 25 mph are only permitted in New York City.

The bill gives local municipalities the ability to tweak the law as they see fit.

“It gives the City of New York the ability to, through regulation and or local law, pretty much set up any system they want completely," State Senator Liz Kruger said in Albany Monday.

But Conner said he wasn’t worried the city would reverse course on throttle e-bikes. “It’s legal unless the locality takes proactive steps to make it illegal," he said.

City Councilmember Mark Levine, who sits on the city’s Committee on Transportation, said he’d like to draft legislation to get delivery workers their confiscated bikes back, and refund them and clear any outstanding NYPD fines.

“Absolutely needs to be done,” he told Gothamist. "For them to incur the financial hardship of losing their bicycle or shoulder payments of fines in the thousands of dollars is profoundly unfair.”

“That's a win for fairness and a win for mobility,” Levine added. “I’m thrilled we can bring e-bikes out of the shadows at a time when New Yorkers are ordering more and more home deliveries and expecting it to arrive quickly.”

The bill also prohibits people under the age of 16 from operating or riding as passengers on e-bikes and e-scooters, though it directs law enforcement to issue tickets to a child’s parents if they happen to be around, not the children themselves.

If the e-scooter companies are worried about losing the lucrative Manhattan market, they aren’t saying so. Yet.

“We are just one step away from better transportation options for New Yorkers—and there is momentum to cross the finish line,” Phil Jones, Senior Director of East Coast Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships at the e-scooter sharing company Lime said in a statement.

The e-scooter sharing company Bird was similarly effusive.

"The weight of this moment cannot be overstated,” said Paul Steely White, Bird’s Director of Safety Policy and Advocacy. “New York is on the cusp of making its streets safer and more equitable for everyone — all our legislators have to do is vote yes.”

If the bill passes, where these vehicles can legally operate in the five boroughs will be up to the City Council.

“We need to determine where will e-scooters and e-bikes be allowed,” Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation Ydanis Rodriguez said. “I believe we have to have a plan of expanding protected bike lanes and be sure scooters and e-bikes will be allowed in the same bike lanes that other cyclists use in our streets."

New Jersey legalized e-scooters and e-bikes earlier this year.

Stephen Nessen is the transportation reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @s_nessen.

[UPDATE / 11:46 a.m.] Speaking to WCNY's Susan Arbetter this morning, Cuomo said he had concerns about the legislation.

"If you have a scooter going down a sidewalk in Manhattan at close to 10 miles per hour, that might not be safe," Cuomo said (the legislation intends to specifically prohibit e-scooters in Manhattan).

"Grandma got hit be a scooter—remember grandma got hit by a reindeer?"

Stephen Nessen is the transportation reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @s_nessen.

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