Relief for Delivery Workers as Mayor Moves to Ease E-Bike Ban

Delivery workers use electric bicycles in New York City. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

As if it were a sacred ritual, every afternoon José Martínez gets on his “little steel horse” and drives to the Chinese restaurant in Manhattan’s Union Square where he works as a delivery man. Although the Mexican-born 48-year-old said that he makes a decent living receiving tips he, like many other New Yorkers who ride across the Big Apple on electric bicycles, is afraid of getting fined by a police officer or deprived of his vehicle, as some co-workers have.

The city’s administrative code stipulates that riding an “e-bike” is illegal. However, on Tuesday – just as the City Council reviewed a resolution introduced last month by Council member Rafael Espinal to ask the state to legalize them and end the NYPD’s persecution of users – Mayor Bill de Blasio made an announcement that left cyclists, politicians and activists partially satisfied.

De Blasio ordered the Department of Transportation (DOT) to begin a process to regulate the use of pedal-assist electric bicycles in order to legalize them. Throttle bikes with the capacity to exceed 20 mph will remain illegal. E-bikes became popular in the city a few years ago.

“With new and clear guidelines, cyclists, delivery workers and businesses alike will now understand exactly what devices are allowed,” said de Blasio about his new position, which stands in contrast with his statement from Oct. 19 of last year. At the time, he announced that stricter measures would be taken not just against e-bike riders but also against businesses allowing their workers to use them to work, including fines of up to $500.

Martínez was happy to hear about the mayor’s change of heart, which he described as a “half victory” that will protect the livelihood of delivery workers.

“I agree with that if that means they take the ‘illegal cyclists’ label off us,” he said. Martínez paid $1,000 for his bike. “Not only do we have to keep our eyes peeled for cars but also for the police, and we have to go fast so they can’t catch us. If they take away my bike, I can’t afford to eat.”

Pushing for legislation in Albany

While Council member Espinal was said to be satisfied with the fact that the mayor paid attention to his concerns, he said that it is necessary to continue fighting to make the city move even further forward in this issue and to get Albany to pass bills A.1018 and S.2888, which would legalize all e-bikes, not just the moderate speed ones de Blasio authorized.

“This is a big win for the e-bike community, especially delivery workers, who rely on e-bikes to make a living,” said the elected official, who is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing. “There is still more work to be done in Albany to ensure the laws are clearly defined to protect all e-vehicle riders and in the city to support those who want to transition from throttle e-bikes to pedal assist bicycles.”

The Dominican-born politician insisted that the only way electric bicycles will be completely legal is if action is taken at the state level.

“I think now more than ever, when the city is taking unnecessarily drastic measures against our delivery workers, we need the Legislature and the governor to take swift action,” said Espinal. “Workers are losing their salaries and their livelihood to punishing fines and extreme persecution. This is too serious to workers and their families, who depend on this income.”

Last year, some 1,000 e-bikes were confiscated. In 2016, only 341 were seized, meaning that the tracking of these bikes increased more than 170 percent. In the first two months of this year, 238 users and 48 businesses have been fined and 209 bicycles seized, figures Espinal found alarming. The council member said that, while states like California are supporting the expansion of e-bikes, New York is lagging behind on that issue.

Mexican immigrant Liliana Ramírez, who works doing food deliveries with her husband, said that she has suffered the effects of the current rules first-hand, both in the form of fines that have affected her family’s income and police harassment.

Delivery woman Liliana Ramírez. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“My husband had an e-bike. He got two tickets, and we did feel that lack of money,” she said, adding that she now prefers to use traditional bicycles. “On this bike, I feel safer, because they follow you more often on the other ones and the tickets are between $50 and $100. They frequently confiscate them and leave you without a way to make a living.”

The delivery woman also called on state authorities to regulate the use of e-bikes instead of taking them off the streets. She even agreed that people should be fined if they fail to comply with the rules but, until that happens, she thinks it is unfair to persecute delivery workers.

“I am aware that many people do not respect sidewalks, and that is very dangerous because, even if they are going slowly, they are pretty fast. They should have strict rules to protect children especially, who walk on the sidewalk and could be hit. At the same time, we should be allowed to use them to work.”

More reactions

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NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said that the police, who had increased fines and confiscations, support the step the city’s administration is taking to legalize pedal-assist electric bicycles. “The NYPD will continue to work closely with the Department of Transportation to ensure the safety of the city’s bicyclists,” said the official.

Chair of the Council’s Committee on Immigration Carlos Menchaca describes the mayor’s u-turn as a positive gesture that came as a result of the community coming together to fight for its rights.

“This new rule for pedal-assist bicycles protects our local (mostly immigrant) workers and builds on a framework that commits to safe streets for everyone,” said the Brooklyn politician. “What made today possible was the strong voice of the community who came out and demanded action; we must keep coming back to the table to build on that momentum as we create a larger package of reform in the state.”

State Sen. José Peralta lamented that Albany’s initiatives regarding these bicycles are yet to be reviewed.

“We need to regulate scooters and electric bicycles. This measure would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep a registry and establish safety measures, and owners would have to obtain civil liability insurance,” said the Queens politician, admitting that not all delivery workers ride the bikes in a responsible manner.

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For her part, Abbey Fashouer, spokeswoman for Gov. Cuomo, did not confirm whether the state leader supports or opposes legalizing e-bikes. She did say that the legislative initiatives currently in the state’s assembly and senate would be reviewed.

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