The Immigrants Who Rely on E-Bikes

Do Lee (Photo by Rachel Ramirez via CUNY Graduate Center)

[Editor’s note: New York City modified its rule on e-bikes on April 3, allowing pedal-assist e-bikes that go 20 mph or less while continuing to ban throttle e-bikes – or those that do not use “human power” to move – which are often used by food delivery workers. A story in the World Journal looks at a survey conducted by Ph.D. candidate Do Lee on the use of e-bikes among immigrant workers.]

New York City’s ban on e-bikes prohibits the vehicle from being used on the street. A violation, often happening with delivery workers who rely on the form of transportation to quickly deliver warm food to customers, brings a $500 penalty. But according to an ongoing study of Do Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, not only is the ban ambiguous, it also has anti-immigrant elements.

Lee’s research finds that immigrant delivery workers are more likely to rely on e-bikes than their native-born colleagues. The data he collected shows that nearly two-thirds of delivery workers use e-bikes. Among those born in China, 78 percent use e-bikes, compared to 11 percent among those born in the U.S.

In addition, there is a clear disparity between the ages of Chinese and English-speaking delivery workers. The median age of the former group is 46 while the latter is 27.

Lee said the e-bike ban is particularly harsh to Chinese immigrant delivery workers as they, in general, are older and the job may be too physically demanding for them without e-bikes. He said that Chinese delivery workers also tend to work long hours. (…)

Lee’s study also shows that the attempt of delivery workers to save time on each errand in order to make more tips also makes e-bikes desirable to them. Lee said the wages of the delivery workers he surveyed run from $20 to $40 per day without tips, and they work 10 to 15 hours a day. “Therefore, delivery workers are under great pressure,” said Lee. “They hope to deliver quickly so that they can make more tips. If the delivery takes too long, customers won’t be happy, and some would reduce the tip or don’t offer a tip at all.”

The city’s ban on e-bikes aims to make the road safer. But Lee said the worry is unnecessary as e-bikes have not caused pedestrian injuries. According to New York Police Department statistics, among the 58 traffic accidents [last year] on the Upper East Side, only one was caused by an e-bike. Lee said that some states have passed law to legalize e-bikes. In addition, most of the e-bikes in New York are pedal-assist bikes.

Lee said that in the debate about the ban, immigrants haven’t made their voices heard. That’s why he initiated the research. Lee said the Biking Public Project, a nonprofit he leads, is helping to interview and survey immigrant delivery workers. “Data collecting is difficult because many immigrant delivery workers don’t like to share their information, especially in the current atmosphere that is hostile to immigrants,” Lee said.

Lee, who himself is a veteran bike rider, has also been advocating for this issue, calling on the government to legalize e-bikes. At the end of last year, the Biking Public Project, together with the Asian American Federation and Transportation Alternatives, held a rally of delivery workers in front of City Hall. Lee said in a speech at the rally: “The city’s crackdown on e-bikes is anti-immigrant, anti-worker, and anti-safe streets.”

He added: “Many delivery workers need e-bikes because of physical demands of the work which often peak during bad winter conditions. They need e-bikes because many of them are elderly in their 50s and 60s. They need e-bikes because many of them suffer injuries from car crashes or from robberies or assaults.”

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