It’s a rolling hypocrisy.
Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to punish hard-working deliverymen for using low-cost battery-powered bicycles but is moving ahead to legalize high-end versions of the supposedly rogue roadsters.
Currently electric bikes are illegal to ride, but the city is moving forward with an exemption for pedal-controlled electric bikes — the ones favored by well-heeled commuters. There are two main differences between the bikes used by deliverymen and those used by the wealthy: a typical delivery e-bike costs $1,500 and is controlled with a hand throttle, while the motor on the more-expensive bikes is controlled with the pedals.
Supporters of deliverymen, who get the vast majority of the $138 tickets for operating an illegal electric bike and pay the $500 when they’re confiscated, are crying foul.
“It’s not fair that others will be able to use electric bicycles while we workers continue being criminalized,” delivery worker Clemente Martinez, 43, said through a translator.
A concession to the rich?
The city rule change would legalize pedal-assist electric bikes, whose motor kicks in when the rider pedals. Such bikes are available in high-end retail shops like Fort Greene’s Propel Bikes, where $5,000 price tags are common. The “separate but unequal” irony was not lost on worker advocates.
“Those are not the kind that delivery workers have had,” said Mel Gonzalez, an advocate with the immigrants’ rights group Make the Road New York, which objects to the Department of Transportation rule change to legalize only the more-expensive bikes.
The mayor hopes to double the city’s active cyclists by 2020, and motorized assistance could help non-cyclists such as senior citizens feel comfortable going up hills on two wheels. And there’s big money behind Jump, the Brooklyn-based e-bike-sharing company that Uber acquired last month. Jump is spending $25,000 a month lobbying city and state government to pave a path for its pedal-assist e-bike sharing business model. Deliverymen do not have such a gilded megaphone.
The city has cited speed as its rationale for deciding which bikes will remain illegal. The motors on pedal-assist models cut out once the bike reaches 20 mph, but critics note that many throttle-triggered motors have the same top speed. And, of course, non-electrified cycles can also exceed 20 mph.
So if speed is the main issue, why not just punish speeders, e-bike supporters ask.
“The city should be going after the behavior of the rider, not the vehicle,” said Councilmember Rafael Espinal (D-Bushwick).
Make the Road has joined Transportation Alternatives, the Biking Public Project, and the Asian American Federation to ask the city to fund a conversion program so delivery workers can make their bikes legit. They suggested a range of possible solutions, including providing technical help in converting the motor’s trigger to a pedal-driven mechanism, to a full buyback program that could help fund delivery workers’ purchases of legal e-bikes.
The advocates claim that e-bikes are not inherently more dangerous than regular bicycles — though no one knows because the city does not record data of e-bike crashes.