Hermalindo Carrillo was out on his bike making a food delivery last winter when ice on the streets caused him to slip. The meal he was carrying flew everywhere, and as Carrillo would later learn, he injured his back.
“It was a mess. I came back to the restaurant, showed them the food and told them I wanted to get a new order. But there was no intention to see if I needed care,” Carrillo said in Spanish through a translator. “It was just, ‘You gotta get this food back out.’”
Carrillo was among a group of delivery workers gathered for a meeting in January at the Brooklyn office of Make the Road New York, an immigrant rights not-for-profit, to brainstorm ways to protest the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent crackdown on electric bicycles.
Cyclists caught riding an e-bike are subject to a $500 fine and can have their bike confiscated. In October 2017, De Blasio introduced a new $100 fine for businesses if their worker is caught with an e-bike, in addition to punishing individual riders.
The workers said a scenario like Carrillo’s is not uncommon for those who work in New York City’s vast food delivery service system. Thousands of deliveries are made across the city each day, often in harsh weather conditions and under rushed time constraints, especially since they rely heavily on tips.
A good portion of delivery cyclists – the city estimated in 2012 that there are over 50,000 – use e-bikes. They feel targeted by the enforcement and want to fight back.
“It’s a form of persecution because we see people speed all the time in cars and in motorcycles,” Carrillo said. “The majority of us are immigrant workers, and we’re being unfairly targeted by the police just for working. We’re doing our jobs.”
Relief for e-bike riders, especially delivery workers, may be in sight. Advocates like Make the Road have been working for over a year to gain the support of city council members. Their work has culminated in a city council bill that would soften e-bike enforcement in the city. The bill removes local prohibitions on e-bikes that have a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour and reduce fines for those caught on bikes that go any faster.
Criticized for being more quiet and speedy – some can go as fast as 28 miles an hour – e-bikes exist in a murky legal area across the country. They are legal according to federal law, but states and cities have full control over how they are regulated on the streets.
New York state categorizes e-bikes as motorized vehicles and requires they be registered with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But New York’s DMV says e-bikes can’t be registered, so it’s illegal to ride them on streets.
A plan to intensify a crackdown on electric bicycles is causing concern among New York City’s largely immigrant delivery workforce. (Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP)
That may soon change. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, included e-bikes in his 2019 budget proposal, indicating they can be registered so long as they follow specific guidelines. The state would leave it up to towns and cities to fully legalize e-bikes.
At a hearing for the city council bills in January, de Blasio’s administration indicated they would be more open to conversation on e-bikes should the state legalize them.
“The Mayor has been clear that enforcement of this law should focus on businesses, not workers. That’s who the Police Department needs to be targeting,” wrote Seth Stein, spokesman for the mayor’s office, in a statement to the Guardian.
But data from NYPD paints a confusing picture over e-bike enforcement: 669 summons were given to individual riders in 2018, while only 210 were served to businesses. NYPD does not distinguish whether individual riders are using their bikes for commercial use in their data.
The department released a patrol guide to officers in November that outlines the protocol officers should take when they catch someone riding an e-bike. The first step is asking the rider if the bike is being used for a business. If it is, the officer is supposed to take down the name of the business and then send them a summons.
The process can be complicated for officers who are trained to give traffic violation tickets to riders, not businesses.
“It’s a lot easier (for an officer) to write a summons to the bicyclists than it is to determine who the business owner is and to serve them a summons,” said Steve Wasserman, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society.
Many delivery workers have received fines and summons themselves, Wasserman said. Last summer, Wasserman argued in support of dropping two $500 fines that were given to Yili Liu, a delivery worker at a local sushi restaurant. The judge dismissed the fines saying the restaurant should have received them.
How delivery companies like Grubhub, the most popular delivery service in New York, handles fines given to employees is unclear. The companies tend to think of their employees as contractors rather than formal employers, Wasserman said, so they’ll likely pay the fine if caught. Grubhub did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Delivery cyclists and their advocates say workers lack power in working relationships with their employer and many are immigrants, often Latino or Asian, and don’t have citizenship status.
“The workers are an extremely vulnerable class,” said Do Lee, a visiting lecturer of urban studies at Queens College of the City University of New York and a member of the Biking Public Project. “The mayor and the people complaining have almost no understanding of the experiences and conditions of delivery work.
Most delivery workers own their e-bikes, Lee said, so could be left jobless if they’re confiscated. Even if the city delivers the fine to the restaurant, it can take the fine out of the worker’s pay or delay paying it as punishment.
Delivery workers argue that restaurants already put an enormous demands on them, and some require their workers use e-bikes. Antonio Lopez, a delivery worker from Brooklyn, said that the bosses scold and threaten to fire workers if they’re late with deliveries.
“The restaurants only see the food and their property, they don’t care who’s handling it,” Lopez said in Spanish through a translator. It’s all about “getting the food out as fast possible.”
The city has been criticized for not providing any data that shows that e-bikes are more dangerous than regular bikes and need enforcement. The NYPD does not distinguish between regular bikes and e-bikes in its annual bicycle crash data report, so all arguments against e-bikes have been based off community complaints.
“Ultimately, this is not based on any sort of data that shows a safety problem,” Lee said. “The mass panic over this speaks to the underlying discomfort with the idea of surge of deliveries on the street, surge of people with this kind of mobility.”