Dear White People: Your E-Bike Complaints Ruin Lives

Electrically powered bicycles have become a necessity for many, including immigrant delivery workers.
08/29/2017 02:50 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017
NYPD tweeting about its Vision Zero crackdowns on e-bikes
NYPD tweeting about its Vision Zero crackdowns on e-bikes

Complaints against e-bikes, electrically powered bicycles, seem to be reaching a fever pitch.

If the actual number of complaints aren’t going up, the volume on those doing the complaining is certainly being turned up. During a radio appearance by Mayor Bill de Blasio on “The Brian Lehrer Show” a few weeks ago, one Upper West Side resident’s on-air request for increased e-bike enforcement was approved by the mayor, who has also been a reliable defender of the Broken Windows theory of policing (which also calls on enforcement against things some see as nuisances).

Noting police confiscations of e-bikes, which are illegal in the city, has tripled, the mayor, who has dismissed the fierce opposition in communities of color to his rezoning plans, embraced the Upper West Side resident’s suggestions and promised to expand the enforcement approach.

De Blasio is correct that enforcement isn’t lacking. But he and others who cheer on enhanced enforcement are willfully ignoring who’s most impacted by it. In my neighborhood of Spanish Harlem, cops stop mostly bike riders of color for the most trivial of infractions: not riding in the bike lane, riding the wrong way or simply not waiting at a red light (even if no pedestrians or cars are in sight).

The NYPD, long known for targeting Black youths riding bikes on sidewalks, seem to be making delivery bike workers, many of whom are immigrants, the department’s flavor of the month.

The NYPD has been clear that its efforts are part of Vision Zero, Mayor de Blasio’s celebrated traffic safety initiative that often leads to rhetorical wars between pedestrians, bikers and drivers. But a time when the issue of over-policing continues to weigh down the national conscious, are safety advocates fueling racially disproportionate bike enforcement? You bet your numb ass they are.

The neighborhood activist from the UWS, a banker prominently featured in WNYC’s “People’s Guide to Power” series, which highlights local activism in the Trump era, wants the city to target restaurants and businesses that employ delivery workers who use e-bikes. However, attempts to punish restaurants instead of their delivery bikers may not be practical and could still trickle down to their workers.

Some businesses may not own the e-bikes workers use, for example, raising legal questions to a crackdown. If bikes are taken, workers may suffer the most. Delivery workers in my neighborhood have told me that when bikes are confiscated, they themselves have had to replace them – or be replaced themselves. Also, city officials questioning businesses about bikes could rattle the nerves of both employers and their workers, some who may be undocumented and/or working off the books.

More fundamentally, enforcement against e-bikes, if successful, will still hurt workers simply because e-bikes have become a necessity for many. The physical strain of riding for hours to deliver food takes its toll on workers’ bodies. Don’t believe me? Go ride a bike through the city for 12 hours tomorrow. Do it again for a week. Repeat. An e-bike-free city would make the lives of workers exponentially harder.

Of course, the voices of immigrant workers – those affected by both current and future enforcement efforts – are nowhere to be found in debates waged in the blindingly white world of NPR radio. In fact, the great e-bike agreement between the resident activist and the mayor, brokered on public radio, was between two white men. This isn’t an aberration. E-bike complaints, like other quality-of-life concerns around the city, oftentimes belong to white residents of affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods.

A woman who moved to Harlem has been tirelessly complaining about an ice cream truck’s music when it’s parked on the street has been roasted on social media as a typical gentrifier complainer. Similarly, loud block parties, which may provide quality to the lives of black of Puerto Rican residents, could be a 3-1-1 or 9-1-1 quality-of-life complaint for their white neighbors. To put it bluntly, the burden of policing and enforcement on people of color has historically relied on the willingness of our white neighbors to complain.

In the race toward to the bottom of what we consider nuisances, the mayor’s acquiescence to e-bike opponents confirms this and signals that public policy and laws in our “progressive” city can bend to those who complain the loudest. And it’s no secret that the political voice of affluent and white New Yorkers already carries a unique volume.

An Upper West Side resident, armed with a radar gun, takes on e-bikes and is praised by NPR/WNYC
WNYC
An Upper West Side resident, armed with a radar gun, takes on e-bikes and is praised by NPR/WNYC

For some, like myself, New York City seems to be devolving from an eclectic city that never sleeps into a city of whiners. That’s part of the legacy of Broken Windows policing, which painted poor and homeless people of color as “disorder” that needed to be remedied by the NYPD. As a result, we’ve cultivated into the city a sort of nuisance neurosis that asks residents to complain about every inconvenience as if some supposedly homogenous “quality-of-life” should supercede our ability to tolerate each other or work towards fair solutions.

No one, to my knowledge, has been killed by an e-bike. If the question is in their speed, it’s important to note that traditional bikes, which aren’t illegal, zoom by at tremendous speeds but aren’t outlawed, nor should they be. The extent to an e-bikes perceived “dangerousness” may be that they’re often ridden in bike lanes, where pedestrians can be less aware of their surroundings.

Some common sense solutions – much easier than targeting workers or businesses – might be to legalize them, which other cities have, and install speed bumps to regulate speed. NMASS, a worker center in downtown Manhattan that advocates for delivery bike workers, says we should repeal the Bloomberg-era legislation that outlawed e-bikes in the first place and put immigrant delivery workers in the crosshairs of law enforcement.

Immigrant delivery workers need e-bikes. If businesses are forced to get rid of them, or rid themselves of workers who use them, the loudest voices in the e-bike debate won’t be the ones who lose out. An approach that makes them legal while keeping them safe is a real solution – not just a complaint.

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