E-Bikes, Congestion Pricing and New York’s Need to Fix the Subway

12/14/2017 09:50 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2017

Here’s the reality: A fix to New York’s transit system can’t come fast enough for the millions of daily riders who rely on the City’s trains and buses to get to and from work. I am hopeful that Andy Byford, a tested transit leader who doesn’t own a car and is known for riding the trains and picking up trash on subway platforms, can save the system. Still, while we’re waiting for Andy to fix the subway and for congestion pricing to pay for the repairs, there have to be other transportation options we haven’t thoroughly explored. Just think about the pending shutdown of the L train and the impact on its more than 400,000 daily riders. NYCDOT estimates that when the L Line closes the number of daily bike riders across the Williamsburg Bridge will double to 14,000. For those who can bike, scoot or walk to work on New York’s growing network of complete streets and bridges, more power to them. For those who have a longer commute and lack a shower at the office, what if there were a quiet, clean and small device that took up no more room than a bicycle that got you to your destination without you breaking a sweat? Well there is, and it’s been plying the streets of New York in some numbers for some time already. They are called e-bikes.

To try and get a handle on the potential of electric bikes to solve some New Yorkers’ commute and keep others employed, I met with Chris Nolte the owner of Propel Electric Bikes on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. I sought out Nolte because selling e-bikes was his plan when he opened his business across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2015.

A disabled veteran who drove trucks for the military in Kuwait and Iraq, Nolte has been hooked on e-bikes since he took his first ride on one during his recovery from a service-related back injury. The pedal-assist provided by the bike’s electric engine let him enjoy biking again, something he thought he had lost the ability to do. Nolte told me that e-bikes let riders address the intimidation and fear some may feel being out there on the road. “Psychologically it helped me after I got back from Iraq after I was injured.” From there, one thing led to another and with a loan from the Small Business Administration, Nolte was in the e-bike business.

Interestingly, the biggest market for e-bikes in New York is not the typical bike enthusiast but rather take out food delivery workers and previously casual bike riders looking for a different way to get to work.

“This is a transportation solution, a key part of the puzzle,” explains Nolte. In the transit desert around the Brooklyn Navy Yard for example, many of Propel’s customers find e-bikes a clean, healthy way to get around New York without getting on a train, bus or into a ride-hailing service like Lyft or Via.

My own sojourn to Flushing Avenue, by train and a longish walk from DeKalb Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, really started about six months ago when I rode my first e-bike at an event in Santa Monica. My curiosity grew after trying out an e-bike equipped with a Copenhagen wheel at the recent LA CoMotion conference in LA’s Arts District. While it is certainly more pleasant riding an e-bike in 70 degree November weather in Los Angeles than in the winter in Brooklyn, e-bikes are actually more popular in four season New York than anywhere else in the U.S.

Here’s the problem: While e-bikes offer riders an alternative to the train, bus or car, uncertainty about whether they are legal in New York, as well as their cost, hinder their widespread adoption. The e-bike story is a classic case of cities not keeping pace with technology-based solutions that can help improve the quality of life for their residents.

At least 27 U.S. states, including California, Texas, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina allow the operation of different classes of e-bikes. Meanwhile, in Paris and Stockholm e-bikes are part of the municipal bike share system. Class 1 or “pedal-assist” e-bikes like those sold by Propel can go up to 20 miles per hour while Class 2 and 3 e-bikes with a throttle as well as pedal-assist, can go as fast as 28 mph.

Under federal law, Class 1 e-bikes are legal to sell in New York City while New York City law outlaws Class 2 and 3 e-bikes, leaving Class 1 e-bikes undefined. That is confusing to the public and to law enforcement. And the confusion is also clouding the future of dockless, pedal-assist bikeshare like Brooklyn-based Social Bicycle’s Jump model. Social is angling to meet demand for bikeshare in parts of the City that Citibike has been slow to serve. For some in the active transportation community, dockless bikes threatens to cannibalize Citibike which, with some fits and starts, has proven itself a popular approach to delivering bikeshare. Others hail dockless bikeshare as welcome business competition and a positive addition to underserved parts of the City.

Businesses like regulatory clarity, and in supposedly business-friendly New York, Chris Nolte and others in the e-bike space have not found the regulatory predictability their business requires. In his first year in Brooklyn, Nolte was fined $25,000 and last year he faced a $6,000 fine for selling a product that the Department of Consumer Affairs mistakenly believed was not legal for use on the city’s streets. Both fines, ultimately thrown out by the courts, demonstrate how the e-bike regulatory confusion is stifling New York’s search for creative transportation solutions. And this has Nolte, a business taxpayer, thinking that perhaps his store’s future lies elsewhere, like in California where there is more certainty about the street-legal status of the Bosch pedal-assist and other e-bikes that he sells.

Even with regulatory uncertainty however, in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens, lower cost Chinese made e-bikes have become as common as pizzerias and Halal food carts. These bikes are owned by the largely immigrant independent contractor workers who make their living delivering take out food on the city’s congested streets.

Transportation Alternatives, the non-profit working to change New York's transportation priorities to encourage and increase non-polluting, quiet, city-friendly travel and decrease automobile use, is one of the groups focused on finding a regulatory solution that would provide sensible guidance on e-bikes in New York. Caroline Samponaro, the group’s Deputy Director has said that, “Rather than attacking the livelihoods of hard-working, predominantly immigrant delivery cyclists, the Mayor should follow the lead of California and work with the New York State Legislature to pass common sense e-bike legislation that establishes a framework for safe, pedal-powered, low-speed models.” I spoke with Samponaro about how Transportation Alternatives and their partners have sought to make sense of the regulatory confusion. She explains:

“Not unlike other states across the country we are trying to distinguish between different types of e-bikes. Unfortunately, pedal-assist bikes which go no more than 20 miles an hour have been lumped in with less speed regulated throttle-equipped bikes, creating a bad brand for e-bikes. There is a place for e-bikes in cities, and ways in which their use can expand the transportation network and contribute to finding more sustainable solutions and a higher mode share of bikes to cars in the City. Like better bike lanes, e-bikes can also be a part of that set of solutions.”

Acknowledging that e-bikes are sometimes operated with a disregard for traffic laws and make some pedestrians feel vulnerable, Transportation Alternatives urges the “adoption of a technology that has the potential to be a low-cost, space-efficient, clean vehicle that makes cycling accessible for long-distances, and for all ages and abilities.”

Instead of demonizing take out food delivery workers as a menace to pedestrians, the Mayor and City Council should include e-bikes in the transportation network, and redouble the Department of Transportation’s efforts to build-out a connected network of protected bike lanes that can accommodate the growing number of traditional and e-bike cyclists.

Transportation Alternatives supports the full legalization of class 1 e-bikes in the City, and believes class 1 e-bikes should be treated as traditional bicycles, with no insurance or registration requirements. The group further proposes that a state laws to legalize class 1 e-bikes must:

  1. establish where and how class 1 e-bikes can be sold and operated in New York City;
  2. require class 1 e-bikes to bear a trade-specific label indicating its class to aid NYPD enforcement against class 2 and 3 e-bike, and which will be illegal to alter.

Transportation Alternatives believes that following the successful legalization of class 1 e-bikes, an appropriate legal framework should be developed for class 2 and 3 e-bikes, and that these also should not be banned.

I agree. It’s time the City and State got on the same page about e-bikes. And while we’re at it, let’s move forward with congestion pricing to gives us the cash we need to fix the subway. The regional economy and residents that rely on these engines, electric and otherwise, deserve both a first class transit system and the option of riding an e-bike when that is the preferred mode of transportation.

Yours in transit,

Joel

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