New York, New York, Do You Love Ebikes or Hate Them?
By Ed Benjamin
eCycleElectric Consultants' Ed Benjamin reports from the 'Big Apple' on the city's confused and conflicted policies on electric-asisst bicycles.
Filled with confusion amid conflicting reports, I recently went to NYC to see just what was happening there with ebikes.
My hotel was in Chelsea, and on arrival one of the first things I noticed on the cab ride to the hotel was that nearly every intersection had an ebike rider. Usually wearing a traffic safety vest, and clearly delivering food.
A stroll from the hotel to the corner deli revealed ebikes parked in front of several ethnic restaurants.
NYC has banned ebikes, strengthening some anti-ebike laws that already existed, with a promise that enforcement will become vigorous in November – I am told by local ebike dealers. These confusing actions are described in other articles on line at EV World.
At the same time, NYC has more ebikes in use than any other American city. And it seems to me, more need for ebikes than any other American city.
The crowded situation of NYC, where limited roadway is used by too many cars, buses, and trucks has for decades been a place where two wheelers make a lot of sense. And NYC has been a bigger user of bicycles for commuting, errand running, messengers, and delivery than any other American city.
In the window of NYC’s prominent retailer of electric bike NYCEWheels [pictured above with photos courtesy of Flickr], is a small sign that explains that ebikes are illegal on the roads and sidewalks of NYC. Thus, no test rides. Yet this store probably sells more high end electric bike (and high end manual folding bikes) than any other store in the USA.
Not wanting to embarrass the staff, I did not ask just how ebikes could be sold without test rides. I noticed that ebikes came and went from the store, with little attention being paid to the illegality of using such.
Bert Cebular, the owner, explained to me that his clientele is largely the well to do bankers, lawyers, and managers who live nearby and use two wheelers to commute to the bus stop, metro station, or to work. They can slip through the traffic jams and save substantial time.
The problem, I learned, is that ebike riders are accused of many transgressions – such as riding the wrong way on one way roads, riding on sidewalks, running traffic lights, and generally being inconsiderate. That reminded me of the accusations that seem to appear every time a new user group appears on a roadway or a bike path.
In a crowded city, with crowded right of way, one more user is a bit of a shock, and both resented and objected to by someone. This includes skate boarders, roller bladders, dog walkers, runners, race walkers, mobility scooters, people using canes, strollers, old people walking slowly, and young people walking fast.
NYC has a long history of both a substantial community of cyclists, and complaints and hostility towards cyclists from motorists. Perhaps the reader will remember the Critical Mass rides that the large and aggressive (aren’t all NYC residents aggressive?) cycling community of NYC used to assert their access to the roadways.
In fact, I note that the recently launched, and very popular, Citibike bicycle sharing system that has put thousands of bicycles on the roadways of NYC is also being complained about by everyone except the thousands of cyclists who find it very useful.
In support of cycling, NYC has created bicycle routes, often at the expense of on road parking (also complained about), that have made cycling more convenient and safer.
Next I went looking for the source of the food delivery bikes. Bert had told me that his bikes are too high end, and that Chinese owned dealers sold most of the delivery bikes.
Visiting an electric bike dealer where the owner preferred to be anonymous, I learned that the delivery rider usually owns the delivery bike. The electric bike allows him to deliver to a wider area – thus increasing his income and the territory that the restaurant can serve. (And increasing the choices of NY residents for take out dining.)
Price is very important to these deliverymen, and the bikes they buy are sturdy, basic, bikes. The dealer explained that there might be as many as 50,000 such bikes in service in NYC.
And he expressed dismay and frustration with NYC lawmakers. To his view, they were inhibiting the ability of himself, the restaurant owners, and the deliverymen to make a living, And for no good reasons.
A few badly behaved riders had created a situation that lawmakers had overreacted to, passing laws that were not in the best interests of their constituents. Although, he thought that lobbying from taxi companies was involved as well – the ebike and especially the Citibike program compete to some degree with taxis.
He was uncertain about his future. He had heard that in November, enforcement of the new laws would put an end to his business. But he had also heard that the NYPD had far more important things to do, and enforcement of the anti ebike laws might not occur. And that there is even proposed state level legislation that would cause ebikes to be legal in all of NY State.
So what I learned was this: The Big Apple, as is to be expected, is busy, noisy, confused, and contradictory. Lawmakers are acting with inadequate information, responded to interests who resist change, and probably not in the best interest of their constituents. But all that, I think, is normal.
It is a shame that the city that is the earliest adopter of one of the most useful personal transportation tools for a high-density city, seems determined to resist the adoption of ebikes. That will not help the dissemination of ebikes it the USA. But it will also not stop them.
My guess is that the aggressive constituents of NYC will find that they like and want ebikes. That they will find they enjoy the wider choices and lower prices of ebike delivered food. And that getting through the traffic jam, without sweating, on an ebike is a good way to travel in NYC.
And that they will cause the laws to change.
How fast that will occur is another question.
Edward Benjamin is the Senior Managing Director, eCycleElectric Consultants
Originally published: 13 Sep 2013
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