Persecuting E-Bikes In New York City

By Bill Moore

Posted: 15 Jun 2011

Between 2007 and the end of 2009, 462 pedestrians were killed on New York City streets, the most dangerous stretch being the 16-mile length of Broadway. In the tri-state region of the includes New Jersey, downstate New York and Connecticut pedestrian fatalities average 415 deaths per year.

Presumably, most of those fatalities result from being struck by cars and trucks. How many died after being struck by an electric-assisted bicycle isn't known. I'd guess the number is zero.

Yet, New York City councilman Dan Garodnick wants to "pull the plug" on e-bikes because such bicycles create "a dangerous situation for a lot of pedestrians, kids, elderly people, anybody who's walking down the street and doesn't realize what looks like a bicycle actually has a motor." He wants to double existing fines for breaking traffic laws on a two-wheeler, presumably both electric-assist and conventional pedal-powered. It is not illegal to operate e-bikes on New York city streets.

The issue of electric bicycles in the Big Apple gained prominence recently as the result of a New York Times article highlighting take-out food deliverymen who are shifting from regular bicycles to electric-assist.

In an effort to reduce pedestrian deaths, which result largely from what is labeled "reckless driving," New York City is planning to reduce speed limits to 30 mph, and in one Brooklyn neighborhood to 20 mph. This happens to be close to the top speed of any legal electric-assist bicycle as well as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles with top speeds of 25 mph. Studies have found that reducing the speed of an automobile increases the chances of survival as a pedestrian.

What I find baffling about the Councilman's attitude is that while he's willing to restrict the use of e-bikes, which are essentially pollution-free and one of the most efficient forms of personal mobility ever invented, both in terms of manufacturing and energy use, he apparently has no issues with the vehicles causing those hundreds of pedestrian deaths. Which machine would you rather be struck by: a two-ton automobile traveling as 40 mph or a 65-pound electric-assist bicycle traveling at 15 mph, which is the average speed most of these vehicles travel. I know, I own and use one.

I looked up the background on Councilman Garodnick. He seems a pretty progressive-minded guy who "established himself as a leader in the fight for affordable housing." He holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and is recognized as a civil rights and education advocate, according to his bio on the New York City government web site, having once "represented thirteen same-sex couples seeking marriage equality in New York State…"

He seems like the kind of person who is open-minded and willing to learn, yet he also seems stuck in an obsolete paradigm that sees public streets the sole preserve of Yellow Cabs and heavy delivery trucks. Not all that surprisingly, when the City closed off streets for the exclusive use of pedestrians and bicycles there were no fatalities; zero, not one death. What's that tell you?

City administrators and politicians need to take a much boarder view of the role that two-wheeled vehicles can provide New York citizens today and tomorrow. They provide a low-cost, nearly pollution-free, community-friendly form of mobility for a wider range of age groups than do traditional pedal-alone bicycles. To censure them, to restrict them because they pose some non-existent threat to pedestrians is just plain nuts!

In contrast to NYC's parochial perspective on e-bikes, city administrators in Las Vegas are encouraging their employees to use the 25 electric-assist bicycles it purchased for their use, or Hertz Rental Cars that is now renting them in central London. Properly used and regulated, E-bikes are not the problem, they are the solution for many transportation tasks.

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