Will Electric Bikes Ever Be Legal in New York?
’re as familiar a part of the New York cityscape as hot-dog vendors and yellow cabs: Deliverymen riding electric bikes, zooming down bike lanes, slaloming through traffic, sometimes riding on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street. Regardless of their relative respect for traffic laws, they all have one thing in common: Their bikes are illegal to operate in New York, every single one of them.
Last month, the city started enforcing a new set of safety standards for commercial cyclists mandating they follow traffic rules and wear certain safety equipment furnished by their employers. Among the Department of Transportation’s new Rules for Commercial bicycling is this special note: "Electric bicycles are not capable of being registered by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and therefore their operation is prohibited in New York City." In Albany, legislation to change that has been kicking around for years. In 2013, advocates think it will finally succeed.
To the bikes’ detractors, including members of New York’s City Council, that would be bad news. Two council members are pushing to increase penalties for riding the bikes, which are legal under federal law but state and city law view them as motor vehicles that are illegal to use on public streets.
A law signed by George W. Bush in 2002 defines bikes with pedals and an electric motor no more powerful than 750 watts and a top speed no greater than 20 mph as simply bicycles. The difference is that with the electric motor, you can get to your top speed a lot easier and it takes no effort to maintain it. This is where some people see a hazard.
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