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Sparks fly in debate over electric bicycles

By January 11, 2019 No Comments

by GABE HERMAN

As the city’s bicycle culture continues to grow, electric bikes remain a flashpoint regarding pedestrian safety and which types of e-bikes – and what type of speed — should be allowed.

The city started allowing pedal-assist bicycles this past summer, which were recently added to the CitiBike program and go up to 20 miles per hour. So-called throttle bikes — which have the speed control on the handlebar grip, like motorcycles — can go up to about 25 mph and don’t require pedaling for the motor to work.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been outspoken against throttle bikes. He has declared them illegal under existing state law and lauded police crackdowns and seizures of them.

It hasn’t been lost on transportation advocates that outlawed throttle bikes tend to be used more by deliverymen who are often immigrants or poorer New Yorkers, while pedal-assist bikes tend to have more upper-class riders.

Recent legislation introduced in the City Council in late November tries to address the issue by legalizing all e-bikes and capping speeds at 20 mph, while also legalizing e-scooters, another emerging transportation device, which would be capped at 15 mph. The proposed law would also create a pilot bike-share program for e-bikes, and help lower-income New Yorkers get their e-bikes altered to adhere to new regulations.

At a December town hall on the Upper East Side for City Council District 4, de Blasio was asked about e-bikes by Claire Brennan, a member of Community Board 6. She said she is a native New Yorker from Stuyvesant Town, a graduate student at Hunter College, and a user of pedal-assist bikes through CitiBike. She recalled a pedal-assist ride when she saw e-bikes being confiscated from deliverymen at 20th St. and Second Ave.

“Why am I able to zip down Second Ave. on an e-bike with a smile on my face, with fresh legs, something that makes my day much easier, but people are being criminalized and lives are being ruined?” she asked. “This seems like more of a labor issue, or immigration.”

De Blasio responded first that they were enforcing state law.

“We don’t want to undermine anyone’s livelihood,” he continued. “But we are first and foremost concerned about safety. There is a safety problem with e-bikes going the wrong way on streets, driving recklessly.”

The city does not have safety data about e-bikes, though traffic deaths have decreased to record lows in the city after de Blasio’s Vision Zero program began in 2014.

A police officer from the 13th Precinct, which includes Gramercy and Stuyvesant Town, joined the town hall conversation about throttle bikes.

“It’s a large, large complaint in the 13th Precinct, and Manhattan South for that matter,” he said. “As the mayor pointed out, they are quite menacing. So, yes, we have confiscated 139 year to date and we’re going to keep going until we get it under control.”

This statement brought loud applause from most of the audience, as well as a smattering of boos.

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