By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Way back in May 2020 I had my tried-and-true bike stolen out from under me, so to speak. I was one of those die-hard bikers that felt that anything with a motor should be regulated and licensed, and kept off the bikeways, despite friends who for years had extolled the virtues of power-assisted bikes and scooters. Shortly after that theft, the tandem bike I used to ride with my wife had mechanical problems, and we started seriously looking for an e-bike to replace it. At about the same time the winds of change were blowin’ in.
E-bikes have been favored by New York City’s quick delivery riders for years, but vehicle laws put them in a gray area. In 2013 Mayor Bloomberg signed a public safety bill banning e-bikes; Mayor de Blasio continued that ban despite, or because of, their continued popularity. But in 2018 Citi Bike announced plans to roll out 4,000 new shared electric bikes, with city authorization. Talking contradiction here.
Governments were also facing the ever-increasing popularity of various forms of “micromobility,” a term for tiny vehicles used to transport one or two people—people-powered or electric bicycles, skateboards, scooters, even small electric carts. In 2020 bicycle sales increased by 50-150 percent, e-scooters have increased by 100-300 percent, and e-bike sales increased by 600 percent, according to some reports.
The State Fiscal Year 2021 Budget that was agreed to in March 2020 included the legalization of pedal-assist e-bikes and throttle e-bikes and e-scooters, but allowed municipalities to regulate their use for specific local conditions. The bill creates three different classes of e-bikes:
- Class 1: pedal-assist bikes, such as Citi Bike e-bikes, that max out at 20 miles per hour. (Such bikes had been legal in New York City already.)
- Class 2: throttle-powered bikes that max out at 20 miles per hour.
- Class 3: throttle-powered bikes that max out at 25 miles per hour in cities of one million people or more. (These are the bikes preferred by delivery workers.)
- E-scooters, capped at 15 miles per hour, are legalized for use statewide.
After New Yorkers were barred from eating at restaurants in mid-March in order to maintain social distancing practices, de Blasio ordered the police to stop ticketing e-bikes (although the agency did not return any confiscated bikes immediately). Then, on June 25th, 2020, the city council passed a law allowing e-bikes to be used on most city streets and bikeways just as regular bikes would be. The law also authorizes the establishment of an e-scooter share pilot program.
Yet the law does nothing to resolve the contradictory language that prohibits e-bikes of any kind from being ridden on the Hudson River Park Greenway, despite the e-bikes available for rent at Citi Bike docks in Hudson River Park.
“We appreciate this common-sense legislation that clarifies the rules around e-bikes on our streets,” said City Hall spokesman Seth Stein. “Safety for everyone on our roads is our priority, and we look forward to working with legislators and communities as we develop plans to implement the new law.” This didn’t make the big NY Times headlines, but it indicated a sea change in personal transportation, and a challenge to the city’s infrastructure. There’s a need for the city to create affordable and sustainable transportation elements—wider and more connected bikeways, and off-sidewalk parking corrals for bikes.
In the meantime, I will continue riding defensively, always looking out for distracted drivers, other bikers, or pedestrians, and following common-sense safety rules such as wearing a helmet. And since I still ride for the exercise, I’ll be powering down most of the time, especially when I approach the Greenway.
The times, they are a-changing!
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is a journalist who focuses on architecture subjects.