A Crackdown on Electric Bicycles Coming from Two Directions

July 20, 2012 at 4:00 am

A deliveryman rides an electric bicycle down Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen. The bikes are illegal and the city is starting to crack down. MetroFocus/ Georgia Kral

In New York City, ordering take-out meals is practically a way of life. Many people don’t cook, or work too much to cook, and depend on fast, reliable deliverymen to bring them whatever they desire. In many neighborhoods, especially in Manhattan, residents can call up a whole host of cuisines directly to their door.

Beyond wanting choice, New Yorkers want their food quickly, and they want it hot.

Restaurant deliverymen, in order to do their jobs well, often ride bicycles, and some have taken to riding electric bicycles. Either option is a known safety hazard. Reports of bicyclists riding the wrong way against traffic, riding on sidewalks and not obeying the rules of the road, are common.

The city has specific rules for bicycles used for commercial purposes. All commercial cyclists must wear a helmet, have a bell and a front and tail light and must carry identification, and electric bikes are illegal for any rider in New York City. According to the Department of Transportation, outreach is necessary to make sure deliverymen and their bosses know the rules. Earlier this week, the DOT announced its Delivery Cyclist Education and Enforcement Program.  On Monday, DOT representatives began visiting businesses on the Upper West Side to let owners and their employees know the rules of the road.  Next on their list is the Upper East Side.  The DOT will make return visits to make sure what they’ve advised gets implemented. If it hasn’t been, violations will be issued.

“New Yorkers are used to getting what they want, fast, but businesses that depend on bike deliveries can’t cut corners on safety,” said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in a statement.

At the same time as the DOT crackdown on delivery cylists, Councilmember Dan Garodnick has introduced legislation that will double the fines issued to electric bike operators. Under the legislation, the maximum fine for riding an “e-bike” on a sidewalk would increase from $100 to $200.

“We have seen a clear proliferation of e-bikes [electric bikes] all around New York City,” said Garodnick in a phone interview. “They are deceptively fast, dangerous and illegal.”

A man rides an electric bicycle down Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen. MetroFocus/ Georgia Kral

At a press conference last week in Sunnyside, Queens, where Garodnick introduced his bill, one senior citizen spoke about two instances in which seniors in wheelchairs  were struck by e-bikes.

An e-bike looks like a regular bicycle, but is powered by an electric motor that allows it to accelerate more quickly, upwards of 20 miles per hour. A rechargeable battery powers the motor. Although they are sold in New York City, their presence on city streets was banned in 2004.  But despite the law, e-bikes are prevalent.

“We want to create the proper economic disincentives,” said Garodnick. “At a minimum, we need to double the fine.”

When asked why the bikes shouldn’t just be confiscated, Garodnick said that would be too time consuming and costly for the police.

“We are open to other measures, but this is a first step,” he said.

Garodnick said the timing of his bill, which he introduced just before the DOT announced its campaign, was coincidental. But he also said it would be beneficial to his cause because the DOT will let businesses know that the e-bikes so many deliverymen ride are illegal.

In Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood densely populated with restaurants that do a brisk trade in take-out, MetroFocus found only a few managers that would talk about how their deliverymen get around. Multiple employees said they didn’t know about the deliverymen and said to come back later.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the managers who did speak to us said that the deliverymen they employed did not use e-bikes.

“They don’t use them here,” said Raj Kumar, the manager at Basera Indian Cuisine on Ninth Avenue.

But Kumar said he didn’t see a reason why they should be illegal.

“We need to get food to people quicker,” he said. “We’re in that business.”

David Sarmiento, manager at Arriba Arriba Mexican Cuisine on Ninth Avenue at 51st Street, said his deliverymen don’t ride bikes at all.  The restaurant’s website states the delivery area is 42nd to 59th streets and Sixth to Eleventh Avenues.

“We walk. In the city, using a bike is dangerous,” he said. “It puts employees at risk.”

At the Afghan Kebab House on Ninth Avenue, chef Muhammad Chaudry said that mostly Asian restaurant deliverymen rode the e-bikes.

“Chinese, Korean, sushi restaurants, they use them,” he said, adding that the bikes are very popular in China. The New York Times also reported last year that the electric bikes were widely used by Chinese immigrants delivering take-out.

And at Jerry’s Cafe on Chambers Street, near City Hall, manager Bryant Murphy said that while his deliverymen did not use e-bikes, he saw them often in his neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was in support of the proposed higher fine.

“It would cut down on accidents,” he said. “These guys are just buzzing around.”

Julio (who asked to be identified only by his first name), a Hell’s Kitchen resident who delivers take-out from Lucky’s Famous Burgers on 52nd Street for a living, rides a regular bicycle.

“I don’t like it [the e-bike] because it makes it too fast,” he explained. “You need to stop and you can’t stop quickly.”

Julio said he understood why others rode the e-bikes.

“They want to deliver more food. It’s more fast. They want to make more money,” he said.


“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

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