E-Bikes and E-Scooters, Explained

The mayoral election is two years away, but City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is already striking a difference between himself and the term-limited incumbent Bill de Blasio on every New Yorker’s pet complaint: transportation. On his agenda is an ambitious plan to connect the city’s bike lanes and increase the use of electric bicycles across all boroughs. 

“We need to break the car culture in New York City,” Johnson said last fall. “We need to enable cyclists and pedestrians to get around the city in a safe way.”

Talk of transportation alternatives became urgent when the MTA in 2016 announced the closure of the Canarsie Tunnel, the L train’s conduit that carries 250,000 riders between Manhattan and Brooklyn daily. City council members proposed a pilot program for electric scooters along the L Train route, one of four bills that would legalize certain types of electric bikes and scooters. 

Lawmakers in New York City and in Albany will consider legislation on electric bikes and scooters in April, once the state budget is finalized. Here’s what you need to know before they vote:

So what are e-bikes, and why did the mayor call them “a real danger?”

De Blasio last fall announced a crackdown on e-bikes, citing the danger posed by high-speed bicycles to pedestrians. The mayor might be lumping all kinds of electric bicycles together — electric bicycles come in three varieties, differing in how fast they can go and how their speed can be controlled. In addition, the NYC Department of Transportation’s annual bicycle crash data report doesn’t  differentiate between regular bikes and electric bikes either.  

Compared to a regular bicycle, riders can go further and faster on an electric bicycle with less strain, thanks to a rechargeable motor. New York State law considers all motor-assisted bicycles as motor vehicles, requiring registration with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

California set the trend for classifying electric bikes. On a Class 1 bike, the rider has to pedal to initiate the motor, which can go as fast as 20 miles per hour.

Class 2, known as throttle bikes, can also go up to 20 miles per hour, but requires no input from the rider aside from the flick of a switch on the handlebars. Basically, it’s a motorcycle with pedals, and registering mopeds with the Department of Motor Vehicles is almost impossible.

The third kind are pedal assist bikes that have a maximum speed of 28 miles per hour — a no-go for New York’s crowded, pedestrian-heavy streets.

 In New York State, at present, only Class 1 electric bikes are legal. That’s a problem for delivery cyclists.

“The cheaper the bike, the tendency is the motor systems are less intuitive, so they rely more on having a throttle,” said Lee Martins of Propel Electric Bikes in Brooklyn. 

According to City Lab, an online magazine, many restaurants invested in throttle bikes because they were cheaper to import from China. Martins’s store sells Class 1 bikes from $2,500, but throttle bikes can be bought for $1,000.

The police crackdown on delivery workers who ride throttle bikes is often cited as a reason for why city legislators are trying to set the record straight on e-bikes.

“You and I could ride around on a Citi Bike, but the delivery guys risking their life for a small amount of money get fined $500,” said Eben Weiss, an avid cyclist and author of the blog BikeSnobNYC.

What are e-scooters, and who can use them?

While Citi Bikes (Class 1, by the way) are ubiquitous throughout New York, deciding whether to hop on one or into an Uber is hardly a question for those of us who never learned to ride a bike (this reporter included). Bikes also aren’t an option for the elderly, or if you’re out of shape.

Luckily for us, the learning curve isn’t as steep with electric scooters. All you have to do is flick a switch.

“You could be wearing a wedding dress,” said Weiss, who traveled to Portland last summer to test that city’s e-scooter program. “You just have to stand there.”

“Women in four-inch heels have been on these,” said Sarah Haynes, co-founder of Bolt Mobility, a maker of e-scooters that has rolled out its fleet in Alexandria, Va., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, all e-scooters are currently illegal under city and state laws. The e-scooter companies Bird, Lyme, and Bolt Mobility have been lobbying New York legislators to support a set of bills legalizing their product. Bolt Mobility even enlisted the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt, as its brand ambassador. 

What are lawmakers proposing?

Four bills proposed last year by City Council Member Rafael Espinal are before the transportation committee. If passed together, the bills would legalize electric scooters that run under 15 miles per hour, as well as both pedal assist and throttle bikes under 20 miles per hour.

Espinal also proposed lowering the fine for banned motor vehicles from $500 to $100. One of the bills orders the city’s Department of Transportation to establish a one-year program to assist riders in converting throttle bikes to pedal assist bikes.

The fourth bill proposed by Espinal, who represents Bushwick and other neighborhoods along the L Train line, would establish an e-scooter pilot program for the Canarsie Tunnel corridor.

“Some of the transit deserts that are most challenged are Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and we’d like to focus our efforts there, first and foremost,” said Will Nicholas, operations director for Bolt Mobility.

But before pilot programs can even be introduced in so-called transit deserts, or areas with limited bus and subway services, the city needs to address infrastructure concerns such as potholes and bike lane enforcement first.

“Pick a neighborhood where it’s difficult to get to the transit hub from the store,” said Weiss. “Make sure the conditions are good, then put the scooters in.”

Who’s for or against e-bikes and e-scooters?

In their push for legalization, electric bike and scooter companies frequently point to the jobs that the industry could create in New York City. Nicholas of Bolt Mobility said their scooters are designed and assembled in New York, although the parts are manufactured in China.

The companies have the New York State Business Council’s support.

“New Yorkers deserve safe mobility options,” said Howard Becker of the New York State Business Council. “We have urged our state elected officials to move forward and pass this legislation within the next few weeks.”

But some community activists would rather see the city invest in existing modes of transportation, like the subway and bus service, instead of opening avenues for new transportation alternatives. 

“The bike lane in a gentrifying neighborhood is a signal directed towards the more affluent class that developers wish to attract,” the Queens Anti-Gentrification project wrote on Facebook. “We don’t need bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods, e-scooters, Citi Bike or any of that. Just fix the subways and give us more bus service!”