Police seized over 200 electric bicycles in the first six weeks of 2018, including these two by officers from the Upper West Side's 24th Precinct. Photo: NYPD, via Twitter
Electric bicycles — outfitted with battery-powered motors that can propel riders at sustained speeds of upwards of 20 mph — have become an increasingly familiar piece of Manhattan’s streetscape in recent years. They’ve become so common that an out-of-towner who didn’t know better could be forgiven for thinking that the motorized bikes, favored by food delivery workers for their speed and ease of mobility, are a fully sanctioned mode of transportation in New York City.
But in spite of their ubiquity, e-bikes are, in fact, illegal to ride on city streets — and the city has gone to increased lengths to stamp out their use.
From Jan. 1 to Feb. 11, the most recent period for which data is available, police seized 209 e-bikes and issued 238 moving summonses to e-bike users citywide.
This rate puts the city on pace to surpass the 1,007 e-bikes confiscated citywide by police last year, which itself was a significant increase over the 551 seized in 2016. The uptick in enforcement coincided with a crackdown on e-bikes announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio last October at a press conference on the Upper West Side, during which the mayor called e-bikes “a growing safety problem” and referenced riders “going the wrong way down streets, weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring traffic signals, sometimes going up on sidewalks.”
Much of the city’s enforcement efforts have been concentrated in Manhattan. The NYPD’s 20th and 24th Precincts on the Upper West Side confiscated a combined 89 e-bikes last year, while the 17th and 19th Precincts on the East Side seized a combined 103 e-bikes through mid-October of 2017.
A number of precincts have used social media to publicize seizures in recent months, posting photos of impounded e-bikes online. “Illegal #EBikes for as far as the eyes can see,” read one caption accompanying images posted to Twitter by the NYPD’s 19th Precinct in January. “All confiscated from the #UpperEastSide streets & sidewalks.”
The city issued nearly 1,800 summonses related to e-bike use in 2017, as compared to roughly 1,200 in 2016.
Due to e-bikes’ status under the law — illegal to operate on city streets, but legal to own — riders who have been subjected to confiscations are able to recover their e-bikes in short order after paying a fine of up to $500 — or, alternatively, can opt to outfit a new bike with a motor kit, some of which can be purchased for less than the cost of the fine. Critics claim that fining riders does little to keep e-bikes permanently off the street and unfairly punishes delivery workers, who make up a significant portion of the city’s e-bike ridership.
In hopes of reducing the number of delivery workers using e-bikes, the de Blasio administration instituted a new policy at the beginning of the year that targets businesses that employ e-bike riders. As of 2018, businesses that use e-bikes or allow employees to use them are now subject to fines of $100 for the first offense and $200 for each subsequent offense. Though riders can still be subjected to fines and confiscation, the mayor said that the policy would help hold accountable “those at the top of the food chain.”
“We did not want them to bear the brunt for an illegality that was actually being created by the stores and the restaurants they were working for,” de Blasio said of delivery riders at a January town hall meeting on the Upper East Side. “You will see more and more NYPD activity to make sure there are not e-bikes creating a safety problem in this city,” he added.
So far in 2018, the city has issued 69 summonses to businesses for allowing employees to operate a motorized scooter, 25 of which were issued in Manhattan.
Though the administration has cast the crackdown as a safety issue, data on the hazards caused by e-bike use is limited. The city does not track e-bike collisions or injuries as a distinct category, and some police precincts that have communicated data have reported few incidents involving e-bikes. Of the 58 bicycle collisions recorded last year by the Upper West Side’s 20th Precinct, for example, only one involved an e-bike.
One bill currently before the City Council, introduced by Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander, would assemble an interagency e-bike task force comprised of representatives from the city’s Transportation, City Planning and Parks Departments, as well as other transportation and bicycle use experts appointed by the mayor and council, charged with the goal of developing safety and legislative recommendations regarding e-bike use.
Michael Garofalo: firstname.lastname@example.org