On a recent Friday afternoon, I was riding toward the intersection of two major avenues in Brooklyn — Atlantic and Bedford — when the lane markings disappeared and what had been a bike lane became a left turn lane for cars at one of the most chaotic crossings in Brooklyn.
It’s a dangerous scenario for cyclists, with cars merging both ways across six lanes of traffic, and navigating it safely is different every time. I saw a clear path, bumped my pedal assistance up to “Turbo,” and went for it.
It was my first time riding an electric bike, or e-bike, which uses a battery and motor to supplement pedaling and boost speeds up to 27 miles an hour. That’s not crazy fast for a high-level cyclist, but e-bikes make these speeds possible for the average rider — and enable some Jason Bourne-esque maneuvers.
But just as I was getting going, a car and a regular cyclist who had built up speed behind me tried to take advantage of the same opening. A second before carnage, we all hit our brakes and averted crisis.
Both the cyclist and driver shouted at me and made descriptive hand gestures, even though they cut me off.
It didn’t help that I was on an e-bike. Everyone hates e-bikes.
E-bikes are, as one academic journal article put it, “the largest and most rapid uptake of alternative fuelled vehicles in the history of motorisation.”
According to a 2013 study, about 150 million e-bikes have been sold since 2003, most of them in China. But e-bikes have become steadily more popular over the last decade, particularly in Europe. According to Citylab, somewhere between 700,000 and 1,200,000 e-bikes were sold in 2012, twice as many as in 2009 and eight times as many as in 2006 (the story is similar every year since). Much of those sales are coming from the Netherlands and Germany. In the Netherlands, some 17 percent of all new bikes sold are e-bikes.
I borrowed the e-bike from Chris Nolte, who owns Propel E-Bikes on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. Nolte moved his e-bike shop from Long Island to Brooklyn in 2015 because he believes e-bikes could help address the city’s transportation crisis, he told me. Owning a car in the city is impractical and expensive, but the subway keeps failing even as commuters get pushed further from the main business centers due to rising housing costs. The city’s bicycling infrastructure is improving — slowly — but most people aren’t willing to arrive at work sweaty in the summer or freezing in the winter. E-bikes are speedy, have an environmental impact similar to public transit, and are relatively inexpensive, starting at around $1,000.
The most obvious benefit to the e-bike is the way it handles hills. I traced my old commute which begins with a fairly sizable slope. Usually I am a little winded when I get to the top on my single speed, but I maintained 14 miles per hour pedaling on the e-bike without having to exert any additional effort.
In New York City, most of the e-bike riders are food delivery workers.
The other magical aspect of e-bikes is acceleration; not because it’s especially rapid, but because it’s so easy. I didn’t even mind stopping at red lights anymore because getting back up to speed only required a few easy pedal rotations. Thanks to these two improvements, my journey up Bedford was faster than the B44 Select Bus Service bus, one of the city’s supposed “rapid” bus lines.
Finally, I took the Hudson River Greenway, the crown jewel of New York City biking infrastructure, up to the George Washington Bridge. It was a lovely afternoon for a ride with temperatures hovering in the mid-60s and a breeze coming off the Hudson. Google Maps estimated it would take an hour and 45 minutes to travel the 19.5 miles home by regular bike. In fact, it took only an hour and 22 minutes, even though my average traveling speed was a perfectly responsible 14.3 miles per hour. I e-biked more than 50 miles that day without breaking a sweat. Except for the one close call, it was 50 miles of pure urban transportation bliss.
However, most New Yorkers view e-bikes as an invasive species. The drivers, pedestrians, and regular cyclists who make up the city’s daily traffic dance often view e-bikes as dangerous, unwanted intrusions. One Upper West Side resident, Matthew Shefler, hates them so much that he bought a speed gun and tracked how fast e-bikes in his neighborhood were going. Upon finding that some went “too fast,” as he put it, he made it his mission to have the city enforce its existing e-bike regulations, which Mayor de Blasio agreed to do last month.
E-bikes are in an awkward spot. They are too fast for bike lanes, too slow for roads, and highly inappropriate for sidewalks. They also occupy an indistinct space under the law. On the federal level, e-bikes were defined and legalized in 2002 to differentiate them from gas-powered motor vehicles like scooters and motorcycles. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C. legally define e-bikes and seven have specific legislation regarding their use. California, for example, defines three classes of e-bike depending on their top speeds and regulates where each can be ridden. But other states, such as New York, don’t officially define e-bikes, which makes it difficult to integrate them into existing traffic patterns.
There are two main types of e-bikes: throttle and pedal-assist. Many e-bikes have both, but for legal purposes, if you have a throttle then you’re a throttle e-bike — though thanks to the ease of pedaling the motor allows, the difference seemed to strike me as minor, akin to automatic versus manual transmissions. Throttle e-bikes are basically slow scooters and make up a large percentage of e-bike sales in China, but are not used in Europe. On the other hand, throttle-less pedal-assist e-bikes use the battery to add to the power created by pedaling. If you stop pedaling, the motor will stop, too.
Since New York doesn’t define e-bikes, the presence of a motor puts them in the same class as motorized scooters or mini-bikes, which are illegal in the city. Legislation in 2004 specifically banned e-bikes with throttles, which many took to mean pedal-assist bikes like mine are legal. But when de Blasio announced the crackdown on e-bikes, he made no distinction between throttle and throttle-less. (He did say pedal-assist e-bikes are “allowable,” but seemed to be under the impression they’re mostly used by the disabled. Update: After publication, the mayor’s office clarified by email that pedal-assist bikes “are categorized as ‘motorized scooters,’ making them illegal to operate on City streets.”) Nolte told me none of his customers have ever reported getting a ticket for riding a pedal-assist e-bike. During my weekend jaunt, I rode past a dozen or so police cars without an issue.
Nolte doesn’t sell throttle e-bikes. But in 2015, he received a $25,000 fine for trying to sell pedal-assist bikes. As Nolte tells it, an inspector for the Department of Consumer Affairs came into his shop and informed Nolte he was going to fine him $1,000 per bike. Nolte says the inspector wasn’t informed of the local or state law and didn’t know the difference — legal or otherwise — between pedal-assist or throttle. “Apparently,” Nolte said, “his stance was if it has a motor on it, I'm writing a ticket for it.” Nolte did not fight the ticket on the merits because he couldn’t risk losing, he told me. Instead, he leaned on his credibility as a veteran, calling roughly a dozen elected officials and city offices, and ultimately got the fine dismissed on what he calls “a technicality” through the city’s Department of Veterans Services.
The anti-e-bike lobby would have a more straightforward argument if anyone could provide data that says e-bikes are dangerous, but the evidence is all anecdotal.
The most vocal anti-e-bike activists tend to argue two things at once: e-bikes are uniquely dangerous and the people who ride them are doing so recklessly. De Blasio echoed their talking points when announcing increased enforcement. “Electronic bicycles have emerged over the few years as more and more of a problem particularly in some of our mostly populated neighborhoods,” he said. “And what people have seen is absolutely unacceptable – electronic bicycles going the wrong way down streets, weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring traffic signals, sometimes going up on sidewalks. And you know, it’s one thing, if a regular bicycle does that, that’s a problem but an electronic bicycle, it’s so much faster – creates a real danger.”
In New York City, most of the e-bike riders are food delivery workers. These workers ride for 12 to 16 hours a day, sometimes covering up to 60 miles in a single shift, so e-bikes make perfect sense for them. According to Nolte, almost all delivery workers use illegal $1,500 Arrow e-bikes with throttles, which they buy from vendors on the Lower East Side. These workers are overwhelmingly Latino and Asian immigrants, according to the Biking Public Project. When activists like Shefler call out e-bike riders, they’re essentially talking about these workers.
The anti-e-bike lobby would have a more straightforward argument if anyone could provide data that says e-bikes are dangerous, but the evidence is all anecdotal. There is no good data on e-bike-related injuries or complaints because the city doesn’t track e-bikes as a specific category. The one thing we do know is no one has ever been killed in New York City by an e-bike.
De Blasio, spurred on by Shefler, reiterated another misunderstanding about e-bike riders: That the e-bikes ridden by delivery workers are actually owned by the restaurants that employ them. De Blasio emphasized cracking down on businesses in addition to going after the workers themselves. “Once a bike is confiscated the business cannot get it back unless they pay all their fines,” he said. But the reality is that workers typically own the bikes themselves. Do Jun Lee, a Ph.D candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and activist for the Biking Public Project, has spoken to over a hundred delivery workers in the city; every one of them says they own their own e-bikes. Restaurants pass all the potential costs of illegal e-bike operation, including purchase, fines, tickets, and impound fees, onto their delivery workers. Year to date, the NYPD has confiscated 923 e-bikes for a street value of $1.38 million, almost entirely seized from low-income immigrant workers. Even under De Blasio’s new plan, businesses will be fined “$100, $200” while riders will be fined $500 in addition to impound fees.
The e-bike debate is starting to look a lot like a pattern bicycle activists have seen before. Transportation Alternatives opposed the e-bike crackdown as a measure “about listening to the loudest complainers” and not making New Yorkers safer. While those advocating for e-bike regulations insist they’re fine with delivery workers using regular bikes because they’re less dangerous, the same arguments are made against regular cycling infrastructure. Just last year, a parade of Upper East Siders opposed bike lanes at a community board meeting, almost all of whom said something to the effect of I’m fine with bike lanes, just not here. People from local hospitals and schools claimed a bike lane would put children and sick people in harm’s way. According to a report released last year by the Biking Public Project, 92 percent of commercial cycling tickets, where a cyclist registered as a delivery worker for a business was given a ticket, issued between 2007 and 2015 were handed out in just four Manhattan precincts covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and parts of Midtown. The overall picture is one of rampant NIMBYism: wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods opposing the use of bikes in their neighborhoods because they’re not riding safely while also opposing basic safety measures to separate bikes from pedestrians. It should also be noted that pedal-assist bikes — the ones the mayor, Shefler, and the NYPD all seem OK with despite being capable of the same speeds — are mostly used by wealthy baby boomers ditching their cars or millennials who don’t want to own one in the first place.
All this puts Nolte and other e-bike advocates in a tough position. As someone with an obvious financial stake in e-bikes being successful, he wants to see e-bikes accepted and destigmatized. But he also understands the concern. “I believe that electric bikes can be a solution to the majority of people in New York City,” Nolte summarized when we spoke in his shop, “but that opportunity is not realized because of the perception of electric bikes as a result of the usage of delivery riders.” But then he caught himself. “Some delivery riders. Cause some are responsible.”
I tried my best to be a responsible e-biker. I really did. I vowed not to run any red lights — which, I, uh, never do on my regular bike, no sir — and observe all posted speed limits. But I quickly realized there was no place on the road for me; not yet at least. Like with the encounter at Bedford and Atlantic, I was stuck between bicycles and cars. It’s what makes e-bikes so promising; and also what makes them so despised.