Delivery Cyclists Say New York City's E-Bike Crackdown Threatens Their Livelihoods
Jack Lee spends at least 10 hours a day on his bike. The 56-year-old from Queens delivers food for the app-based services Caviar and Postmates, which tend to have enormous delivery zones that take him all across New York City. Speaking through a translator—he’s originally from Shanghai—Lee said his e-bike, which he bought for $1,500, is vital to his job.
“A typical delivery might take me from Chinatown up to 80th Street,” he said, a distance of about five miles on busy Manhattan roads. “There's wear and tear on my body. I get tired when I'm working for 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Riding only got more difficult after a wipeout last winter that left Lee with a back injury. (He ran into a pothole obscured by snow.) Though he started his delivery career five years ago with a regular, non-electric bike, Lee soon felt he had to make a change. “I just didn’t have the strength for it,” he said, adding that it would be impossible to continue working without the assistance of an electrical motor.
An estimated 50,000 commercial cyclists help satisfy New York’s demand for at-home delivery, bringing restaurant food, groceries, and other items to the masses. These largely low-income, immigrant cyclists—who ride for work, not fitness or fun, and who are often left out of broader conversations about bikeability—say the city’s recently announced crackdown on e-bikes, scheduled to begin in earnest next month, threatens their livelihoods.
“Without e-bikes, our bodies will be under a lot of pressure, and we’ll be too tired to make deliveries on time,” said Zheng Bao Ca, another delivery cyclist. “And the customers won’t be happy with the slower food orders.”
Electric bikes of all kinds, whether they have throttles or only pedal assists, have been illegal to use in New York City since 2004. Anyone caught riding them is subject to a $500 fine and confiscation. Under state law, e-bikes that can’t exceed 20 miles per hour are technically legal to own, as long as they’re registered like a motorcycle or moped. But there isn’t any mechanism to register bicycles with the state, effectively outlawing e-bikes on city streets.
Though the crackdown could theoretically affect anyone who rides an e-bike in the city, the vast majority of e-bikes in New York currently belong to delivery people. Their presence had already been a contentious issue, since cyclists sometimes slalom or ride on sidewalks to cut down on delivery times. Yet e-bikes only recently became a City Hall priority. This summer, a Manhattan investment banker caught Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ear on a radio call-in show, signal boosting what has been a longtime complaint in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.
“I was noticing over the last couple of years the volume of these electric bikes, particularly in the evening delivery hours, was increasing and the bikes were seemingly going faster,” the caller said on WNYC, the local public radio station. “It was just creating some chaos in the bicycle lanes… and causing a lot of traffic and potential danger.” The caller later asked why businesses were getting away with allowing their employees to use e-bikes so openly.
(He wasn't entirely wrong: E-bikes are quickly gaining popularity, and their higher effective speeds can challenge existing bike infrastructure. Most e-bikes have motors that only assist at moderate speeds, but the boost allows riders to accelerate more rapidly and reach higher average speeds for longer than those of a fully human-powered bike.)
City and state governments all over the country are reckoning with how to classify and regulate e-bikes. Are they closest in practice to traditional bicycles, or are they more like scooters and mopeds? This legal grey area led many to wonder how de Blasio would respond in New York.
In late October, he gave an answer. The mayor not only announced the new crackdown against e-bikes, but also introduced a policy that would subject businesses to $100 and then $200 fines if their employees are caught riding them. The new enforcement measures will take effect in January. It will be the hardest any major U.S. city has come down on electric bikes so far.
The decision provoked an immediate backlash among bike delivery people and their advocates. While de Blasio argued that targeting restaurant owners was a compromise that wouldn’t directly punish workers, there’s nothing to stop the owners from passing the cost of the fines on to their employees, or firing them for missing time after losing their bikes. (E-bikes usually belong to the delivery people themselves, not the restaurants that employ them.)
On a cold November night before Thanksgiving, in the largely Asian-American neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, dozens of delivery cyclists gathered at a local high school for a town hall meeting with de Blasio. They came with the Biking Public Project, a group that advocates for low-income cyclists and cyclists of color, to ask the mayor to reconsider the crackdown.
During the meeting, de Blasio didn’t give much indication that he would waver on the issue. He said that since e-bikes remain illegal, the crackdown is still slated to go into effect in the new year. If state law could change “in a way that protects public safety,” he said, he’d be open to it, but added that “right now, it’s become increasingly clear around the city that the e-bikes have become a safety problem for pedestrians.”
Instead of e-bikes, de Blasio suggested delivery people switch to conventional bicycles, go on foot, or use a car.
While the mayor contends the problem with e-bikes is clear, data on crashes between pedestrians and e-bikes isn’t readily available. The NYPD told Bicycling that crash data is “not tracked to that level of specificity.” Street safety advocates say this lack of information cuts against the idea of the city’s Vision Zero program, a data-driven approach to street safety de Blasio instituted after he won his first term.
“There’s no data pointing to e-bikes as a problem,” said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “All of the crash data the city has points to the cause of crashes as by and large from driver error, things like speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians.” It bears mentioning that delivery cyclists deal with a disproportionate level of traffic violence: Of the 26 people killed while biking in New York City this year, five were delivery riders killed by drivers.
Some say the increased e-bike enforcement also flies in the face of de Blasio’s declaration of New York as a sanctuary city, as it opens yet another avenue for undocumented immigrants to have encounters with police.
“When the NYPD issues e-bike violations and confiscates e-bikes, the person receives a criminal court summons,” said Do Lee, of the Biking Public Project. “This means that immigrant workers who get summonses must show up to criminal court, or arrest warrants will be issued for them. E-bike policing thus makes immigrant workers more vulnerable to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”
Then there’s the heart of any labor dispute: income. Delivery cyclists argue that e-bikes are the fastest way to transport meals in a city where some people manage to order $11,000 worth of takeout in a single year. And since delivery people make most of their money from tips—the tipped wage at New York City restaurants with fewer than 10 employees is $4.50 an hour—their wages are directly tied to customer satisfaction.
Expect New York's delivery cyclists to continue organizing against the crackdown, especially as the new year approaches. On December 18, the Biking Public Project and Transportation Alternatives held a rally at City Hall that attracted more than 75 attendees. They wore their bike helmets and carried multilingual signs bearing messages like "legalize e-bikes now" and "policing e-bikes = taking my job away."
“If e-bikes are going to be forbidden, we'll lose our jobs and we'll have to live on welfare,” delivery cyclist Jinhua Li said through a translator after the November town hall. “And millions of people aren't going to be able to eat lunch.”