As New York City Struggles to Define Electric Bicycles, It Continues to Impose High Fines
Electric bikes and motorized scooters have been receiving media attention in recent months as New York City grapples with conflicting laws, accusations of discrimination, and the persistent transportation problems that plague the city. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken on the city’s traffic issues as a personal crusade of sorts, typically by imposing stricter regulations and high fines for motor vehicles. Considering the Mayor’s focus on alternative transportation, the recent crackdown on motorized scooters and electrics bikes has been perhaps one of de Blasio’s more controversial expansion of his Vision Zero program, which has be responsible for higher fines and punishments for traffic violations in the city.
Sorting Through the Definitions of Bikes, E-Bikes, and Scooters
With respect to the variety of bicycles and scooters, however, the laws are more confusing compounded with slow progress in clarifying the rules of the road. Both motorized and non-motorized forms of transportation are governed by legal definitions under separate state and city law. In addition, distinctions are made on whether the transportation needs to be licensed or not.
Under the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, a bicycle is any two- or three-wheel device that is driven solely by human power. No license is required. Bike riders, however, are required to follow the rules of the road just like motor vehicles. Designated bike lanes and paths are for the exclusive use of bicyclists. In addition, human-powered pedicabs follow the same rules as bicyclists except that they must also be licensed by the city and pedicab drivers must be trained in the laws. This definition is necessary since anything that does not fall under the legal category of bicycle is governed by different laws.
Once any type of mechanical propulsion becomes involved, the rules change. Mopeds and seated scooters, for instance, are considered to be miniature motorcycles with a maximum travel speed of forty miles per hour. Since they can only be used on public roads by state law, they require a license to operate and the vehicle must be registered. They are not considered electric bicycles as that term has evolved.
Electric-bicycles—also called “e-bikes”—and motorized scooters are the devices that become tripped up by the state legal definitions. An e-bike is simply a bicycle with a motor. Since New York State will not register these types of bicycles, they cannot be used on the roadway. At the same time, bike lanes and paths are restricted to human-powered vehicles only. In effect, e-bikes are banned from use in New York City. Anyone caught using an e-bike can be subjected to a fine up to $500 dollars and having the e-bike confiscated by the police.
Motorized scooters have a more explicit definition under New York City Administrative Code and are banned outright in the city. Any wheeled device with handlebars that is powered by an electric or gasoline motor without human power and is not capable of being registered by the New State Department of Motor Vehicles is considered a motorized scooter. That second restriction—not being able to be registered—is what differentiates a motorized scooter from mopeds or a traditional seated scooters that are allowed on roadways. The well-known Segway, for instance, is considered a motorized scooter, and, therefore, banned in the city.
Laws for E-Bikes and Motorized Scooters Are Confusing
With advancing technology, defining what is and is not a motorized scooter has become a challenge. Hoverboards, which operate much like the Segway, have a motor, but no handlebars, an explicit defining characteristic under the code. Yet, the NYPD claims they are also prohibited in the city, and violators can be subjected to the same $500 fine.
In October 2017, de Blasio announced a crackdown on e-bikes of all kinds, whether fully motorized or motorized with human-assisted pedaling. The business community responded in anger, noting that delivery workers, a primary population that uses the human-assisted e-bikes, were unfairly targeted by the new enforcement. Pointing out that reducing vehicular traffic in the city has been a major priority for the mayor, the ban effectively would put delivery workers back in vehicles, putting more pressure on traffic.
De Blasio relented in April 2018, directing the Department of Transportation to clarify that bikes that recharge batteries through pedal assistance and do not go more than 20 miles per hour are permissible to use. Any e-bike, whether human-assisted or not, that can operate without human power remains banned. The distinction, for clarity, is that a motor that boosts speed while pedaling is allowed, while a motor that operates independent of human assistance is not.
With the ongoing traffic congestion in New York City and the looming shutdown of the L train tunnel scheduled for 2019, the city needs to address its traffic problems in ways other than imposing fines. With the move to encourage more bicycles of all kinds in the city, outdated definitions of transportation need to be fairly assessed. The mayor’s reversal on pedal-assisted bicycles is a step in the right direction, but the laws continue to need more clarity on the city and state level.
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