Promoting but Regulating Electric Bikes in New York City

by |December 10, 2018

All over New York City, delivery guys are speeding along the streets with bags of take out hanging off their handlebars, mowing down pedestrians and scaring anyone who manages to get in their way. These battery-assisted electric bikes are taking advantage of a new low-priced technology that can reduce traffic, save energy and make the city a little more convenient. But electric bikes can’t be given free reign of the streets and sidewalks. Electric bicycles should not be allowed to ride on sidewalks, ride against traffic or pass through red lights. They should be regulated like every other form of motor vehicle.

In New York, as in all states, motor vehicle regulation is a state rather than city function and that is probably why the mayor and city council haven’t put licensing electric bikes on the agenda. Still, just as motorcycle operators must be tested and licensed, so too should those who operate electric-powered or power-assisted bikes. To ensure that the many undocumented workers driving these vehicles are not punished, the state should agree to test and license everyone who seeks a license, regardless of immigration status. In addition, the electric bikes should have license plates, and probably liability insurance in the event that someone comes to harm when they crash.

New York City is choking in traffic. In addition to needing mass transit improvements and congestion pricing, additional use of electric bicycles can contribute to moving people throughout the five boroughs. But these fast-moving vehicles are dangerous when driven badly and their increased popularity is a danger to pedestrians and innocent bystanders. They take up less space and have a lighter carbon footprint than cars, so their use should be encouraged. But in a crowded city they need to be policed to protect the public.

Once regulated, bike sharing systems should include and actively promote both electric and manual bikes. The manual bikes need not be regulated, although sometimes when watching tourists try to navigate them through crowded parks, I wish there was a test to rent them. But manual bikes are easier to control and generally move slower than electric cycles and requiring licenses for non-powered bikes would discourage their use. It also seems absurd to require bike licenses for 12-year-old kids.

The use of electric bikes outside of the delivery business would be encouraged by bike sharing. Many New Yorkers do not have a place to store a bike and many would find the expense of owning and maintaining them beyond their reach. But for people who live far from a subway stop, it is a reasonable way of beginning a commute that connects to mass transit. Electric bikes and their smaller sibling, the e-scooter, are becoming more common on streets in the United States, and are already common in Europe. In my view, the electric bikes are probably a more important long-term addition to urban transportation than scooters, although both can be dangerous. According to a piece in the Economist this past June:

“China’s cities are at the forefront of a quiet swarm of electric two-wheeled vehicles. Millions now roam their centres. This transformation of urban mobility is also happening in the West…In the bike-mad Netherlands nearly one in three newly bought bikes last year was electric, up from one in 20 a decade earlier…In Germany, 15% of new bikes sold in 2016 were electric, with sales up by 13% and exports by 66% compared with 2015. Belgium and France are big markets too. Whereas exports of regular bikes from China, Taiwan and Vietnam to the European Union fell by 15% between 2014 and 2016, e-bike exports more than doubled.”

The growth of this new form of transportation has created problems and we are starting to see the beginning of government intervention and regulation to assure safety. I believe that a clear and reasonable set of “rules of the road” will encourage adoption of these vehicles. Many of the companies building and distributing the bikes and scooters seem to have adopted the Silicon Valley approach of resistance to regulation. Like Uber and other now giant start-ups, they assume that they can operate under the radar, and by the time slow moving government regulators wake up and act, these companies are already established and have a consumer base that does not want its freedom inhibited by government rules. Nevertheless, we are starting to see the beginning of regulation. In some cities the electric bikes and scooters are simply banned. But most cities are opting for a more sophisticated approach. Again, according to the Economist this past June:

“A need for regulation is certainly evident in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark: the morning rush looks like chaos. Cyclists ride in every direction, some ambling slowly, others pedalling furiously…Crashes are still rare, but their number has been rising. In the Netherlands last year a quarter of bike deaths happened on e-bikes, and most of the deceased were over 65. Regulators have started to react. Since July 2017 Dutch law distinguishes between e-bikes whose motor allows riders to go slower or faster than 25 kilometres per hour. The faster ones now need a licence plate and riders have to follow the same rules as those of mopeds, such has wearing a helmet and having insurance. Other European countries have introduced similar limits.”

Any form of transport that gets people out of single-passenger automobiles and into other forms of transportation is a positive contribution to urban sustainability. Europeans are often (although not always) more sensible than we are about the need for regulation when new technologies and business models are introduced. The idea that entrepreneurs and their business start-ups are immune to regulation and should be allowed to do whatever they want is idiotic. We have traffic lights for a reason and electric bikes need to stop for them, just as pedestrians and other drivers also need to pay attention to them. It’s true that over-regulation or mindless rigid rules can ruin promising businesses. But the answer is not to fight regulation; it is to work to develop a reasonable, practical set of rules.

New transportation technologies such as electric bicycles, scooters, electric cars, self-driving cars and who knows what else are entering the marketplace. New business models involving sharing rather than owning vehicles are being tested and perfected all over the world. The way that we move around cities is changing and we should expect more change as people seek to get from place to place in the fastest, cheapest and most comfortable way possible. The space on our streets and sidewalks are public spaces and the public has a right to regulate and even price the use of that space. We need to be as creative in regulating these new technologies and business models as the people who are making and selling these products as services. A city needs to be attractive to compete in the global market for business and people. One element of appeal is a functioning and convenient transportation system. Electric bikes have a role to play, but so too does safely crossing the street.

The road to the sustainable city requires a sophisticated relationship between the public and private sectors. Government must learn to identify with the needs of private companies and empathize with their concerns. In turn, private firms must understand government’s responsibility to achieve the public good. I expect that the rate of disruptive change in urban systems to continue and to accelerate in the future. The pressure to address governance needs will increase, and the best way to meet that need is for both sectors to enhance their ability coordinate and cooperate.

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