Hell on Wheels: Can Electric Bikes Ever Go Legal?

By
William Ward via Flickr

They’re as familiar a part of the New York cityscape as hot-dog vendors and yellow cabs: Deliverymen riding electric bikes, zooming down bike lanes, slaloming through traffic, sometimes riding on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street. Regardless of their relative respect for traffic laws, they all have one thing in common: Their bikes are illegal to operate in New York, every single one of them.

Last month, the city started enforcing a new set of safety standards for commercial cyclists mandating they follow traffic rules and wear certain safety equipment furnished by their employers. Among the Department of Transportation’s new Rules for Commercial bicycling is this special note: "Electric bicycles are not capable of being registered by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and therefore their operation is prohibited in New York City." In Albany, legislation to change that has been kicking around for years. In 2013, advocates think it will finally succeed.

To the bikes’ detractors, including members of New York’s City Council, that would be bad news. Two council members are pushing to increase penalties for riding the bikes, which are legal under federal law but state and city law view them as motor vehicles that are illegal to use on public streets.

A law signed by George W. Bush in 2002 defines bikes with pedals and an electric motor no more powerful than 750 watts and a top speed no greater than 20 mph as simply bicycles. The difference is that with the electric motor, you can get to your top speed a lot easier and it takes no effort to maintain it. This is where some people see a hazard.

"They move deceptively fast, because when you see a biker who is not pedaling the bike, you expect them to be operating at a certain pace," said City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who has introduced legislation to double fines for people breaking traffic laws on electric bikes. "Pedestrians know how to time street crossings in relation to an ordinary bicycle. Once you add bicycles that are powered by either human or other power, you make a much more dangerous situation for people on the street."

After the 2002 federal law went into effect, Most states changed their codes to match it, but not New York. The DMV’s website explicitly states: "A motor-assisted bicycle does not qualify for a registration as a motorcycle, moped or ATV and does not have the same equipment." Meanwhile, in New York City, a 2004 law aimed at minibike riders made it illegal to ride a "motorized scooter," which the city defines as any vehicle powered by a motor that is incapable of being registered with the DMV. 

So, explains Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, "The DMV won’t register these because they don’t have VIN numbers, and they don’t have VIN numbers because they’re bicycles under the federal government."

To State Senator Martin Dilan, who introduced a bill to change New York law to match the federal standard, that’s a real problem. "It’s important that the federal legislation and New York state law are consistent, and that citizens and law enforcement understand the definition of electric bikes," Dilan said. "This is green energy, and it’s used economically by many small local businesses. And the city should not be using it to double fines or to generate revenue. They should be using it to help the local economy through local businesses that can then put money back into the economy."

That does not sit well with bill opponents such as State Senator Liz Krueger, nor with those on the New York City Council pushing to strengthen local laws. Garodnick and another Council member, Jessica Lappin, both said they had heard from many constituents concerned that the city wasn’t doing enough to control unsafe electric bike riders. "That is the reason we introduced the bill," Garodnick said.

Last February, Lappin introduced legislation that would double the fine for operating any "motorized scooter" in the city, to $1,000. "Once you put a motor on a bike, to me, that makes it a motorized vehicle," she said in a recent interview. She said her goal is to "give the police department a tool to go after people who were repeatedly ignoring the laws on the books."

Once you get your hands on an electric bike — decent ones start at about a thousand bucks — it’s almost impossible not to operate it illegally in New York State, and especially in New York City. The tangle of laws governing these devices would appear insidious if it weren’t so obviously haphazard. The result, in the city, is irregular enforcement. Sometimes police confiscate the bikes, sometimes they give tickets, which can cost hundreds of dollars in a single stop. For undocumented workers, there’s the added fear that a brush with police will result in a brush with immigration officials.

Anne Ryan, a nurse, got a $100 ticket for riding an unregistered vehicle in Manhattan last year. Joel Marino, stopped last July for riding his electric bike in Queens, got five tickets in one stop — for everything from riding an unregistered vehicle to wearing unapproved goggles.

Then there’s Jerzy Kurmanski, a 31-year-old bookkeeper from Flushing, who tried to fight the system after he was stopped on an electric bike in Rockaway Beach last June and ticketed for riding an unregistered vehicle.

After a day at the Flushing DMV, where he was shunted from window to window by baffled employees asking for a VIN number, an unsatisfied Kurmanski came away with the same answer he’d have gotten from a Google search. "Finally, the lady comes back and she gets a print-out from the DMV website, with the paragraph that explains that electric bicycles are not street legal and you can’t register them."  The judge in his case waived the ticket because there wasn’t enough proof the bike needed to be registered, Kurmanski said. It has sat idle in Kurmanski’s garage since.

In order to understand the illicit thrill of an electric motor pushing my out-of-shape ass up a gentle slope, I contacted Damon Victor, who runs an electric bike company called Greenpath. He sells his own line of bikes along with those from the more established company, Pedego, out of the front of his architectural drawing firm in Sunset Park. Greenpath’s original models are "generic Chinese bikes that I slapped a label on," Victor explained. He sells about 100 bikes a year.

My trip around a block of Brooklyn’s Third Avenue sure didn’t feel illegal. Riding an electric bike is just like riding a regular bike, but easier. You can use a hand-operated throttle or, on higher-end models, a power-assist function that kicks on the electric motor when you start turning the pedals.

Having a contraption that feels and acts like a bicycle suddenly whoosh you up a hill changes the whole experience. If you’re out of shape, disabled, or getting old, an electric bike makes cycling viable. "I’d say 20 percent of my customers have a disability," Victor said. "And 40 percent of people buying my bikes are 55 or older."

I came back from my ride grinning from the novelty, if not the thrill of speed. It was fun, sure, but not outlaw-biker fun. Nevertheless, electric-bike riders are outlaws by definition, and they’ll stay that way until the tangle of laws is simplified by Albany and the City Council. In other words: Don’t hold your breath.