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The People’s Guide to Power: Electric Bikes Edition

by WNYC | 3.27.18

Jul 26, 2017 · by Stephen Nessen

[Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a WNYC series called “The People’s Guide to Power,” sparked by a wave of activism that has swept the country since the last presidential election. The series, which will air from now until local elections in November, examines the way government works in our region, how people get involved — or left out.]

Contact Your Representatives Above to Invite Them to Your “Voting Block”

Matthew Shefler, a 60-year-old investment manager, lingers on the corner of 75th Street and Columbus Avenue with a faux-leather bag in the basket of his bike. Inside is a small radar gun.

Shefler is on the prowl for electric bikes. He thinks they go too fast, and are too dangerous for other cyclists and pedestrians. He has a hunch they’re going faster than the federal limit of 20 miles-per-hour for an electric bike. And he wants to prove it.

Shefler says he isn’t a political person. He votes, but has never run for office or attended town halls. This is the first time he’s actually tried to make his government work.

"Part of this has just been a science project for me, to see what would be involved for me to make a difference here, and is it even possible to move the needle," he said.

As the sun goes down on the Upper West Side, a black, 60-pound electric bike with wide tires and a suspension fork zooms past him. Shefler is too busy explaining his issue to pull his radar gun out in time.

"Look at this – did you see this vehicle? That's basically a motorcycle,” he said.

He grabs his bicycle and chases the biker up the street. It turns out to be Jonathan Lyons, a 28-year old delivery guy from Manhattan who makes house calls for the dog-care company Dogaholics.

“Listen, this is not personal,” Shefler explains. "I’m just a member of the community, not a government person. There’s been a lot of electric bikes that are driving in the bike paths and a lot of you guys go really fast, and this is a very big vehicle. This is a motorcycle.”

Lyons defends his ride.

“It’s a bike,” Lyons says. “You see, it has pedals — that’s what makes it a bike.”

“If you’re going to do this, I think, fine, but I think this shouldn’t be in the bike lane,” Shefler concedes.

“It’s a bike, I think a bike should belong in the bike lane,” Lyons argues. He says he bought it online and it’s cheaper and more reliable than taking the subway. Shefler can’t argue with that.

So he delivers his closing argument: “They’re not legal.”

The two shake hands amicably, and Lyons hops on his bike and speeds off.

Matthew Shefler and biker Jonathan Lyons discussing the legality of electric bikes. Lyons insists he's a careful rider, but Shefler points out this type of electric bike, with a throttle, is illegal. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The Fuzzy Legality of Electric Bikes

Shefler is right — electric bikes are illegal in New York. Sort of.

Electric bikes are regulated under the federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which defines an electric bike as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with a 750 watt or one horse-power engine, with a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour.

But under New York State law, electric bikes are illegal on public streets. The DMV doesn’t allow “motor-assisted bicycles” to be registered, and therefore electric bikes “cannot be registered or operated on New York State sidewalks, streets or highways.”

Six electric bike bills died in the Assembly this year. One bill passed the Senate — it would have legalized a class of electric bikes called pedal-assisted bikes.

“This is another issue where there’s this nutty split between New York City and the rest of the state,” said Paul Winkeller, the executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition, who’s been fighting to legalize electric bikes for the past three years.

“The State Senate passes electric bikes every single year, and this legislation gets stuck in the Assembly — and you know, we’re just talking about bicycles here,” he said.

One bill that came close this year would’ve defined the different classes of electric bike, and allowed localities to decide where they can be used.

But in fact, New York City has already done that. In 2004, the city passed a local law that banned any bike that moves “without human power.”

That definition only covers electric bikes that have a throttle, like the one Lyons was riding. There’s also the pedal-assisted bikes, which require the user to pedal before an electric motor kicks in to help. And because they need human power, they are effectively legal in New York City.

An electric bicycle for sale at Greenpath Electric Bikes in Sunset Park. The owner has disabled the throttle so the bike complies with New York State law banning this type of electric bike. The shop has been fined twice by the city for selling mopeds without a license, but Greenpath has beat the fines both times, because it only sells legal electric bikes. The shop complains that sales are down because of increasing NYPD crackdowns on electric bikes and because the state hasn't clarified the law. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Who’s Getting Summonses for Electric Bikes

The police appear to be making a more concerted effort to crack down on electric bikes. So far this year, the NYPD has issued 705 summonses for riding electric bikes, up from 522 last year, according to the NYPD.

Shefler says the city needs to go after businesses if they want to stop the problem.

“My interest centrally in all this is to try to bring the actions to the source, to the businesses that are…knowingly encouraging the use of these electric bikes,” he said.

And unbeknownst to him, there is a law on the books that allows the police to do just that, rather than conduct street traps targeting low-wage delivery people for whom a $500 fine could be a huge burden.

Mayor Bloomberg signed a law in 2013 that allows the NYPD to ticket businesses if employees use electric bikes on the job.

Since then, the NYPD has issued just 29 summonses to businesses under this law. Nine of them were dismissed.

“We felt that it was impractical,” Inspector Dennis Fulton, with the NYPD transportation bureau, told WNYC.

Fulton said there are two main reasons they don’t enforce this part of the law.

He said to issue this type of ticket, an officer would have to stop bikers on the street and go with them to their place of business.

The other reason is that, unlike most summonses, this one has to be “personally served” on the “agent of a business” — meaning, the person legally responsible, Fulton said. If not, the ticket will be dismissed by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), which adjudicates the summonses.

“Sometimes that designated agent will not even live in New York City,” Inspector Fulton said. “Since the summons was not doing what we intended it to do, we don’t issue the summons to the business.”

But the dismissal rate for e-bike tickets to business owners is almost exactly the same as for any other summons the NYPD issues, according to OATH. The agency says the NYPD has an overall dismissal rate of 62 percent – the highest of any agency in the city.

The reasons for dismissal are varied, but it is often because something on the summons was filled out improperly, according to OATH.

Upper West Sider Matthew Shefler, on one of his outings in which he confronts electric bike riders, enters businesses to discuss the law and discusses the issue with local residents. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Citizen Activist

Like many citizens turned activists, Shefler tries to balance his life and not let this issue become all-consuming. But even he admits it makes him a little nuts.

Back in April, he brought his issue to the yearly town hall held by his local city councilwoman, Democrat Helen Rosenthal. He sat there for nearly two-and-a-half hours before he got his turn at the microphone.

He urged Rosenthal to user her bully pulpit to call out restaurant owners.

“Shame them,” Rosenthal yelled in agreement. “Shame them.”

In an interview, Rosenthal said electric bikes are one of the top issues she hears about from constituents. She said she spoke regularly with police commanders and has gone around to restaurants herself to ask them to stop using electric bikes. She said two have even complied.

But the issue cuts both ways.

“We’ve got residents who want their food fast and are going to tip their delivery guys based on how fast they get their food,” she said. “I think it’s a larger problem even beyond enforcement. I think it’s the way people think about getting their food and the way people think about their time.”

In June, Shefler attended the 24th Precinct’s community council meeting. He was the first resident to speak, and he told Jack Morrison, the newly appointed executive officer, that he’s been using his radar gun to clock the speed of electric bikes.

“Candidly I’m not sure how good the technology is,” Shefler said. “But on an average basis, these bikes travel twice as fast as regular bicycles in bike lanes, and they often travel in the wrong direction.”

Morrison literally raised an eyebrow.

“My view, ultimately, is that this is going to end in a death, a couple of deaths, litigation,” Shefler said.

Morrison said his precinct had confiscated 34 electric bikes this year, and added that he’d be happy to accompany Shefler on one of his outings.

“I think we can both address the problem,” Morrison said.

And that is the state of play for our crusading citizen. He said he's not overly impressed with the way his government is working. He even started his own petition.

"But I also think getting the wheels of government in motion to act takes time and requires some persistence and advocacy,” he said. “And I intend to continue in my efforts to pursue that.”

Councilmember Rosenthal said she’s drafting new legislation to address the problem of police enforcement against businesses that use electric bikes.


Written by WNYC

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