July 17, 2019

They Have Two Wheels and a Motor. Now New York Is Set to Make Them Legal.

They Have Two Wheels and a Motor. Now New York Is Set to Make Them Legal.


New York State is on the verge of embracing electric scooters and bicycles in a victory for tech leaders and delivery workers who have fought for months to make the speedy devices legal.

State lawmakers reached a deal this week on electric scooters and delivery bikes. There is just one catch — scooter rental companies like Bird and Lime cannot operate in Manhattan.

The end-of-session compromise addressed safety concerns from leaders in New York City who worried that scooters could make Manhattan’s crowded streets even more dangerous. It also settled a long-running debate over discrimination against immigrant delivery workers.

Scooter companies quickly praised the agreement. They already operate in dozens of cities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, and had spent nearly half a million dollars on lobbying in New York this year.

“Our state leaders appear ready to enshrine e-bikes and e-scooters into state law and answer the call to bring more transportation alternatives to New Yorkers,” said Paul Steely White, the director of safety policy at Bird.

Lawmakers are expected to approve the legislation as early as Wednesday. The law, which allows cities and towns to set local rules for the devices, would take effect over the next year.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who would have to sign the bill, said on Tuesday that he supported the idea of scooters. But he said he was worried that a fast scooter on a sidewalk in Manhattan could knock over older people.

Scooters go as fast as 15 miles per hour. Delivery bikes travel more than 20 miles per hour.

“I have safety concerns on the bill as drafted,” Mr. Cuomo said in a radio interview.

Jessica Ramos, a Democratic state senator from Queens who sponsored the bill, said it addressed the governor’s concerns because scooters would be banned on sidewalks and New York City would get to decide where the devices are allowed.

“We are leaving the nitty-gritty, the pieces of this that can be very hyper-local and sensitive, we’re leaving that to cities and towns,” Ms. Ramos said.

Delivery workers and their supporters cheered the agreement. Workers have long complained about harassment by the police, including having their bikes confiscated and being forced to pay expensive fines.

Rafael Espinal, a city councilman from Brooklyn, thanked delivery workers who had “risked their livelihoods by speaking up against this injustice.”

“No longer will immigrant workers be penalized for doing their jobs,” Mr. Espinal added.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who is running for president, has received criticism for targeting low-wage delivery workers. The mayor has accused them of “reckless behavior” on electric bikes and said that restaurants should find another way to deliver food.

Mr. de Blasio’s office said this week that he welcomed new rules by state lawmakers, though city officials cautioned that scooter rental companies would have to apply for authorization from the city to operate in the boroughs outside Manhattan.

“We appreciate this common-sense legislation that clarifies the rules around e-bikes on our streets,” said Seth Stein, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio. “Safety for everyone on our roads is our priority, and we look forward to working with legislators and communities as we develop plans to implement the new law.”

Electric bikes used by delivery workers are legal in other states like California and Illinois. New York City has allowed only pedal-assist bicycles, which require the rider to pedal. Citi Bike, the bike-share program, introduced electric bikes as part of its fleet, but had to remove them in April because of safety concerns about the brakes.

Electric scooters recently became legal in New Jersey and have hit the streets in Hoboken. Now scooter companies like Lime are considering pilot programs in upstate New York in cities like Ithaca and Rochester.

The New York City Council will most likely consider its own regulations for scooters, including whether to require helmets as Portland, Ore., did.

The state legislation has some broad rules: Scooter users must be at least 16 years old, and it bans electric scooters and bikes from the Hudson River Greenway, a popular path in Manhattan.

Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has expressed concern about allowing scooters in Manhattan and suggested a pilot program in the Rockaways in Queens. Mr. Johnson understands the hazards — he fell off a scooter in Mexico City earlier this year.

“I still have concerns about the public safety effects of scooters on our streets,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement on Tuesday. “But at least now we have the clarification from Albany we needed to take a real look and see if they can work safely here.”

Some New Yorkers have already bought private electric scooters and flout the rules, risking a $500 fine. A sleek scooter from Bird sells for $1,299. Under the legislation, private scooters would be allowed in Manhattan, though not through rental companies.

A recent study of scooter accidents in Austin, Tex., raised serious concerns about safety. Nearly half of injured riders had head injuries and less than 1 percent of riders were wearing a helmet when they were injured, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local officials.

Supporters in New York decided to tie two issues together: electric scooters, which are viewed as an environmentally friendly way to reduce congestion and pollution, and fairness for delivery workers, who argued that bike laws were discriminatory.

“It is a criminal justice issue, a transportation issue, an environmental issue and a labor issue,” Ms. Ramos said.

A major lobbying push by scooter companies also helped. The companies have spent at least $475,000 on lobbying at the state and city level this year, according to state records. Bird and Jump Bikes, an Uber subsidiary, each spent at least $100,000 on lobbying.

Nily Rozic, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor in the State Assembly, said that allowing electric scooters and bikes would help residents in her district in Flushing, Queens.

“My district does not have a single subway station,” she said. “I think this will be really helpful in assisting those who live in transit deserts.”



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