Cops, Community Boards and State Senate Juiced on Electric Bicycles

05/17/2011 4:27 PM |

One type of electric bike, illustrated by Mike Joos.
  • One type of electric bike, illustrated by Mike Joos.

In the midst of all the focus on making cyclists obey traffic laws—to the point of insulting and incarcerating them when they don’t—one class of rider has fallen through a legal loophole. Not unicyclists. Not celebrities. Electric-bicycle riders! What?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that increasing numbers of the so-called e-bikes—very popular with deliverymen all over the city and especially numerous in Chinatown—have caused community groups and lawmakers to look into the vehicles’ unclear classification. Because on the one hand they’re bicycles and so should be treated like bicycles by their riders and the law, but on the other hand they have motors and are not human-powered like normal bikes, and so maybe they should be treated as something more like a motorcycle?

Or are they straight-up illegal? The Journal says:

Under federal law, electric bikes fall under the same classification as regular bikes so long as they go no faster than 20 miles an hour and are powered by a motor with less than 750 watts. But the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles has concluded that the contraptions are neither motor vehicle nor bike.

Which makes them illegal, and the fee for their use much steeper than the couple hundred bucks cyclists get for rolling through deserted intersections:

According to city code, anyone operating a motorized scooter—which, the [NYPD] spokeswoman said, includes electric bikes—is liable for a $500 civil penalty.

In theory e-bikes can only be ridden legally on private property, but in practice they occupy a legal gray area. One Upper East Side e-bike shop owner interviewed for the story said none of his customers have ever received a ticket.

Meanwhile, a new state bill already approved by the Assembly and currently undergoing revisions in the Senate, would make e-bikes with less than 1,000 watts of power and maximum speeds of 20 mph the legal equivalents of bicycles. Until then, ride carefully e-cyclists.