Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

26 June 2012

Electric Bikes

Not so long ago, if you ordered General Tso's Chicken, Curry Shrimp, a container of hot and sour soup and wontons for you and your loved one, it would be delivered on a beat-up mountain bike or a bike-boom era ten-speed.

That bike was, more than likely, rescued from trash that was set out by the curb.  Or it was purchased for a few dollars from any number of corners where thieves sold their booty.  (Pre-gentrification St. Mark's Place used to be the epicenter of this trade.)  

Now the men (All that I've seen are men) who deliver your favorite Chinese foods are likely to go to a showrooms to buy their delivery vehicles.  Most of those put-put palaces are out of the public's (and, ahem, law enforcement's) view, although a few operate openly.  The vehicles they buy now are shiny and new and those men have had to save their money for months--or borrow it--in order to buy one of these vehicles.

I'm talking, of course, about electric bikes.  The delivery men love them because they're faster (about 20mph) than most bikes and are almost as easy as bicycles to maneuver in traffic.  Best of all, from their standpoint, those "bikes" don't have to be pedaled.  And now when restaurants hire delivery personnel, they give preference to those who have those low-voltage velos. 

There are just two problems with this scenario.  First of all, electric bikes are illegal in this city.  But, as more than one police officer has admitted, the ban is not enforced because "we have more pressing issues."  There isn't any public demand to raid and close down the shops that sell electric bikes, as there is for, say, "drug dens" or houses of prostitution in residential neighborhoods.  

The second problem is that it's, quite frankly, all but impossible to penalize careless electric bike operators--ironically, because of their illegality.  Because those bikes are illegal, there is no licensing requirement for them.  So, most of their operators don't carry--or even have--driver's licenses.  In fact, one of the few operators who's been arrested--for getting into a fight with a pedestrian--admitted that he and many other delivery men don't read or write English well enough to pass the written part of the exam for a driver's license.  The lack of a license makes it more difficult to keep any kind of record of violations.

As a matter of fact, as that same operator admitted, some delivery men don't have documentation of any kind.  Now, I'm not a lawyer, but I feel pretty confident in saying that there's not much you can do with an undocumented scofflaw but to detain and deport him or her.  Most local law enforcement officials don't want to get involved with the latter (which would involve dealing with Federal agencies, which nearly all of them are loath to do), and feel there are more pressing needs for their jail space.

To be fair to delivery people, though, they are simply people who are trying to make a living the best way they know how.  Worse than them are some of the teenagers I sometimes see riding electric bikes on bike/pedestrian lanes, especially the ones that line the bridges.  The bridge lanes are almost invariably narrow and shared with runners, people pushing baby strollers and such. You know how young people (especially men) who just got their drivers' licences drive their cars. Well, they operate motor bikes with even more reckless abandon.  I am not the only cyclist who has been grazed (or nearly so) by one of them, and I am not the only female cyclist who has had to deal with a young man on an electric bike riding as close as he can, then taking off.

Since banning electric bikes has done nothing to keep them off the streets and paths, I think they should be legalized--and that anyone who wants to use one should be required to get a permit.  To get that permit, of course, they would have to take safety classes.  And, I think, electric bikes need to be governed by a different set of regulations from those for bicycles, motorcycles or automobiles.  Perhaps there could be a "points" system, as there is for automobiles, and anyone who accumulates too many would lose his permit--and his ability to get a license to drive a motorcycle, car or larger vehicle.

What do you think?  Have you seen many of these electric bikes in your community?  If so, what's your experience with them?  Do you think they should be regulated--or allowed at all?


  1. I think electric bikes are just modern, greener versions of the mopeds that found a fad niche 30 years ago, or so. Most states probably have laws that dealt with mopeds, and I'd think the same ones would mostly apply to electric bikes.

    I've only seen one in the wild in the Boston area, and that was being ridden on the Charles River bike path (which is shared with pedestrians). I think that was probably in violation of the no motorized vehicle restrictions on the path, but it was less offencive than the scooter with the two cycle gas engine I spent some time behind (path being too crowded to pass courteously).

    They aren't illegal, in general, here, and some of the bigger bike shops openly feature an electric bike from one of the big bike brands (I think Trek and Giant are the ones I've seen), but I've never seen anyone show interest in them. At least in Cambride, take-out food is delivered by people driving old beat up cars, mostly.

  2. Electric bikes under the law here in the UK are treated just as bicycles. They are simply bicycles with a small electric motor. They use cycle lanes and cycle paths exactly the same as long as they also have pedals as well. We have no problem with them here.

    All bike shops here sell them along side manual cycles. We can also buy electric conversions for our ordinary bikes. Electric bikes are very popular here and very widely used. They are quite the normal.

    My last tricycle was electric powered.

    I am in fact stunned to read that there is a country/state/area that bans them.

  3. I'm almost there, and one thing that I definitely know is that I'll never stop riding my bike!

  4. I agree they should be legalized. As for the rest, it seems to me that the danger they represent to other road users is far less than for motor vehicles, but slightly greater than for regular bikes. That ratio should govern the amount of added regulation. Operator permit seems like about the limit.

  5. I've only seen one here in minneapolis, and it was while filming a promo for a shop that sold them. I think they make a lot of sense in hilly areas, or on cargo trikes, or really for anyone if it gets them on a bike and out of a car, but I do wonder how many people in new york would still choose to use one if there was licensing required. If the big roadblock is the written exam would those who could pass it opt for a cheap motorcycle for the same price, while those who can't go back to the beater mountain bike, or is there something about an e-bike that those of us who've never ridden one don't get.

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  10. Live Wire is definitely the favorite for most. It's pretty jumpy and not too technical, if you're comfortable in the air and can corner well (something most of us, including me, need to work at). electric bikes nz

  11. Could not be more topical! My occasional cycling buddy has just trials a few and placed an order for her first E Bike.

    I am surprised, (then again why should I be?), that something new turns up and there is a ban rather tan rational thought about the bikes.

    In the UK they all seem to be pedal assist so they are not sit on and twist to go. There is an upper, quite slow limit to speed, faster than most cyclists achieve but slower than any serious cyclist can d when in the mood.

    I foresee problems because there are more powerful machines, July 2015, arriving on the market and more are off roaders. The problems will arise because of a few idiot riders bringing down draconian rules on us all. In Europe last year the cycleways were thick with E Bikes which were letting the less fit and especially older riders get out and enjoy two wheel life and generally they integrated well. I was often jealous as much older riders cruised past against the wind! Obviously so was my riding companion!

    I doubt that I shall ever again ride a fraction of the distances I used to ride on a conventional bike. Since my friend placed her order I have pondered the theoretical choice between a finely made bike like your Mercians and the rather dull clumsy E Bikes on offer at the moment. I am torn, but worse I am wondering how on earth I am ever going to keep up with her again!

  12. Coline--Decisions, decisions. I won't try to influence your choice, but I love my Mercians. ;-)

    You make a great point: The stupid and the reckless give other e-bikers a bad name, which leads to calls for draconian laws. It's happening here.