"It's an extension of Stop and Frisk." NYC Council criticizes prosecution of e-bike workers
Council members worry that NY Governor Cuomo is only moving to legalize e-bikes because of business interests.
Compared to the lock-step State Senate in Albany, emotions are running high in the NYC City Council over the subject of e-bikes and e-scooters. At a hearing over a package of bills to legalize e-scooters and throttle e-bikes, council members lambasted commissioners for the Department of Transportation and the NYPD for ignoring issues faced by predominantly immigrant delivery workers in favor of large, private companies.
"Instead of figuring out a way to outline a lane for [e-bike delivery workers], literally and figuratively," said council member Antonio Reynoso, "we confiscate their bikes and give them fines, even though the need for delivery workers is at its highest."
Throttle e-bikes and e-scooters are currently illegal under New York state law, though Gov. Cuomo promised in January that he will permit cities to regulate the subject themselves.
"We need action in Albany to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters," Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testified at the hearing. "We're not supporting legalization one way or another."
Though NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan claimed that they have only given e-bike users fines for the illegal vehicles in cases when they have already stopped them for moving violations such as running red lights, council members accused the police of selectively enforcing the ban against people of color.
"If you look at the demographics, it's an extension of Stop and Frisk," said council member I. Daneek Miller, referring to a policing policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 for racial discrimination.
"I see hundreds of officers going to Flushing and writing tickets," council member Peter Kod added. "I don't see it in other neighborhoods."
NYPD officials could not provide any specific information to support their claims that they only ticket "dangerous" e-bike riders, saying that the link was "anecdotal." However, they reported that they gave 1321 summonses for e-bike possession in 2018, compared to 1362 moving violation summonses for e-bike riders in the same timeframe.
The NYPD chiefs did not respond specifically to these charges of racism in police enforcement of state law, just stating that "we're looking to work with communities. We understand their concerns." The police representatives also brought up cricket games in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods that the NYPD runs.
"I call for those cases to be put on hold," said NYC council member Ydanis A. Rodriguez. "I would like the city to put on hold deliberate enforcement against immigrant workers."
Beyond accusations of racial discrimination in law enforcement, council members accused Gov. Cuomo of moving to legalize e-scooters and e-bikes only because of business interests.
"We legalized pedal-assist bikes because Citibike wanted it," said council member Margaret S. Chin. "Once again, it's because of the private sector."
Council members claimed that current enforcement of laws are biased against the working. Last year, the NYPD reports they seized more than 1200 e-bikes, which are predominantly used by delivery workers, compared to seizing zero e-scooters, which are not.
"Do you interpret that as people who ride e-scooters stop at red lights?" Council member Fernando Cabrera asked.
And while NYPD policies are to fine businesses for using e-bikes for deliveries rather than workers, only 137 fines were given to businesses last year. As the NYPD testified at the hearing, the majority of e-bike riders work for delivery apps like Seamless and Grubhub, and so are considered independent contractors and forced to pay fines themselves.
"It's frustrating to watch advocacy on behalf of delivery workers being co-opted by tech companies so that we can legalize throttle e-scooters while paying to remove throttles from e-bikes," said council member Carlos Menchaca in a statement. "Use two wheels to deliver food, and we'll make life harder for you. But use two wheels through a smartphone for actual travel, and we'll make it as easy as using the app."
In any case, the city cannot move on legalizing either e-bikes or e-scooters until the state legislature votes to approve Gov. Cuomo's plan.
"I don't want to pretend today that every city has figured it out," said Trottenberg.