Opinion: It's 2020 And Electric Bikes And Scooters Are Still Illegal In New York. How?
Cities are struggling with congestion and pollution. And somehow, a pedestrian-friendly technology that addresses both problems remains illegal.
The Segway should have revolutionized personal transportation. The device supposedly destined to reshape the urban landscape was unveiled to a bemused audience on Good Morning America in December 2001. “Alright, there it is. Now what does it do?” asked a skeptical Charles Gibson. “It’s sort of like putting on a pair of magic sneakers,” its inventor, Dean Kamen, said. “You think forward, and you go forward.”
The revolution from Segway never arrived. But nearly two decades later, electric scooters have emerged in cities around the world as a much more popular — and far less clumsy or costly — way of moving around. They have arrived at a precarious time as our congested and polluted big cities look to move past cars as their primary means of transportation.
But first, it needs to be legal to actually ride an electric scooter, which it still isn’t here in New York. Legislation to legalize electric bikes and scooters passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses — but it was then stalled, eventually being vetoed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the day after Christmas. For New York residents, and particularly for its tens of thousands of delivery workers, the veto was like finding a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking — except the consequences will be much worse. Not only will delivery workers continue to be criminalized, but New York City has missed the most immediate action we could take to prepare for congestion pricing.
But the most compelling argument for legalizing electric bikes and scooters is the impact they will have on local communities. This transformation in transportation will not only provide economic justice for workers but help local communities thrive with the vibrancy that once defined our city streets.
We know that micromobility — lightweight, electric vehicles including scooters and bikes — encourages small business activity and foot traffic. Urban areas flourish when communities have small businesses behind storefronts and when residents, pedestrians, and the wider community interact on sidewalks. It strengthens neighborhoods economically and cultivates community relationships. In studies of Toronto and Oregon, nondrivers — pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders — spent more money at every type of business except for grocery stores. It’s this approach to economic development, influenced by Jane Jacobs, an urban activist from the 1960s, that has renewed downtowns across the US.
Making cities walkable, bikeable, and “scooterable” invites residents to do their shopping or errands closer to home and without getting into a car, significantly reducing congestion and pollution. Nearly 80% of all trips in the US are for distances less than 12 miles — and New York City, like many other cities, has struggled with “last mile” transportation in areas not well served by public transit. These are the transit deserts of where subway stops are too far away to walk, or where commuters have to pay twice, riding two different services, just to get where they need to be. People forced out of city centers by high housing costs shouldn’t need to be driven to the nearest subway station, and they shouldn’t need to own a car to be able to access job opportunities.
While the public has embraced on-demand delivery startups and the restaurant delivery business is booming, we’ve made this transition for delivery workers anything but seamless. In many urban areas, the Domino’s Pizza delivery car has been replaced by the person on a bicycle or e-bike who endures the rain, sleet, and snow to deliver your dinner. These delivery workers have taken on the challenging task of peddling a bike for at least seven hours daily, which many of us would find physically impossible. It’s also the reason why so many delivery workers favor electric bikes. Legalizing e-bikes provides economic justice for workers who are the backbone of a thriving delivery economy.
So why was this legalization attempt vetoed? The governor cited safety concerns, including a helmet requirement, but such a demand displays a troublesome lapse in judgment. Not only would requiring helmets suppress ridership among the people who need it most, but helmets are proven to do little to prevent most bicycle-related deaths. Requiring a helmet would become a considerable barrier to providing safe transportation alternatives, even as a commercial bicycling law from 2009 mandates all delivery workers wear helmets already. Stand-up electric scooters often do not have the capabilities of traveling more than 10 mph, and concerns about helmets are a weak justification for preventing legalization.
Even worse is that such preconditions place the onus of safety on the people riding scooters and bikes, rather than the drivers in cars or trucks who could kill them. When bicyclists and scooterists are hit by drivers of multiton trucks and reckless drivers — as they have been at record highs in New York City this year — helmets are an easy way to hypothesize: What if they had been wearing a helmet?
But the question ought to be: What if we required safer driving? What if our road laws protected members of the public who are choosing better ways to get around?
The bill legalizing e-scooters and e-bikes leaned into this vision and offered the first step toward making this future a reality. We were so close to reimagining a city and state that fosters economic growth, sustainability, accommodated density, and liveability through access to mobility. Instead, we’re thinking backward and going backward. If we want to move into the future, we need to jump onto the next available scooter heading there.
Emil Skandul is a technologist and opinion writer on technology and economic development policy. He is the founder of a digital innovation firm, Capitol Foundry.
Jessica Ramos is a state senator representing New York’s 13th District. She coauthored legislation to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters in New York.