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Queens Chronicle

Battle lines drawn on city e-bike bills

Backers say city can legalize scooters; DOT says wait on new Cuomo initiative

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 1:07 pm, Thu Feb 7, 2019.

Last year, when the city reapproved the legality of some electric bicycles, many believed the legislation did not go far enough, as it did not include so-called “throttle-assist” scooters capable of high speeds.

While commuters, food delivery personnel, messengers and everyone else now can use “pedal-assist” bicycles that have batteries, the scooters remained banned in the city, with the state refusing to register them as motor vehicles because of their lack of vehicle identification numbers.

No registration, no approval to travel the streets in the Big Apple.

And Councilman Rafael Espinal (D-Brooklyn) kicked off a small storm last week when he included the scooters in a package of bills aimed at increasing New Yorkers’ access to new alternatives for personal transportation.

“We believe the city has the authority to legalize the scooters,” a spokesman for Espinal told the Chronicle last week.

Supporters of the bill, Intro. 1264, believe among other things that the ban is discriminatory, as many employed in food and other delivery businesses are minorities or immigrants. They say the existing fines, up to $500, can be a week’s pay for some workers.

Espinal’s bill would set up a pilot program under the city’s Department of Transportation, and would both allow for caps in speed and provide a fund to help those who already own the vehicles to convert them to new standards.

Mayor de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) have expressed reservations. Testifying last week at a public hearing, city Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg echoed those sentiments.

“The City’s concern with these throttle e-bikes has always been their unregulated, illegal nature and particularly their speeds and irresponsible use by some,” Trottenberg said in a text of her testimony provided by the DOT.

“Should state action provide the ability for localities to authorize these devices, we would be open to a conversation with the Council about whether to allow them here in New York City as proposed in Intro. 1264,” the commissioner added. “But first and foremost in that conversation would be addressing safety issues.”

Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica) is in Espinal’s corner.

“Every day New Yorkers commute on a failing transit system that is slow and unreliable,” Adams said in a statement from her office. “Legalizing the use of e-scooters and e-bikes would expand affordable transit options for New Yorkers especially in transportation deserts like Eastern and Southeast Queens. It is time to open our minds and update our laws to include alternate means of transportation.”

Gov. Cuomo, in his budget message earlier this month, proposed measures that would allow municipalities greater freedom to regulate — and permit — the scooters

Among the details on the table with the governor’s proposal are capping speeds at 20 miles per hour and limiting their use to streets with speed limits of 30 miles per hour or less.

That would greatly increase access in New York City, where most nonhighways are capped at 25 mph.

Marco Conner, deputy director for the group Transportation Alternatives, said the organization supports Espinal on legalizing the scooters.

But he also has issues with Cuomo’s proposal, not only because of some of its regulations, but that as part of the state budget negotiations, it could well sit idle for nearly two months before the state’s budget deadline on April 1.

“The city’s hiding behind the state proposal,” Conner added. “The Council has the authority to legalize scooters without state action.

“The city has the authority to regulate the use of its own streets,” Conner said. “They did that last year when they made pedal-assist bikes legal again.”

Conner also said his group takes issue with proposals to mandate helmets and require that the vehicles be painted in bright colors.

He said while the organization supports helmet use, it believes mandating them actually would drive down the use of the scooters. He said requiring “bright colors” would subject operators to “selective enforcement by the NYPD.”

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