Delivery Workers Keep Riding Electric Bikes Despite Ban

By Serena Solomon on December 16, 2013 7:57am 

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 Many delivery workers say the devices offer a rare convenience for a grueling job.
Delivery Workers Fight Ban on Electric Bikes
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NEW YORK — Fen Zhi Chen, a restaurant delivery worker, breaks the law every day to do his job.

Chen, 56, uses an illegal electric bike to race around the East Village delivering vegetarian sandwiches and noodles for Zen Palate as quickly as he can. As he's gotten older, Chen has relied on the electric bike more and more, to enable him to keep up with younger delivery cyclists. 

"If I can't use an e-bike, I might have to look for another job," Chen, a grandfather who lives in Sunset Park, said through a translator.

"Right now my work is not a problem," he continued, "but when I use a regular bike it is very hard. When I use a regular bike I have to pedal, so I start to get problems with my knee."

Chen is one of the many delivery workers who continue to defy the city's 2004 electric bike ban, which was recently tightened by the City Council to make it easier to enforce. Cyclists riding the bikes — which are fitted with batteries that boost riders' speeds by about 20 mph, raising concerns that they are dangerous — face fines of up to $250 each time they are caught.

The recent changes, which went into effect Nov. 11, are designed to help police and Department of Transportation officers more easily determine the types of electric bikes and scooters that are illegal.

The updated laws also allow the city to fine businesses that have electric bikes or allow their employees to use them — but delivery cyclists say they, and not their employers, are still bearing the burden of the fines.

"For delivery workers, it is a very tiring work. No matter rain or snow, we have to go out," said Ke Ying Wen, 49, explaining why he continues to use an electric bike for his delivery jobs at two Manhattan restaurants, including a sushi bar on Ninth Avenue. "We provide a service for the people."

Like other delivery workers who spoke to DNAinfo New York recently, Wen brings home $300 to $400 each week — mostly in tips — after working about 50 hours. He sometimes rides more than 30 blocks for one delivery. He climbs seemingly endless flights of stairs. He once took the trash out for a customer who refused to tip him otherwise.

Earlier this month, dozens of delivery workers protested the ban on electric bikes, saying it ought to be repealed so that it is a little easier for them to do a job that has few rewards.

The Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a Chinatown-based group that is organizing the delivery workers, is planning more actions in the coming weeks, aiming to overturn the ban.

"We are hearing a lot of delivery guys [are] getting four to five tickets at once, and we are starting to hear [of] bicycles getting confiscated," said Sarah Ahn, who volunteers as an organizer for the center.

The law allows the city to confiscate electric bikes until riders' fines are paid.

"It does feel the crackdown is picking up speed," Ahn said.

The Department of Transportation referred questions about enforcement of the electric bike ban to the NYPD, which did not respond to requests for comment.

City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who sponsored one of the legislation changes, said he was concerned about electric bikes' "deceptive speed and sudden acceleration," which had prompted complaints from his Upper East Side and Midtown East constituents.

Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, who sponsored the other changes, claimed New Yorkers had been injured and killed by electric bikes, but her office was unable to point to specific instances. Lappin is working on another bill that would require the NYPD to specify when an electronic bike is involved in an accident.

But Liu Li Qiange, 41, who works for Asian Express in the East Village, said it's the rider, not the bike, that is responsible for any crashes.

"Some people do use the e-bike and don't follow the traffic laws," Qiange said through a translator. "The problem isn’t the e-bike — it is that that person did not obey the traffic laws. It is not fair."

Lappin and Garodnick said that while the new legislation tightens restrictions on electric bikes, it was also designed to take some of the pressure off of delivery workers, by making restaurants responsible for fines incurred by their employees.

However, it was not immediately clear how the fines were supposed to be passed along to the restaurant owners, and many delivery workers said they were still paying the penalties themselves.

Fai Loam, 50, who delivers for Masamoto Sushi Japanese on West Third Street, received a ticket a few weeks ago.

"I showed the boss the ticket, but he refused to pay the fine," Loam said.

He added that the $175 fine, higher than the $100 fine outlined in the new legislation for a first-time offense, could take him months to pay off. 

"I don't enjoy the job," he said, "but...I don't know how to do anything else."

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