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Electric Bikes Jolt Safety Concerns Among Upper East Siders

By Amy Zimmer | January 5, 2011 1:36pm

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

YORKVILLE — Victor Tu, the manager of Lili’s Noodle Shop and Grill, got rid of his deliverymen’s old bicycles three months ago and replaced them with a fleet of five electric bikes.

“It’s much faster,” Tu said of the bikes that have batteries, which give the two-wheelers an extra jolt of power. Once Tu added the new bikes, the shop on Third Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets doubled its delivery zone.

“We added 10 blocks,” he said.

While electric bikes are a hit with some food delivery workers, many Upper East Siders have concerns, prompting Community Board 8’s Public Safety, Transportation and Street Life committees to hold a joint meeting next Tuesday to discuss them.

One issue: The elderly.

"I have noticed them around more," said Upper East Sider Lucille McCulley, 85, "They're a hazard because of elderly people like me staggering around."

McCully ended up in Lenox Hill Hospital a few years ago when she stepped into the street and was struck by a regular bike heading the wrong way.

"I would think [e-bikes are] an additional hazard because of their speed," she said.

Another issue: They are not entirely legal, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles and the city's Administrative Code.

"Electric bikes make people understandably nervous because of how quickly they can zip around," said Council Member Dan Garodnick, who has sought higher sidewalk-cycling penalties for riders of electric bicycles. "They present a lot of challenges under the law, but we need to make sure they don't present a danger to pedestrians."

While federal law allows electric bikes under 750 watts limited to 20 mph, New York City does not allow those bikes that can exceed 15 mph. A law that would legalize e-bikes has languished in Albany.

Legal issues haven’t slowed business at NYCeWheels, at 1063 York Ave., where bike sales have been increasing 30 percent a year, owner Bert Cebular said.

When he opened 10 years ago, his was one of only three shops in the nation selling e-bikes from two manufacturers. Now, there are nearly 300 manufacturers and shops selling the pedal-assisted wheels, he said. He estimated one-third of bikes sold in Europe are e-bikes and noted that some cities in California encourage their use by installing battery-charging stations.

"A lot of people don’t want to deal with public transit," Cebular said. "More and more, people want to get exercise, but they don’t want to kill themselves."

And they might not have a shower at work, he added.

Cebular acknowledged cause for concern particularly if riders and deliverymen aren’t properly maintaining their wheels.

On the flip side, he added, “The people that complain [about e-bikes], probably don’t realize their food arrives hot and the restaurant’s delivery radius has gotten a lot bigger.”

Community Board 8's Public Safety and Transportation Committee Forum will be discussing electric bicycles on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 6:30 p.m., Brick Presbyterian Church, 62 E. 92nd St., Carnegie Room