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Electric Bike Crackdown Weighed by Community Board

By Leslie Albrecht | December 12, 2011 8:10am
A delivery man at Hunan Balcony readies for a trip on an electric bike.
A delivery man at Hunan Balcony readies for a trip on an electric bike.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — For restaurant deliverymen hustling hot food to hungry customers, electric bikes are a tool that makes their jobs easier.

But some Upper West Siders say the motor-powered bicycles are a dangerous menace that require stricter rules.

Community Board 7's Transportation Committee recently approved a resolution calling on city and state lawmakers to require registration and Department of Motor Vehicle-issued licenses for electric bikes.

The full board is expected to vote on the resolution, which is modeled after one approved by the Upper East Side's Community Board 8, at its January meeting.

Nora Prentice, a 50-year-old Upper West Sider, says the regulation is needed to prevent a ticking safety bomb on neighborhood streets.

She said she was recently struck and knocked to the ground on West 91st Street, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, by a deliveryman from Hunan Balcony riding an electric bike.

She explained that she was crossing West 91st Street mid-block, facing oncoming traffic, when the deliveryman hit her from behind, sending her sprawling.

Prentice twisted an ankle and bruised a hand in the collision, she noted. The driver stopped, said, "Sorry, no English," and then went on his way, according to Prentice.

Electric bikes, which come in a variety of styles, look similar to traditional bicycles, but they can travel up to about 20 mph with the help of a battery-powered motor mounted on the bike. Prentice estimates that the cyclist who knocked her down was going at least that fast.

She didn't call 911 or the restaurant, but reported the incident to the 24th Precinct and fired off an email to Community Board 7.

"If I'd been an elderly person, there would have been something broken," Prentice told DNAinfo. "Somebody is going to get severely injured. It's just a matter of time. It's a new level of danger."

Prentice said the e-bikes are particularly hazardous because they're very quiet, so pedestrians don't notice them until it's too late.

"It's silent and suddenly it hits you," Prentice said. "There's no horn, there's no motor noise."

But for the deliverymen at Hunan Balcony, electric bikes make a physically demanding job easier, said assistant manager Jenny Wu.

"They work about eight hours a day," she said. "They're using their legs. It's very tiring. They're trying to save energy."

Wu said three of her four deliverymen use electric bikes, and the one who doesn't is "strong and young." The deliverymen, who own their own bikes, like the e-bikes because they can cover more territory faster, she added.

Some deliverymen have said restaurants prefer to hire workers who own electric bikes, but Wu said that's not a consideration when she's hiring. Her priority is employees who are polite and respectful to customers.

Wu hadn't heard that one of Hunan Balcony's deliverymen had collided with someone, and she wished that Prentice would have alerted the restaurant.

"If it really is our employee, we need to be more careful. But if we don't know, we can't do anything about it," Wu said, adding that she reminds delivery workers to obey traffic laws.

Electric bikes are technically illegal on city streets, but police enforce the law sporadically and the bikes are readily available for purchase at stores like NYCeWheels.

Andrew Rigie, spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association, said his organization would like lawmakers to consider legalizing e-bikes.

"They allow for better customer service, fresher food, and they allow the delivery people to give speedier service, which means they’ll earn more money in tips," Rigie said.

Brooklyn State Senator Martin Malave Dilan has introduced legislation to legalize the style of electric bikes known as "electric-assisted," which use both pedal power and a small battery-operated motor.

Different versions of the bill passed the Assembly and Senate, and now lawmakers are negotiating the legislation's final language, said Matthew Trapasso, Dilan's policy and legislative director.

Dilan proposed the law as a way to encourage more people to use bikes, Trapasso said. He disputed the idea that electric bikes are more dangerous than people-powered bicycles, noting that experienced cyclists can probably ride as fast as 20 miles per hour.

While Community Board 7's resolution says seniors in particular are under threat from e-bikes, Trapasso said several older and disabled people have told him they actually like the motorized cycles.

"It helps them move around," Trapasso said. "If they can't afford a car and gas prices are getting higher, this is a way for them to get to the store and back."

This isn't the first time Community Board 7 has tried to crack down on restaurant delivery cyclists.

The board has also said it won't approve sidewalk cafe permits or liquor license applications for restaurants if their deliverymen are caught breaking the city's list of bike laws.