Any New Yorker walking around the city has probably encountered a person speeding by on an e-bike, either going the wrong way on a one-way or zipping by on the sidewalk. It’s annoying at best, dangerous at worst. So on first glance, a bill introduced last year by City Councilmember Bob Holden requiring e-bike owners to get a license and registration for their vehicles makes a certain kind of sense: Wouldn’t more regulation help?
The legislation has a number of progressive co-sponsors, including councilmembers Justin Brannan, Sandy Nurse, and Chi Ossé, but street-safety advocates have hammered it as regressive, punitive, and pointless — basically a proposal that would largely target delivery workers of color without actually addressing necessary safety issues. To better understand what’s going on, we reached out to Do Lee, an urban studies professor at Queens College who studies the intersection of mobility, racial justice, and the environment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with the Holden bill. Why don’t street-safety advocates like it?
Every few years, there’s this moral panic about the “Wild West” of these uncontrolled, mostly immigrant men of color in our streets going around as quickly as possible. If you go back to the updates to the commercial cycling laws in the 2010s where they passed a requirement to have delivery workers wear helmets and reflective vests with an ID number, it was also about these workers being out of control. And they weren’t even talking about electric bikes back then. People were just saying that they’re dangerous but didn’t really have numbers to back this up. So there’s this recurring idea that you get safety with more policing and more surveillance and control of these riders. It’s a completely faulty idea, and one rooted in racism.
So lawmakers have tried to make this about numbers and road safety, but it’s kind of not.
When you look at the numbers, if you’re really concerned about public safety, you would get rid of all of the cars.
Right, but a lot of people might think getting rid of all cars is a pretty high bar to clear. Why not license bikes?
For one thing, it would decrease ridership. The more strict these requirements are, the less cycling you have, whether it’s electric-based mobility or other forms of cycling. Safety dramatically decreases when you have less cyclists. Public safety decreases for pedestrians when there’s less cycling too.
Why is that?
It’s complicated, but you’re creating more mixed-use streets. One of the things that makes streets safer is complexity of infrastructure — having more bike infrastructure actually slows drivers down and makes them look out in more directions. And while bike infrastructure is meant to reduce collisions with cyclists, you actually also reduce collisions with pedestrians at the same time.
But e-bike crashes still happen, right?
The presence of bikes and bike infrastructure tends to make streets safer for pedestrians, but it seems less safe because pedestrians are in closer contact with more cyclists and bikers than cars. And unfortunately, the way the street is set up is that pedestrians, e-bikes, and cyclists, their preferred spaces are pretty similar. They overlap quite a bit and are in a lot more direct contact on a regular basis. There’s enough crashes and people do get injured in crashes with e-bikes — there have been people who have died. And so you can point to enough examples to be like, yes, you can see that we have proof.
So we become preoccupied mostly with what’s right in front of us.
This is not to say that we can’t make things safer, necessarily. But the danger feels disproportionate to the numbers because of perception — because you have that regular contact. You don’t have that same kind of regular contact with cars.
What do the numbers say?
For collisions with pedestrians this year and last year, the NYPD data shows that e-bikes are involved in 2.3 percent of injuries and 2.4 percent of fatalities. And so cars are by far the biggest factor in pedestrian injuries and fatalities.
But we don’t think about them nearly as much.
We’ve naturalized cars and we’ve kind of erased them from this idea of street safety. The other part is that e-bikes are new, and new things tend to have a lot of backlash. And when anything’s new, whoever is the early adopter really matters. And the early adopters in New York City were mostly immigrant low-wage workers.
You mentioned this had happened before, with updates to commercial delivery laws. What happened then?
Every few years, it’s the same neighborhoods asking for the city to go after the same group of people. It’s wealthy neighborhoods on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side going after delivery workers. There was an update passed in 2007 in which working cyclists were required to wear employer-issued helmets, but most employers made their workers provide their own helmets. In the early 2010s, there was this commercial cycling law requiring a vest and the vest would have an ID number that enabled community surveillance, where people could call 311 and make a complaint about a specific restaurant and worker. So it was actually a really sneaky way of doing more community-based policing. In a lot of places that have these kinds of laws that require licensure and administration, it becomes a rationale for police to do pretextual stops for immigrants.
I think from a pedestrian point of view, it’s easy to see it as this: These bikes are going really fast and we have motor vehicles that have licenses, so why don’t these vehicles have licenses?
I get wanting a certain amount of accountability when something happens, but I think that’s a different conversation. The social relationships in the street and interactions have changed, and that’s uncomfortable. But we need to resist the temptation that we can just police our way out of this.
There’s another bill from Brad Hoylman-Sigal that would register e-bikes that are used for commercial purposes and direct any violation costs toward employers. Do you think that’s a better version, or is it also not a great idea?
No, it would still single out delivery workers. I mean, that was the same thing with the commercial cycling bill, right? They always said, This is going toward restaurants. Surprise, surprise, nearly all of the summonses went to workers anyway.
So it’s a labor issue, too. Because underlying all of this is the fact that delivery workers feel this pressure to go fast, right, which is the only way to make money under the current app-based model.
If you were under those kinds of labor conditions, what would you do? I don’t know if you’ve seen, but last fall, the Department of Consumer Worker Protection did a big study on app-based delivery workers here in New York City, and it found that they had a fatality rate several times higher than construction workers. And historically, construction work has been the most dangerous occupation. So when we’re talking about safety, why don’t we ever really seriously talk about the safety of delivery workers who are bringing us food? When you talk to workers, they care deeply about their safety. I don’t think anybody wants to go as fast as humanly possible in their job, but it’s also the way the labor conditions are structured. The city passed some laws to try to improve some of those labor conditions, which was disputed by these app companies in a lawsuit. But it’s kind of an impossible job, and it’s structured for them to go as quickly as possible, or they don’t make wages and tips.
So where do the apps fit in here?
The app companies are structured to offload all of this responsibility and tell the worker, you’ve got to do this in a certain amount of time. It sets things up so the worker is left to choose the route and all of that, but it isn’t really much of a choice. But we’re all at some level responsible. Most of us have eaten delivery food at some point. You can’t have your food hot, fast, and cheap without having someone move it as quickly as possible under very exploitative labor conditions.
So a lot of changes are required all at once: infrastructural, labor, our expectations around instant access to the things.
A bigger, maybe more philosophical question is why do we constantly, in supposedly the richest country in the world, tell people that you have to speed up? It shouldn’t be impossible to make a decent living at a normal pace. Right? It’s basically built upon extracting as much as possible from those we see as disposable. And it’s complicated because a lot of us turn toward delivery because our own lives get so hectic.
Right, we often find ourselves in a time crunch as well.
Exactly. It is a whole rat in which all of us are squeezed for time. And so I think for a lot of people in that kind of squeeze it feels like, I don’t have time and I have to order. Food delivery should be a luxury as opposed to a necessity, but because of the way our lives are structured to go as quickly as possible, for a lot of us it has become a necessity.
It’s a huge question.
I honestly struggle with practical solutions, because we’re talking about changing everything.