NYBC Works to Clarify Legality of Electric Bicycles in New York

By Collin Hodges, NYBC Program Coordinator


Bicycling is a wonderful way to get around. But what if you aren’t in great shape, or consider yourself too old, young, or physically impaired to view bicycling a practical way to get around? Or even more simply, what if you’d like to arrive at that summer meeting without sweating through your shirt in the process?

Electric bicycles could provide a solution to such problems. They have the ability to take the physical strain off of commuters who would like to use their bicycle more, but might opt to drive in the face of such inconveniences.

One might argue that exercise through the physical exertion inherent in bicycling is one of the primary advantages of commuting by bike, and that electric bicycles would dampen that benefit. Realistically, however, not everyone is able or willing to put out that sort of exertion on a daily basis. It is also important to note that electric bicycles can generally be powered by pedaling, running the electric motor, or a combination of both. The majority of models in the US cannot be operated solely with the electric motor, but all can be powered exclusively by pedaling if the rider so chooses. This would give a commuter the flexibility of pedaling for the majority of a trip, but using the motor to help conquer that formidable hill that lies just at the end of the route. One need look no further than hilly cities like San Francisco, the daunting bridges of New York City, or the rolling terrain of upstate New York to imagine how this could be helpful to the average Joe, not to mention the young, the elderly, or even people just struggling to get into shape for regular cycling.

What about the bicyclist’s claim of energy efficiency? While electric bicycles have a larger carbon footprint than their traditional counterparts, they are still sixteen times more energy efficient than the average automobile, and six times more efficient than most rail transit systems.[1]

Still, before you rush to buy stock in these magical contraptions, their legal status must be removed from the state of limbo that currently stymies their widespread use. Specifically, the issue is their treatment as motorcycles under New York State law, and motor scooters in New York City. This is in contrast to federal law, wherein an electric bicycle is officially defined as a “two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 hp).”[2] This means that in New York State, electric bicycles are generally considered unregistered motor vehicles and subject to the same laws and penalties as automobiles. In New York City, electric bicycles that do not have the ability to be operated solely by its motor (pedal-assist bicycles) are legal, but those that do have that ability (motor-assist bicycles) are subject to fines and impoundment.

These classifications are especially problematic in light of the fact that electric bicycles are not permitted to have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), meaning that they cannot be registered with the DMV and are thus inherently illegal for use on public roads throughout the state. That technicality aside, legally equating them with automobiles is dubious at best. Even when powered solely by an electric motor, these bicycles have a top speed of under 20 mph[3] and extremely low horsepower ratings, which makes them no more dangerous than a traditional bicycle. Overall, the potential for electric bicycles to widen the audience for bike commuting cannot be ignored, and NYBC has joined Transportation Alternatives and other electric bicycle supporters to advance legislation that corrects these legal inconsistencies.

In fact, several bills have recently been introduced in the New York State Assembly that seek to resolve the electric bicycling issue and bring New York into closer conformity with federal standards. One is bill A01618, first introduced by Assemblyman David Gantt (Assembly District 137) in 2005, which states that electric bicycles should not be considered motor vehicles provided the motor features a maximum output of 1,000 watts. Safety standards would conform to those applicable to traditional bicycles, and electric bicycle operators would need to be at least 16 years old. Bill S01357B sponsored by Senator Martin Dilan (D. 18th Senate District), is similar to Assemblyman Gantt’s bill. The only differences are that the maximum power output would conform to the federal standard of 750 watts, and there would be a helmet requirement for riders between 16 and 18 years old.

NYBC and its partners recently met with the offices of Assemblyman Gantt and Senator Dilan to drive home the importance of passing an acceptable bill regardless of minor distinctions. In the absence of such a bill, even more New Yorkers could receive hefty fines for operating electric bicycles in the coming year. Bolstering the effort, Assemblyman Rafael Espinal (Assembly District 54) introduced bill A05058 earlier this month, which is identical to Senator Dilan’s bill.

If New York is to move forward as a bicycle-friendly state, then the legal muddle around electric bicycling must be clarified.  NYBC is proud to work closely with trusted allies to pass a much-needed electric bicycle bil in the 2013 legislative session.


[1]Transportation Alternatives,9/8/11

[2] 15 U.S.C.A. § 2085

[3] Stieber, Zachary. “Electric Bikes in New York May Be Legal, or Maybe Not.The Epoch Times, 9/17/12.

*Cover image courtesy www.thirteen.org

7 Comments On “NYBC Works to Clarify Legality of Electric Bicycles in New York”

  1. has any new law allowing electric driven bicycles been passed

  2. You can see the text of the new bills and my comments on them on my website http://www.LightWheels.com The mis-information provided by the Daily News and CBS has not helped to create clarity. Ms. Quinn’s comment that they are so quiet that they are dangerous may go down in history.

    New York City’s “Ban” on “Ebikes”

    The news last week that ebikes were to be banned in NYC came from a NY Daily News story and a short item on CBS-TV. Fortunately, the reports were inaccurate and incomplete as far as they went since they were devoid of explanations or context. Close examination of the actual bills, #1026 and #1030 offers a different picture. This is not an ebike ban. It is an attempt to stop mopeds from being regarded as bicycles, and scooters, some weighing 300 pounds, with make-believe pedals, to conform to existing vague Federal standards, from using a legal loophole to avoid having to be registered, licensed or insured. The City Council’s #1026 allows, by implication, pedal-activated systems to be used here, as soon as the State law is changed to permit electric-assist bicycles. Two bills now making their way through the State legislature will do this.

    The legislation just passed by the City Council and awaiting the Mayor’s signature on May 15th, is titled a Motor Scooter bill. It’s primary purpose is to reverse a little-known 2004 NYC regulation that allowed any motorized vehicle traveling at 15 MPH or less to be legal in the city. It is a well-know fact that traveling at such a slow speed, the likelihood of any serious injuries caused by a collision is very small, especially if the vehicle is of minimal size. Regardless, providing such a permissive policy was very unusual for New York City, which tends to precisely regulate most matters within its borders in a very detailed way, from food preparation to dog-walking. In fact, it was not a bad idea to clear away some of the confusion regarding what, exactly an electric-assist bicycle is.

    The genesis of this legislation is that a few local politicians have reported a great many calls to their district offices, expressing great unhappiness, provoked by encounters with restaurant deliverers, primarily on the largely-conservative Upper East Side of Manhattan. Certainly there are pedestrians who feel intimidated by the sometimes aggressive riding style of these hard-working cyclists. Time is of the essence to them, and to their hungry customers too. A series of inflammatory editorials in both of New York’s often anti-bike tabloids has fed the flames nicely. The cops claim that these road warriors are going so fast and are so elusive that they are incapable of apprehending them speeding the wrong way up the street. Even in the absence of a single bad accident photo op, the noise level has been loud. Since you can’t ban Chinese food…………….

    This legitimate concern was addressed over the past ten months through a multi-lingual educational program undertaken by the NYC DOT. Posters and pamphlets were printed and delivered to every establishment. Restaurant owners were invited to a series of events at which the new regulations were explained, the vests and helmets that their employees were going to have to wear, along with big numbers and licenses to identify them. Restaurant owners were told that they could be liable for tickets issued to bike deliverers. They were also assured that they wouldn’t be issued summonses simply for having ebikes, but must make sure that they have the right safety equipment lights, etc. This legislation calls for heavy fines though and even confiscation of vehicles in spite of those assurances.
    New requirements were only put into effect within the last month and the compliance rate so far appears to be almost total. There is no doubt that these new policies have had a considerable impact on restraining bad behavior by cyclists. Restaurants are highly regulated businesses and understand the power of the City to impose its will. So, regardless of a dramatic improvement in the situation which provoked the unhappiness, this extreme step is being taken.

    The situation is not very different from the one 25 years ago, during the last “bike ban”, when Fifth, Park and Madison Avenues were closed to bike traffic, to enable some politicians to try to look like they were addressing a host of complaints about bike messengers and their riding styles in congested midtown Manhattan. A series of demonstrations (most organized out of my storefront in lower Manhattan by the messengers themselves) resulted in the reversal of this policy. It’s true that, in addition to some of the most dramatic and effective street demonstrations ever, innumerable phone calls from ad agencies and Wall street firms screaming in pain also helped considerably to establish the urgent need for this kind of service to their businesses.

    Now that fax machines and email have done their work thinning the herd, messengers have become icons of style and everybody in Brooklyn rides a fixie. The antagonism against hard-riding urban cycling persists though, it’s just that the target has changed from homeboys with portfolios of fashion photos to young Asian and Hispanic men hauling ribs.

    There needs to be a three staged effort:

    In order to support the health, safety and well-being of its residents, the State Legislature and Governor must permit electric-assist bicycles to be made legal in New York, which should not be put under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles, in order to conform to current Federal law.

    The City must then be convinced to allow pedal-activated ebikes, “pedelecs” to be used, as their current bill, #1026, permits (in spite of headlines to the contrary).

    The City must eventually allow, even encourage, the proliferation of the smallest, slow speed, electric-powered vehicles of all kinds, which might enjoy the same legal status as electric-assist bicycles due to the significant environmental and economic advantages which they provide to us.

    Steve Stollman 212 431 0600 http://www.SharingUmbrellas.org MeetMe@TheAutomat.com

  3. I live in Upstate New York and commute by bicycle and Public Transpotation. These being my contribution to both the environment and the County. I have been a recent convert that Ebikes are the wave of the future for local and small haul commute and that the State Laws regarding the use needs to come up to current Federal standards for operating (Ebikes),the current regarding motor wattage is 750, while lacking for some,it is sufficient for the average commuter who would like some assistance getting to ones destination. Moving back toNew York State in recent years, it seems the State likes to control-Limit-Deny,and or make laws-create paperwork and profit from most everything it possibly can,that includes Bicycles(All). I feel the time is (NYS)here too come into Federal Standards for road use of Ebikes and let the masses ride. We who use bikes on almost a daily basis for getting to our destinations are ready to move ahead either by E-Peddal-or both. Let’s make the right choice so the many can benefit.

  4. E-bikes with top speed of 20 mph should not be considered motor vehicles but bicycles. A streamlined bicycle can easily cruise at that speed. The ability to start and stop with an e-bike is greater than a pedal only bike and this makes for more people actually obeying traffic signs. I would like to see powered homebuilt bikes allowed to registered as Class B mopeds with the appropriate equipment.

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