After years of advocates diligently working to legalize e-bikes and the recent push from scooter industries to allow scooters on the streets, Governor Cuomo has finally passed legislation for New York State.

The law, effective immediately, allows the operation of an electric scooter or bicycle with an electric assist on some streets and highways in New York State:

  • You can operate these devices on roads with a posted speed limit of 30 MPH or less
  • Municipalities can further regulate the time, place and manner of operation of these devices
  • You cannot operate these devices on a sidewalk except as authorized by local law or ordinance

While the law severely limits the activity of electric mobility devices and reinforces the car dependency entrenched in our legal system, it’s a step in the right direction towards a more equitable transportation system in New York.

What are e-bikes and e-scooters? 

Electric bikes (or e-bikes) are bicycles equipped with an electronic motor to either assist with or propel your bicycle. The e-bike industry and our new legislation groups e-bikes into three classes:

  • Class 1: the electric motor provides assistance only when the person operating such a bicycle is pedaling, and that ceases to assist when the bike reaches 20 miles per hour.
  • Class 2: the electric motor can be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of assisting when the bike reaches 20 miles per hour (e.g., motor engages via a throttle that moves the bike independent of pedaling).
  • Class 3: the same as Class 2 but can reach speeds up to 28 mph.

New York State has legalized Class 3 e-bikes to cities with populations greater than 1 million (NYC) and capped speed at 25 mph.

New York State defines e-scooters as any device weighing less than 100 pounds with handlebars and a floor to be stood upon operating by an electric motor at less than 20 mph.

Why are advocates and urbanists so excited about these electric mobility devices? 

In the United States, more than 35% of trips taken by car are two miles or less, a distance easily bikable or walkable for most. And yet, we do not. E-bikes and e-scooters make it easy to switch out car trips for biking, scooting, or walking. They provide increased accessibility to using active and shared transportation, allowing people to run errands, commute, and recreate while reducing reliance on automobiles for short-distance trips.

In 2018, Americans took 38.5 million trips via shared e-scooters and 36.5 million via shared e-bikes. Though we do not know how many of these trips replaced a motor vehicle trip, we do know people are using these new technologies to commute to work, connect to transit, socialize, and recreate, thanks to a recent NACTO study.

Low-carbon, active transportation benefits our communities in many ways: they decrease air, noise, and land pollution, improve health, and create more friendly and connected communities.

If they’re so great, why is the legislation so restrictive? 

Safety is the primary reason cited for the many restrictions.

E-scooters, particularly in dockless shared systems, have received much criticism due to the injuries and fatalities resulting from the technologies. A recent study from Public Health and Transportation departments in Austin, Texas, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found scooter use resulted in 20 injuries per 100,000 trips. The study also found that first-time use, speed, and alcohol consumption were present in many of the injuries.

While e-bikes haven’t earned the same bad safety rap, legislators still cited safety concerns due to the increased speed potential (though, arguably, many non-e-bike cyclists safely ride at 18 mph). Advocates suggest training people on how to ride e-bikes and e-scooters is more effective than over-restrictive legislation.

In general, New York State’s traffic law, like many American states, endorses car ownership while making it difficult, onerous, and unsafe to travel via alternative means such as by bike, public transit, or foot. This law is no exception. The bill also demonstrates a limited understanding of how e-bikes, particularly Class 1 pedal assist, are currently used. We need to fully understand how these devices are used in order to keep people safe while also allowing the flexibility to use e-bikes and e-scooters to their full potential.

Though the law isn’t as agreeable as many advocates hoped, after years of asking for clarification regarding e-bike operation in the state, this is a step in the right direction. This law will allow more people than ever to ride a bicycle at distances further than ever imagined.

Some fine details of the legislation: 

  • E-bikes are subject to the same laws and regulations under New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law as bicycles. E-scooters have very similar compliance requirements, with head and rear lamps required in darkness, and brakes and a bell needed.
  • E-bikes and e-scooters cannot ride two abreast.
  • Both e-bikes and e-scooters cannot be operated at roads with speed limits greater than 30 mph.
  • Neither e-bikes nor e-scooters are allowed on sidewalks unless determined to be permitted by the municipality.
  • Persons under 16 years old cannot operate e-bikes or e-scooters. Passengers under 16 years old are allowed on e-bikes.
  • Both e-bikes and e-scooters are not allowed on multi-use trails and greenways unless explicitly stated.
  • Municipalities can limit the use and ban both e-bikes and e-scooters if they wish.
  • Municipalities must pass legislation to allow the operation of bike or scooter share in their towns, villages, and cities (though scooter-share will not be allowed in Manhattan).
  • E-scooter operators must keep one hand on the handlebar at all times. They must always yield to pedestrians.
  • Privately owned e-bikes and e-scooters are legal now.
  • Electronic mobility devices must be labeled as such by June 1, 2022.

Read the legislation here.