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Coronavirus Crisis Spotlights Importance of Food Delivery Workers and Need to Legalize Their E-Bikes


ebike leg

The push for legalizing e-bikes continues (photo: @nily)


Right now, our colleagues in Albany can deliver immediate justice and help keep New York fed and moving during a time of crisis. They must legalize electric-bikes in the state budget being finalized right now.

As part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations announced this week that restaurants, bars, and cafes would close for dine-in customers, but that take-out and delivery would remain available. This move made it clear that New York City’s food delivery workers, a workforce largely comprised of low-paid immigrant Americans from China and Latin America, would be shouldering a large burden, and would soon become a lifeline for potentially millions of New Yorkers during the pandemic.

That is why we are renewing, with urgency, the call for the legalization of e-bikes which most delivery workers use to complete their rounds.

About three-quarters of New York City’s 40,000 food delivery workers rely on throttled e-bikes, which are technically illegal to operate in New York because of a gray area in the state’s vehicle code. These e-bikes, which are different from the pedal-assist e-bikes deployed by Citi Bike, are critical equipment for delivery workers, many of whom are older than 60 and work 10-12 hour days. Try doing that job on a traditional bike and you might not last half as long. 

Most e-bikes are legal in most states, including right across the Hudson in New Jersey. Yet here in the city, where making food deliveries makes the most sense on bicycles as opposed to cars, they are still somehow illegal. Most delivery workers’ median hourly wage is about $10. When stopped by police they are routinely ticketed upwards of $1,000 and have their bikes confiscated. When a worker’s bike is confiscated it means they can’t work to pay the fine, let alone feed their family. 

However, while the de Blasio administration heard our demand to decriminalize e-bike enforcement in tandem with the coronavirus-related limitation on food service, there is no guarantee that this will be permanent after the crisis is over. To criminalize their work after such public service, even after they risk their lives and their families’ lives during this pandemic, would be a travesty of justice.

That is why we are calling on our elected leaders in Albany to (once again) pass and enact legislation to create a legal framework for e-bikes. Last year, the New York State Legislature passed legislation sponsored and impressively championed by Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Nily Rozic that would have legalized e-bikes and given municipalities throughout New York the authority to determine their use. Governor Cuomo vetoed that bill citing safety concerns, but he reignited the conversation with an admirable e-bike legalization proposal of his own in January.

The push to legalize e-bikes has a broad base of support, not only from groups fighting for immigrant and workers’ rights like Make the Road New York and the Legal Aid Society, but also environmental and transportation safety groups, like the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives. 

We are counting on all state legislators and Governor Cuomo to unite and pass a budget that guarantees permanent relief for delivery cyclists. Crises can lead to social change, and we expect one positive outcome of the era of social distancing will be a newfound social solidarity with the hard-working delivery workers who keep our city fed, and an end to the shameful police harassment they have weathered for too long.

By ensuring e-bike legalization right now more than 40,0000 hard-working New Yorkers would not have to fear retribution and confiscation of their tools during and after the coronavirus crisis, as they, with their own bodies on the front line, continue to feed New Yorkers, and keep restaurants, farmers, and other companies in business in these trying times.

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City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Margaret Chin represent portions of Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively. On Twitter @cmenchaca & @CM_MargaretChin.

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