The Parks Department’s E-Bike Policy is Not Consistent with State Law

A sign on Parks Department rules sign informing users of a ban on e-bikes is, unfortunately, legal. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
A sign on Parks Department rules sign informing users of a ban on e-bikes is, unfortunately, legal. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

So, what, the Parks Department gets to just make up its own rules?

Bike Twitter and citizenry of good taste were again up in arms recently after the city agency in charge of encouraging recreation claimed once again that all e-bikes, even the kind that state law does not classify as motorized, fell into the agency’s category of verboten vehicles.

“Our park rules prohibit motor vehicles in a park. … This includes all e-bikes, scooters, mopeds, and other motorized vehicles, as defined by the @nysdmv Motor Vehicle Code,” the department posted on Twitter after a bike rider asked for clarity.

According to the Parks Department, the ban extends to pedal-assist e-bikes because the agency has defined a motor vehicle as “any automobile, motorcycle, moped, or other vehicle propelled by a motor.”

The conflict, of course, is that state law that legalized e-bikes in 2020 does not consider pedal-assist electric bikes to be motor vehicles. It’s right there in section 125 of the vehicle and traffic law; the definition of a motor vehicle in New York State is a “vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power, except … bicycles with electric assist as defined in section 102-c of this article.”

Digging into section 102-c, it’s even more clear that state law defines all e-bicycles — Class 1 (pedal-assist bikes in which the engine cuts out at 20 miles per hour), Class 2 (throttle bikes in which the engine cuts out above 20 miles per hour) and Class 3 (throttle bikes in which the engine cuts out at 25 miles per hour; such bikes are only legal in New York City) — as not motorized even though they do have electric motors.

The same state law that legalized such e-bikes — and declared them to be not motor vehicles — also allowed municipalities to pass their own rules to “further regulate the time, place and manner of operation of these devices.” The de Blasio administration has not done so, and is instead allowing the Parks Department to operate under rules that pre-date the state e-bike legalization.

Legal experts say that the state clause allowing municipalities to create their own regulations allows Parks to fold e-bikes into its existing definition of motorized vehicles, even though e-bikes are not characterized as such in state law.

“Parks can write its own rules, assuming they’re not unconstitutional or discriminatory,” said Daniel Flanzig, an attorney specializing in bike law.

Attorney and cycling law expert Steve Vaccaro agreed that the state definition would normally preempt city law, but for that clause.

“The state legislation … is explicitly acknowledging that supplemental limitations will be permitted by local authorities like Parks Department,” he said.

The Parks Department, for its part, says that it’s merely including e-bikes and e-scooters into its own longtime definition of motorized vehicles as anything with any motor.

“To characterize this as a ban is misleading: our rules on motorized vehicles have been on the books for decades; they were not impacted by recent rule changes,” said Parks Department spokeswoman Crystal Howard.

There are serious practical ramifications of the Parks Department decisions to regulate electric bikes — especially pedal-assist e-bikes such as those rented by Citi Bike — as motor vehicles, even though they are not motor vehicles under state law.

For one thing, north of 59th Street, the Parks Department has jurisdiction over the Hudson River Greenway, which is the busiest bike path in North America. As a result, the NYPD frequently does enforcement for the Parks Department (and promotes its misreading of state law) — as Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton recently witnessed, including an NYPD squad car blocking the bike lane and making it less safe.

In addition, if the Parks Department is allowed to continue treating e-bikes like 3,000-pound motor vehicles, it also opens up safety risks for the city’s cyclists. For example, the Parks Department has defied advocates for years and has failed to provide more than one dedicated bike route through Central Park, meaning that cyclists are directed, via Parks signage, to cross the park on shared routes with pedestrians. But because of the outdated Parks rule, e-bike riders are not allowed to use those routes, and are forced to ride on the dangerous and unprotected transverse roads across the park, where Dr. Daniel Cammerman was killed on a Citi Bike in late 2019.

Still, anyone who’s read the Streetsblog Field Guide to Mico Mobility would tell you that e-bikes don’t have the licensing requirements or top speeds that mopeds or other newer mobility devices have. But if the Parks Department is going to stick by its arcane, decades-old rules, there’s one way to drag the agency into the future: make a better rule through the city’s rule-making process.

“Parks needs to do a new rule-making obviously, because we can’t have a bike network where the rules change randomly from segment to segment,” said Bike New York Director of Advocacy Jon Orcutt. “It’s really incredibly tone deaf after all the debate over the last three, four years, and it’s out of step with the law.”

A new rule wouldn’t even need a City Council law or a mayoral edict, though Orcutt said prodding from executive or legislature could help move things along. If the Parks Department decided to change its own rules and regulations, the public would also have an opportunity to weigh in on how to update the regulations of motorized vehicles, which would allow people with the experience on the street to help guide what’s allowed.

“We do need some we need some rules, this is a lot more of a nuanced thing these days. So let’s figure those nuances out,” said Orcutt.

The city’s number one pedal-assist e-bike booster, Citi Bike, indicated that it would welcome a rule change process that didn’t put pedal-assist riders in legal jeopardy. At the very least, the blue pedal-assist bikes are too popular to leave out in the regulatory cold. According to data that the Lyft-own company shared with the New York Times, pedal-assist bikes are only 20 percent of the total fleet but account for 35 percent of the total Citi Bike rides taken.

“Parks are not a place for cars, but pedal assist e-bikes are a different thing entirely,” said Thomas DeVito, Lyft’s East Coast Policy Manager for Transit, Bikes and Scooters. “E-bikes — like our parks — are used by different people for different purposes: some use them for exercise and recreation, and others use them as a shortcut to get from one part of the city to another. There is no reason why our parks should have a blanket ban on Class 1 e-bikes, which have exploded in popularity and reach top speeds on par with many kinds of pedal-powered bikes.”

The city’s environmentally minded voters also saw a value in finding a micro-mobility rule for parks that didn’t lump e-bikes in with cars and trucks.

“When more New Yorkers bike, we reduce emissions and improve our air quality,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Julie Tighe. “The rules around e-bikes in NYC Parks need to be clarified for all riders, including pedal assist e-bikes, to make these travel corridors safely accessible.”

Spokespeople for Mayor de Blasio and Mayor-elect Adams did not respond to requests for comment on the question of prodding Parks to create an updated rule regarding e-bikes. But Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, an Adams confidante and probable member of the incoming administration, said he’d work to try to solve the issue of finding the right spot for micromobility devices, even if the issue stretches into 2022 (which it almost definitely will).

“As the chairman of the Transportation Committee I have been working closely with advocates to ensure the safety of bike riders (e-bikes included) and pedestrians is always at the highest of priorities,” said Rodriguez. “I believe that as of this moment there are still many issues left to be solved involving micro-mobility. That being said, I will continue conversations with the current and the next administration on ways we can expand the use of certain roadways and greenways to include all e-bike users. We need to strike a balance between ensuring the safety for all New Yorkers and meeting our goal of becoming one of the friendliest bike and pedestrian cities in the nation.”