TASK FARCE: New Parks Commish Punts On Letting Legal E-Bikes Into Greenspaces

New Parks Commissioner Susan Donoghue with her new boss. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
New Parks Commissioner Susan Donoghue with her new boss. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Adams’s new Parks and Recreation Commissioner isn’t motoring to fix a ridiculous discrepancy in how the department treats e-bike riders across the city.

On Friday, newly introduced Parks boss Sue Donoghue said a lot without saying she would just let the legal bikes into the green spaces now under her leadership. At a City Hall presser, Donoghue, who comes to the Arsenal from her leadership of the well-funded Prospect Park Alliance, was asked point blank what she’ll do about her agency’s steadfast ban on legal e-bikes under its own tortured definition of what makes a “motor vehicle.”

“I am very much aware of the inconsistencies there and the concerns around pedal-assist bikes in parks,” she said. “It is something that I’m going to be working on from Day One. My agenda in Prospect Park, and my agenda citywide, is going to be about safety in parks. And so how we navigate this and how we make sure that the park drives and all the spaces are safe for both pedestrians, cyclists and e-bikes is going to be a priority.”

Asked what “working on it” would entail, Donoghue then said she would punt the issue over to a task force.

“We need to work with the team internally and put a task force together to figure that out,” she said.

The task force could make extremely quick work of the issue if it wanted to, because, as Streetsblog exhaustively pointed out last year, the Parks Department, not e-bike riders, is the entity out of step with reality. The agency has rules that ban motor vehicles from its grounds, and those rules define a motor vehicle as “any automobile, motorcycle, moped, or other vehicle propelled by a motor,” which Parks stretches to include the electric motors on pedal-assist and throttle e-bikes.

But state law that legalized e-bikes in 2020 explicitly exempts e-bikes from being defined as motor vehicles, first carving out an exemption to the motor vehicle definition as defined in Section 125 of vehicle and traffic law and then defining the exempted bikes in Section 102-C of that law as electric bikes that function with pedal assist motors (Class 1 e-bikes), throttle e-bikes that top out at 20 miles per hour (Class 2 e-bikes) and throttle e-bikes that top out at 25 miles per hour (Class 3 e-bikes). (Congratulations, on finishing this paragraph; you are one percent of the way to a law school degree.)

Last year, Bike New York Director of Advocacy Jon Orcutt said that it was past time for Parks to joint the 21st century and figure out how to include e-bikes into the greenery-tinged public spaces it manages, and that the best way to do that would be to begin a new public rule-making process. Doing so would allow the public to weigh in on the best way forward, whether that means instituting a speed limit (reasonable) or trying to restrict which e-bikes could be allowed in city parks (potentially discriminatory and likely to trigger a lawsuit).

The Parks Department E-Bike Task Force should work fast, though, because the agency’s refusal to understand that the recreation spaces are also transportation routes puts lives in danger. In Central Park for instance, the department’s insistence that cyclists use only shared routes with pedestrians annoys walkers and may have contributed to the 2019 death of Dr. Daniel Cammerman, who chose instead to ride his pedal-assist Citi Bike on a dangerous transverse road instead of through the park.

The civic group, Streetopia UWS, a sister organization to Streetsblog, has tried repeatedly to get the Parks and Recreation Department to prioritize the creation of cross-town routes for cyclists through the city’s premier park … to no avail.

Prior to getting the top job at the Parks Department, Donoghue was president, since 2014, of the Prospect Park Alliance, the private organization that operates the park (in collaboration with the city and the Parks Department).

Before that, she was an assistant commissioner in the Parks Department under Mayor Bloomberg.

As Parks commissioner, Donoghue will report to Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi.

— with Gersh Kuntzman