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Bike Snob

NYC: Enough with the E-Bike War Already

If you really want to fight climate change, you can't just sue Big Oil. You also have to embrace e-bike delivery.

Hey, New York City. Pick on someone your own size. (Burst/Pexels)

If you really want to fight climate change, you can't just sue Big Oil. You also have to embrace e-bike delivery.

Despite being the President’s birthplace and home to his eponymous tower, New York City isn't exactly Trump Country. For this reason, our elected officials go out of their way to define themselves in opposition to the current administration. One way Mayor Bill de Blasio has done this is by taking a strong public stance against climate change. To that end, he recently announced that New York City will sue Shell, Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips, as well as sell off its fossil fuel investments, which are worth billions. 

Like any smug city-dwelling pedal-pusher, I’m no fan of big oil, and like any New Yorker, I'm flattered by the hat tip to our moxie. Yet as any veteran of a schoolyard square-off knows, there are two virtually risk-free ways to come off like a tough guy without having to actually throw (or, more crucially, take) any punches:

1) Pick on someone you're sure you can beat up;

2) Threaten the big lummox with no friends. 

The lawsuit and pension fund divestment announcement are textbook Tactic #2. After all, who likes the oil companies? When it comes to corporations that people hate passionately yet still continue to patronize, Big Oil is right up there with banks and Facebook. Then there’s Tactic #1, which de Blasio has also wielded over the past few months. Every bully needs a victim who won't hit back, and to that end, the mayor's taken to picking on delivery people and e-bikes.

See, while most of the depictions of New York City are patently false (none of those T.V. characters could ever afford those giant apartments), one cliché that does hold true is our addiction to food delivery. Indeed, in sitcoms and in life, we are perpetually surrounded by takeout containers. What you don’t see on T.V. is the army of bicycle delivery people who bring us this food, or the conditions in which they do it. Mostly immigrants and uniformly underpaid, food delivery people risk their lives for our convenience, and the motor vehicle traffic they have to contend with isn’t even the half of it. Remember that bomb cyclone we had recently? These folks were out there even before the plows were. And as you can imagine, when your modest livelihood depends on making fast deliveries day in and out, you’re going to want to do it on an e-bike, which is what many of them now ride.

Unfortunately, legislation often lags behind technology, and our dated and murky state laws mean certain types of e-bikes are technically illegal. Furthermore, some wealthy residents in the neighborhoods these delivery people serve have been complaining about the riders. One patron in particular, an investment manager on the Upper West Side, took to the airwaves to air his grievances. De Blasio listened, and last October held a press conference to announce that starting in January 2018, there would be a “blitz” on illegal e-bikes.

To be perfectly fair, if you spend some time on the city streets, you will occasionally see a delivery person pull some hair-raising maneuvers. Think Premium Rush, only with a bag of takeout dangling from each handgrip and a cigarette dangling from the corner of the rider’s mouth. Nevertheless, during the conference, de Blasio acknowledged that he had no data on e-bike crashes, while suggesting that delivery people dependent on such bikes should use “good old bicycles” or a “car.” What data has since come to light supports what many advocates already suspected, which is that e-bikes are more of an annoyance than an actual threat. Village Voice reporter Christopher Robbins learned that, according to the NYPD, of 58 bicycle crashes in the Upper West Side’s 20th precinct in 2017, only one involved an e-bike.

Cars killed 101 pedestrians last year. E-bikes? Zero.

Nevertheless, the blitz is on, and the NYPD is already touting its confiscations on Twitter, each of which represents a serious blow to somebody’s livelihood.

Meanwhile, forward-thinking cities and countries around the world are embracing the potential of the e-bike in their attempts to move toward a more sustainable future. Paris’s bike-share fleet includes electric bicycles. The Dutch have found e-bikes allow people to continue cycling later in life, and that the machines have no adverse effects on safety. Couriers like UPS and FedEx are using e-trikes to make deliveries in Europe, and they’re experimenting with similar programs in the U.S. too.

Given his aggressive anti-climate change posturing, de Blasio’s stance on e-bikes is simply baffling. Instead of trying to squelch e-bike delivery, why not push to change state law, better integrate delivery cyclists into the streetscape, and work toward rethinking the way goods are delivered in a crowded city? Doing so would be in keeping not only with his position on climate change, but also with his Vision Zero street safety initiative and his pledge to protect immigrants. As far as the oil companies, by all means go ahead and sue the bastards. But you can’t say you’re fighting climate change without also embracing the technologies that have the potential to lessen automobile dependency.

So lay off the e-bikes and pick on someone your own size.