Motorized Scooters Are Taking Over New York City’s Bike Lanes
Electric and gasoline-powered scooters are changing the vibes in the Big Apple’s soaring network of bicycle lanes. And columnist Eben Weiss isn’t happy bout it.
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In 2007, on 9th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City debuted its first-ever protected bike lane–”protected” meaning that it featured physical barriers for bicyclists from motor vehicle traffic, in this case via a row of parked cars. There’s no such thing as an unoccupied parking space in Manhattan, so a row of parked cars is tantamount to a wall.
In the ensuing years, as the city’s bike lane network expanded (we’re at over 600 miles of protected bike lanes now), there has been no shortage of threats to destroy it. Some of those threats were mostly idle, such as now disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign promise in 2011 to “have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your fucking bike lanes.” Others have been more real, such as the city’s lack of enforcement when it comes to the many motorists who park in them. Recently, a new threat to the network has emerged, and it’s perhaps the most insidious yet: People who ride motor scooters in bike lanes.
Now, when I say “motor scooters,” I’m not referring to those stand-up electric things that look like pogo sticks on wheels. I mean yes, there are lots of people riding those in the bike lanes too, but that’s old news. No, what I mean is actual gasoline-burning motorized scooters—the ones many Americans collectively refer to as “Vespas,” even though they’re almost never Vespas, or sometimes “mopeds,” which makes even less sense since the “-ped” part of “moped” means “pedal” and these things don’t have them. Whatever you call them, basically they’re motorcycles with leg shields that you don’t have to shift. While people using motor scooters in New York City is nothing new, they were always relatively few and far between. Now, they’re everywhere you look.
Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with motor scooters. In fact, motor scooters are people’s main form of transportation in many parts of the world, and if you’ve traveled you’ve probably seen entire families on them. They’re relatively cheap, they’re efficient, they’re practical, they’re easy to ride, and they take up a hell of a lot less space on the road than a typical SUV. On the surface, more of them in traffic-clogged New York sounds like a good thing.
Unfortunately, these motor scooters aren’t replacing SUVs at all. Car traffic here is just as bad as its ever been—so bad in fact that we’re about to try congestion pricing. Instead, these scooters are merely adding to all the cars, and trucks, and micromobility e-thingies, and all the rest of it. And increasingly, instead of using the streets, their riders are simply using the bike lanes. One informal sampling recently suggested that as much as 25 percent of traffic on the Manhattan Bridge bike path now consists of some sort of motor scooter, either gas-powered or electric. Motorists in the bike lanes have always been an unfortunate fact of life here, but you could at least count on certain bridge and park paths being car-free, since even the most determined drivers couldn’t get their vehicles onto them.
Alas, this is not a problem for the motor scooter riders, who can simply slip in between the bollards, and with a twist of the throttle race right through the park or across the span. The presence of motor scooters on these narrow paths that were once sanctuaries for bicyclists is irritating, vexing, jarring, infuriating, and potentially dangerous. As a bonus, their machines are typically unregistered, and it’s fairly safe to assume someone riding an unregistered motorcycle on a bike path is also unlicensed and uninsured, raising the question of what happens if one of them hits you. Unfortunately, some bicyclists are now finding out the hard way.
So how did this happen? Well, one reason is that food delivery people are increasingly turning to them because their e-bikes are inconvenient to charge and occasionally burst into flames. I suspect another reason is that, as e-contraptions that defy categorization continue to proliferate, they’ve outstripped the state’s capacity to register and account for them, and so the very idea of doing so has mostly gone out the window. Therefore, at a certain point, even if they weren’t involved in the business of delivering food, people probably looked around at all these high-speed e-things whizzing around and realized, “Fuck it, I’ll just ride around on an unregistered motor scooter.” (Or some enterprising vendors realized, “Fuck it, I’ll just start selling unregistered motor scooters.”) And all of this is happening against a backdrop of driver lawlessness, as well as advocates and policymakers pushing the idea that the police shouldn’t be making traffic stops.
Bike advocates have long pushed for bicycle infrastructure on the basis that, in order to increase ridership, people need to feel safe. Moreover, a robust bike network “makes cycling more accessible, and gives even more New Yorkers, including children, seniors, and families, safe access to this joyful and healthful transportation.” But how safe are children, seniors, and families supposed to feel when their path is full of people flying by on motor scooters? Thanks to drivers, the streets are inhospitable enough, so if the bike lanes are also full of motorized traffic then that’s nothing less than an existential threat to the network’s ostensible purpose. Anti-bike lane op-eds are mostly just sound and fury signifying nothing, but a bicycle lane full of motor scooters immediately ceases to be a bike lane at all.
Nevertheless, advocates and urbanists seem loath to call out this very real threat. Instead they keep remind us that cars are worse (duh), and suggest that the motor scooter riders only use the bike lanes because they feel unsafe too. (Though the number of motor scooter riders I see popping wheelies and running red lights would seem to indicate the contrary.) We don’t need enforcement, they say; all of this can simply be solved with more space. More recently, they’ve acknowledged there’s a “crisis,” though it’s been framed as a justice for workers issue, rather than another case of motorized anarchy plaguing New York City. In my opinion, this feels both deflective and reductive, given that unregistered motor scooter use is by no means limited to people engaged in food delivery.
There’s no question that New York City yields a disproportionately large amount of public space to the automobile. At the same time, this would not be the case had we not surrendered so much of that space in the first place. So as New York City’s nascent bike lane network experiences an unprecedented incursion of motorized traffic, it’s at least worth discussing whether or not we should take more focused and decisive action now, rather than relying on making “more space for all modes,” which is the sort of change it takes decades to effect. Hey, maybe New York City’s bike lanes becoming “any motor vehicle that’s not a car lanes” is inevitable. But what if enforcement (which we’re now seeing, at least on Twitter) isn’t such a dirty word after all? What if allowing e-bikes in parks is like when the city finally relented and allowed overnight parking? What if it’s just the thin end of the wedge?
Yes, in the long term, it would be great if New York City had a bicycle lane, and an e-bike lane, and a motor scooter lane, and a lane for people who like to ride Onewheels while juggling. But until then, it’s fairly simple: if you ride a motor scooter or a motorcycle, there’s already a lane for you, and it’s the motor vehicle lane. Hey, if it’s not to your satisfaction, you can always start an advocacy group. Want advice on how to do that? Just ask the cyclists, they’ve been advocating for themselves for well over a century.