The city council's Committee on Transportation held a public hearing Wednesday on a package of bills that would legalize e-scooters and clarify rules around certain electric bicycles. If the four bills pass and are signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city could establish a dockless e-scooter pilot program by this summer.
The hearing comes less than a week after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed allowing New York localities control over whether to allow e-bikes and scooters on their streets. The proposal, part of his annual budget plan, would impose new statewide regulations for riders, including the use of helmets and reflective gear. Still, advocates for transportation alternatives view the governor's move as a green light to the city bills.
"Our whole state is getting hip with the times and looking to legalize e-bikes," said council member Rafael Espinal, a sponsor of the bills, at Wednesday's hearing. Council member Fernando Cabrera said he hoped the legalization of e-scooters would reduce congestion, improve accessibility to transportation, and improve the environment.
Among other rules, the legislation would require the city Department of Transportation to create a one- to two-year pilot program with an electric dockless scooter company. E-scooters would need to be operated in a bike lane, and would be capped at 15 miles per hour.
Lobbying for a win
The e-scooter effort has a powerful tool in lobbying for the bills: Tusk Ventures, the firm that advised Uber on government affairs and helped it move into new cities. It has been working with policymakers, grassroots supporters, and community leaders in hopes of passing the bills as soon as possible. Bird, the Santa Monica, California-based e-scooter business that has amassed $415 million in venture capital funding, is one of Tusk's portfolio companies.
It's not difficult to imagine that if resistance were to develop in the council or the mayor's office, Tusk Ventures could replicate its Uber playbook on behalf of Bird. When, in 2015, de Blasio supported a proposal to cap growth of the number of Uber drivers at 1 percent a year, Tusk advised Uber to create a massive advertising campaign accusing the mayor of ignoring the transportation needs of communities of color outside of Manhattan. Tusk told me previously that the undertone was: "This is racist." Eventually, council members who had favored regulating Uber's growth relented--as did de Blasio.
While it's unclear whether the pilot program for scooters will pass, it's likely that Bird, Lime, and other companies with e-scooter dreams, such as Uber and Lyft, are already throwing their hats into the ring to run it. (Scoot CEO Justin Dawe told Inc. that his lightweight-transit company is not applying to the potential pilot, as it was just awarded permits for a kick-scooter pilot in San Francisco.)
Paul Steely White, Bird's director of safety policy, wrote in prepared testimony for the hearing: "We believe Bird provides an incredible opportunity for New Yorkers to cut down on commute times, make streets safer, and help improve the local environment and economy."
Dockless bike and e-scooter company Lime is already operating a bike pilot program in parts of the city, including Far Rockaway, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
"Lime's success in New York so far reflects our work around the world, guided by the principle that all communities deserve access to smart, affordable mobility," said Phil Jones, Lime's senior director for the East Coast. "It is time to deliver new, affordable, reliable transportation options to help millions of New Yorkers, and this legislation will deliver."
One of the primary arguments alternative transit advocates make is that failing to legalize electric-powered bicycles in New York City puts bicycle food-delivery workers at risk of having their vehicles confiscated, and being fined $500. The NYPD confiscated 1,215 e-bikes in 2018, according to the department, and issued more than 1,300 summonses related to e-bike-related violations. While the department had also issued more than 100 summonses to establishments, it had no available breakdown of how many of the summons went to delivery workers.
Do Lee of Biking Public Project, a nonprofit that advocates for underrepresented bicyclists around New York City, took issue with the police department's confiscation of electric bikes as unduly harsh on immigrant workers, who have been punished with steep fines for using the vehicles that enable them to do their jobs. It is "punitive on those who have the least power," Lee said.
At Wednesday's hearing, the safety of the e-scooters was a significant matter of discussion. When Council member Espinal said they were generally considered safe, many audible "No!"s were flung back at him from a full chamber.
According to NYC Department of Transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, there have already been three deaths due to e-scooters being struck by vehicles in New York City. Bird, the scooter company with a presence in more than 100 cities, is only a year and a half old--so there is not a great quantity of data to parse. One recent study, based on Portland, Oregon's five-month e-scooter trial period, identified 176 emergency-department visits related to scooters, and zero fatalities. More than 700,000 e-scooter trips were taken during that period, between July and November of last year.
Correction: An earlier version said that Trottenberg noted that two people had died on scooters. The DOT later issued a statement claiming that number is up to three.