Advocate On The Hudson

New York's De Facto Ban and Real Ones

Mar 16, 2014

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal introduces resolution supporting a State bill legalizing the use of electric-assist bicycles, but will it go anywhere?

NYC Council Espinal

There is no better way to counteract global warming, change bad societal habits, and to respond to the negative effects of oversized, petroleum-fueled transportation modes and their threat to our economic and atmospheric survival, than to rapidly expand the use of every kind of bike and trike, especially electric-assisted ones and including pedicabs and cargo bikes. Current Federal Environmental laws, the Clean Air Act etc., require that we encourage cycling in every possible way already. Because many traffic laws, involving potentially dangerous behavior by cars and trucks, like sudden turns and excessive speed, are virtually never enforced though, these streets resemble stop and go highways, not pathways. This hazardous environment keeps most people from even considering cycles as a means of transportation, providing an ongoing, illegal, de facto ban on this activity, for them and their families.

Since our city streets have been largely turned into highways, are laws and regulations to limit cycling here calculated to reinforce that identity? It is not just a problem within urban spaces, it also effects the routes into cities, including the bridges and tunnels, many of which prohibit non-motorized vehicles. Marked highways and many other high-speed roads also do not permit any kind of bicycles to be on them, (not that it would be much fun with big trucks running 85 mph), and even “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles” are severely restricted. Is this legal? Couldn’t we use emergency lanes for slow-speed travel? Is it time to overturn the historically lower-class status of the smaller and slower? Is this an undeclared class war, where one side gets the ammunition and the other side gets 20% off discount coupons? Where is the Geneva Convention when we need it?

Fortunately, a Resolution was introduced this week in the NY City Council by Council Member Rafael Espinal [pictured above], which asks the Council to urge the State Legislature to pass their bills, legalizing electric bikes, throughout the State. This will amend the State Vehicle and Traffic laws, to allow electric-assist vehicles to be used. It is clear that, for the sake of our future and because we have a moral duty to not do injury to our fellow human beings, we must hurry to expand the role of quiet, non-polluting, least expensive transportation, as the preferred means to provide for our basic human needs. Yet, those who benefit from the poisonous, bloated, unsustainable status quo will not permit this needed change to take place, if they can corrupt the political process enough to prevent it. Here is the press release:

“MARCH 11, 2014 (Brooklyn, NY)- Council Member Rafael L. Espinal, Jr., of Brooklyn today introduced a resolution in support of State legislation that would legalize the use of electric assisted bicycles in New York. The State bill, introduced by Senator Martin Malavé Dilan and Assembly Member David F. Gantt, would amend the State Vehicle and Traffic law to include electric assisted bicycles in the definition of bicycles and thus permit their use. “Many people would benefit from the State legalizing the use of electric assisted bicycles. From people who make food deliveries for a living, to commercial cyclists, to people who have health problems, all will benefit from e-bikes,” stated Council Member Espinal.  

Council Member Espinal doesn’t understand why New York State has lagged behind and not implemented the Federal standards established in 2002 that set the parameters for electric assisted bicycles. “It just doesn’t make sense for the State to maintain the status quo. The use of electric assisted bicycles can have positive effects on New York’s economy and environment. It is a mode of clean transportation.” Others echoed the same sentiment. State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan indicated that it is the right time to move this legislation. “More and more New Yorkers are turning to electric-assisted bicycles as a cost-effective and environmentally responsible alternative mode of transportation. Uses for e-bikes range from the daily commute to local delivery route, but their practicality could also benefit the elderly and disabled. I can’t think of a State and City more suited for the electric bike than New York. The time has come to embrace them,” said Senator Dilan.

The Coalition Urging Responsible Biking, also known as CURB, applauded the introduction of the Council resolution and believes that it is a vital step towards getting the State bill passed. “Electric-assist bicycles are an important new, slow, safe, healthful and economical mode of transportation. We applaud Council Member Espinal's efforts to make certain that they are available to our citizens, especially the older population, those for whom riding ordinary bicycles is a challenge, and those with long commutes and long work days,” stated Steve Stollman, a spokesperson for CURB.

No date has been set yet for a hearing on the Council resolution but Council Member Espinal hopes that a vote can take place before Albany ends this year’s legislative session in June.”

The Yellow Taxi industry lobby is one of the most active and well-funded elements of the local Autopoly, which is composed of a variety of large interests. Their influence is legendary. This has never been a fair fight. The history of the current system begins in the 1930’s when GM and Standard Oil used over 400 secret holding companies to destroy this country’s rail infrastructure, from trolleys to interurban rail to rail freight. The way to demolish cycling as a potential rival as urban transport was easy: just design roadways to serve cars and make sure they are as fast moving, un-policed and potentially dangerous, as they are.

Events over the last few years have given cycling a much higher profile though, and it is already a staple of TV commercials, for cars especially, as symbols of health, self-sufficiency and balance. Meanwhile, the lingering effects of a transit strike some time ago and the arrival of $4 a gallon gas, have had their impacts, along with rapidly escalating awareness of health issues and both personal and societal costs. So. in spite of the most oppressive conditions imaginable, hundreds of thousands have gotten on their bikes in this city in recent years. Bike-share has been a huge help of course, and sidewise, even given a boost to vehicle and ride-share for cars and other similar phenomena. Given proper encouragement, the number of various kinds of cycles, personal, passenger, freight, on the roads in these five boroughs could easily multiply every year, indefinitely, until human-scale transportation became the dominant mode of travel. Shouldn’t that be our goal?

Groningen, a modern industrial city in the Netherlands, has created a system where 50% of all movement is done with bikes. In China, for decades, up to 90% of the transportation in many major cities was through human-powered vehicles of all kinds. India and China are now both following our lead in wastefulness and their recent embrace of cars and motor scooters are adding incredible amounts to the total of pollutants being generated. We must remove the onus from those willing to consume only their rightful portion of space and other resources, and who are now demanding proper protection, from those determined to use many times their share of everything, often recklessly and invariably with an undeserved sense of entitlement.

Multiple-person propulsion is a beneficial evolution that can be encouraged and improved by augmenting it with lightweight electric systems. While tandems are in some use, they are pretty rare, and virtually nothing exists that permits a number of people to ride the same machine at the same time. In the 19th Century, “Sociables”, trikes for a gentleman to give his lady a pleasant excursion, while demonstrating his manly strength and care, were very popular. Potential heavy use of newer designs, useful for everyone but especially by the disabled community, as well as those who are simply having a harder time than previously getting around, justifies a heavy investment in these possibilities. There are already a few examples of machines that accommodate a person in a wheelchair and a second person using a conventional bike as well. This is just one configuration. We could be on the verge of a number of advances in the design of mass transit/multiple user vehicles and even in our definitions of these devices. Especially important are machines that are as useful, to the “Temporarily Able-bodied”, as they are to those with moderate to severe difficulties.

There can be a whole new class of vehicles, which enable us to remain vertical even though the strength of our limbs has begun to fade, but has not disappeared. We can foment conveyances that allow us to continue to travel, in a similar manner to the one we always have, perched on ledges, straight up, instead of crunched down into a wheelchair. We can design systems that will allow us to continue to use our own arms and legs to propel us while we are provided with some electric-assistance as well. These slow-moving vehicles can permit us to get the exercise that we need, in amounts that we determine for ourselves, and remain able to carry on with our lives without being put into the category of “disabled”.

Instead, there is an army of people who seldom wander into the outer world, who are virtually trapped within their living spaces, because there is no way yet for them to simply move about the way they once did, nearly as easily as then. In practice, most of the time, given the proper device, on our largely level land, a user would be relying principally on their own power, thereby gaining some strength and improving overall vitality. At other times, when a little boost is needed, it is provided. Arms and legs being used remain usable. The opposite, sadly, is also true.

In the late 19th century, when bikes were the biggest craze in the country, innumerable devices were built and in use which helped to expand the reach of the field. The use of heavy materials like iron and the lack of modern improvements like aluminum tubing, hi-tech lubricants and gearing, skinny pneumatic tires and hydraulic brakes, limited the effectiveness of many of these machines. In many cases, the principles on which they were based were sound though. Multi-person and multi-modal systems are optimal for the sake of our health and our wealth. It is time to re-build the transportation system and replace it with one that works. Pedicabs are one of the first paving stones on the path to sanity on our streets, and we need to look to the future while we also go back to Square One, to find more answers. Porter's “Wheels and Wheeling” was a complete survey of the many forms of human-powered vehicles of the time, and contain innumerable very interesting ideas, that can now be re-examined for their relevance to this time, 125 years later.

Battery research is finally taking off. Nickel Metal-Hydride and Lithium Ion are already here and capacitors and fast-charge options are coming on board. The potential of sugar batteries and other exotic ideas to break through and create new industries and possibilities is undeniable and Germany, Japan and other countries, including this one, are encouraging these developments with funding and other incentives. When we are able to apply these improvements to ultra-light, human-scale vehicles, their utility is expanded maximally, because the weight of batteries ceases to be a serious drag on the potential of the vehicle to meet all of our needs. The weight problem unfortunately held back small, electric motor-assisted devices from progressing for many decades, because the law of diminishing returns clocked in early, and the weight of the batteries themselves became an unsustainable burden. Not any more.

Attempts to limit the spread of human-scale and self-propelled transportation, by auto-ad addicted tabloids, TV stations and others, is going to fail. This is in spite of the formidable combined power of parking lots, car companies, the oil industry, insurance interests etc. etc. because the ice shelf is breaking off in huge chunks and even though this is the coldest winter in memory, it was only a year ago, when it was 72 degrees in January, and nobody was buying parkas. People are finally getting really scared. It has taken a huge accumulation of this undeniable, visible evidence, to crack the solid wall of reassuring propaganda put out by the guilty industries. After decades of soothing lies, the fuzzy term “Global Warming” has been replaced by the much less comforting “Extreme Weather” and the deniers and doubters are scurrying for cover.

We have to figure out who are friends are and are not, especially among the public officials who are guiding this process. Some politicians are willing to assassinate the future of cycling here and the radical upgrades to our archaic, and urban-unfriendly transportation system, that they provide. They need to be called out on this, educated, and compelled to explain and change their actions. There are few remedies for what ails us, that are capable of delivering the pleasures that easy-cycling provides. Correcting the problems in our agricultural and medical systems, for instance, is going to involve a lot of pain and radical readjustments. Removing the distortions that have plagued our transportation options over the past century is, by comparison, a walk in the park, or maybe a nice slow ride through one.

The good news is that if we are successful, in our attempts to radically reform our mobility systems, we will have learned enough to consider taking on the even-tougher issues. And we will have a much better chance of dealing with them successfully, once we have developed the networks capable of resolving our transportation conundrum. Dislodging archaic, deeply-dug-in elements of our existing systems, that benefit practically nobody, but have seemingly always been there, is going to generate lots of opposition. Inertia is a powerful force.

Also, we have become so accustomed to taking the path of least resistance, that is, doing nothing, that any approach which fully engages the life-force, will perforce, involve some difficult re-programming. Regardless, we need to re-learn how gratifying it is to overcome, to struggle and to persevere. Just think about how much more satisfying it is to earn something, rather than just being given it. Maybe, in some ways, we should pity the rich. They already have everything, so there are some great pleasures here, that they are unlikely to ever be able to experience, except vicariously. What a pity.

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