Advocate On The Hudson

A Glimmer of Hope for E-Bikes in the Empire State

Jun 02, 2014

What a difference a year and a new city administration can make. There is no opposition now as, in the waning weeks of the current session of New York State's legislature, there's a chance that bills legalizing electric-assist bicycles may come to a vote... 13 years after the idea was first proposed.

It now appears that the New York State Senate will move the bill legalizing electric bikes forward. This welcome move comes at the very end of the session and leaves just enough time to pass it and reconcile it with another bill that is ready to pass the Assembly. That bill contains two restrictions which will put painful limitations on use: persons under 16 may not ride as passengers and helmets are required for adults. Since you can ride a kid on a Harley-Davidson or a Schwinn, why are e-bikes singled out as especially hazardous? I'm not sure that this restriction exists anywhere else in the country or even the world. I think it may be motivated by a sincere desire to protect the vulnerable from harm, but by doing it this way, it prevents electric-assist transportation from evolving into its fullest expression, as family-friendly vehicles, at least in this state. It is hard to blame someone for not seeing that minimal vehicles can provide for weather protection and passenger capacity, if you have never seen one, or even a picture of one. It is not in your experience and it is not in your imagination, so it doesn't exist.

Bike groups, from the NY State Bicycle Coalition to the city's Transportation Alternatives, including all of the major National organizations, are consistent in their recommendations that individuals use bike helmets. They are also all, however, strongly against making this a requirement under the law. The fact is that the number of riders is reduced tremendously by this requirement, and research shows that this makes it much more dangerous for the resulting riders. There is safety in numbers after all. Also, importantly, car drivers get closer to helmeted bikers and cyclists tend to be more adventurous and less risk-adverse since they feel protected by their headgear. Adults can decide if they want a plastic bowl on their head, or even a full-tilt jet fighter pilot helmet, with an outside air supply, but almost everybody agrees, let it be a personal decision, not the law. It is perfectly understandable that a public official would be inclined to want to protect his constituents from harm when possible and helmets are a bit of safety gear. This is a counter-intuitive situation however, and requires study and independent thought. Regular bikes go 30 MPH and faster and these electric-assist models go only 20 MPH max. They should be considered more dangerous? It doesn't make a lot of sense.

The two legislatures will need to work out these questions over the next couple of weeks, in a conference committee context. They may well do this now, 13 years after it was first introduced in the Assembly, especially since the NYC legislature is ready to pass a resolution urging them to do this. Last year, this was not the case. Even though these same bills passed the transportation committees in both houses, unanimously, a call from the Mayor was enough to kill them. He didn't want it to look like he favored the riding habits of restaurant deliverers. This year, there's a new Mayor and City Council, and Rafael Espinal and Ydanis Rodriguez, chairs of their committees in the NYC Council, are working to help provide us with access to this important new form of healthy, high-tech transportation. What a difference a year can make. It is still not decided but there is a good chance that this can actually happen.

When I tried to describe the current situation to somebody this week they were incredulous. How could electric bikes be illegal and stretch Hummers fine and dandy? Is this legal jumble the primary reason that millions of these handy devices are sold in Europe every year and mere tens of thousands here? The Federal law from 2002 says clearly that their law supersedes State laws that are more restrictive, but over 30 States regulate these machines the way that they feel like it anyway, with some defining them as mopeds and others as motorized vehicles. The companies who are selling these products are not of the magnitude needed to engineer a massive public relations and public information campaign to put their products on the map. Laws that restrict the use of your legal product can be challenged but it is a costly campaign. The issue has not been pushed yet by the environmental movement or health groups, except in all of their ads, which feel almost naked without a bike in the picture.

Imagine a world in which the telephone land-line companies had been able to stop the spread of cellphones, what we now like to call smart phones. We would have been left in a world of only dumb phones, with no other features besides fixed-location voice communication, and we'd still be spending $2 a minute for long distance, plenty more if an operator is involved. Now it is a penny and the operator is a robot who always sounds like it is happy to hear your voice. We are in that place now when it comes to transportation technology. If you thought AT and T was hard to budge, just think how difficult it has been to do anything about industrial scale transportation and its well-heeled and well-mobilized adherents. The resistance to change is a natural phenomenon Those who are in control are willing to use any means, natural or unnatural, to maintain their hold on the situation. Making roads too dangerous for pedestrians, and small vehicles, has been a major weapon used against human-scale travel for a century. Lax enforcement of traffic offenses, the forgiveness offered to drivers who end up being an instrument of death, are others. A recent news story featured a dapper fellow with a Ferrari, who had just gotten his 15th DUI, and was ready to get back on the road.

The spectacle of the privileged pumping poison gas into their vicinity, while they semi-recline in air-conditioned splendor within their cocoons, also serves to discourage the unadorned and unprotected, from disturbing the status quo. The chemical stew in which we are being marinated, in our close urban quarters, on a nice hot day with no wind, is being concocted out of an unknown combination of substances, with letters and numbers for names. It is not dope in the sense that we would begin to shudder and shake if we left the city for the piney woods and found ourselves outside of its fumes for a period of time, but we really don't know how it operates and what it is doing to us. It is not a matter for conspiracy theories, it is a subject for serious scientific research, much of which is neglected because its conclusions could require changes that those in power do not want to have to deal with if they don't have to. What happens to populations that are surrounded by different mixtures of these chemicals over time? Do they become more passive and accepting of these substances? Is this the physical manifestation of what we call a self-fulfilling prophesy?

The problem with epidemiological studies is their cost, the time they take and the need to establish control groups, in order to isolate causative factors and relevant comparisons between different populations. They are the most reliable evidence of a phenomenon, the kind that can not be ignored. In contrast, anecdotal information, which merely relates the experiences of a particular group and issue being studied, can be fragmentary and therefore not entirely convincing. Does this mean that we should ignore what is before our eyes? Do we need to study whether oil trains can be derailed, if there are reports of it every week? We know that living in the vicinity of a big highway, especially one that suffers from congestion, is going to send your asthma rates through the roof. Your kids are going to have trouble concentrating in school and local streets are a powerful magnet for those avoiding the traffic on the big road, so playing on the street becomes a version of Russian Roulette.

Sure, it used to be worse when all those dirty factories were working away, and no environmental laws even existed or were enforced in any serious way. We have much to be thankful for and not everything is just going downhill. We can't use that progress as an excuse to not look hard at what is in front of us though. We have no larger responsibility then to be the protectors and preservers of what deserves to be there. We don't yet have the most effective means to collect our influences and focus them, and we are deeply distrustful of all movements and organizations and rightly so. Some wish that an alien would alight, give us a reason to recalibrate and recalculate. That is just waiting for the messiah in a secular guise. We don't need a planetary awakening to know that there is work to do here.

Politics is always a contest, who is right, who is wrong. When we are all wrong, or all right, that should be enough. If we did nothing but exhaust those issues about which we, practically all agree, we could get them out of the way and move on the more fractous and difficult ones. Ralph Nader, our National Conscience, has begun to search out areas of agreement among those of ostensibly different, even contrary, views, and use those overlaps to help advance worthwhile causes. That sounds about right. We are never going to agree about everything and trying, causes a lot of conflict. If we can not agree to agree on those matters that we do agree on we are, clinically speaking, nuts.

This does not mean that those who continue to dissent should be treated like yesterday's french fries. It is just that we need to prioritize. If we can't even get down the list, past the things that nobody in their right mind would disagree about, the need to make sure that everybody has access to drinkable water for instance, where can we go, what hope is there left? We are doomed if we allow ourselves the indulgence of endless conflict, when the urgent business at hand goes neglected. It is easy for the emotional element of this to overcome the reasonable and lead us into an invisible cul de sac. We throw all of our energy into our own dilemmas so there is nothing left over for anybody else. We have been offered one last chance to prove, for all time, that we are not simply addicted to the chase and therefore fatally bored with the prize. This may or not be true but, in the final analysis, it doesn't matter. The problem is that nobody likes a sore winner.

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