Cars and Scooters and E-Bikes, Oh My! Who Owns the Future of NYC’s Micro-Transit?

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With the spectre of climate change looming and the reality of New York City gridlock all around, it seems like the choice to allow e-scooter companies like Lime and Bird into the five boroughs would be an easy sell. But in a divided city, where laborers and leisure bikers are treated as differently as night and day, the future of “micro-transit” is anything but certain.

The future is important here. Proponents of bringing in e-scooters and bikes argue that it would release NYC from its dependence on gas-reliant cars, drawing down pollution and emitting fewer greenhouse gases. And that’s necessary. But history matters here, too. Because before minimalist scooters and throttle-based e-bikes became the rage in hipster oases like San Francisco, they were the go-to transportation of choice for the New York’s delivery drivers. Long the province of immigrants, delivery jobs are one of the few reliable lines of work for low-income workers trying to survive in an ever-more-expensive city. But with the rise of online delivery titans like Seamless, drivers are pressured to get food delivered at an ever-faster pace. That’s why so many of them rely on throttle-based e-bikes to do their jobs. But even as the city has expanded e-bikes for organizations like CitiBike and Uber, they’ve waged a war on delivery workers, routinely giving out $500 tickets and confiscating bikes. This leaves the delivery drivers with no way to make a living, and a giant fine that most cannot pay.

And the punishment hasn’t declined as the city opens its doors to other electronic micro-transit companies—it’s escalated.

In 2017, police confiscated 1,007 e-bikes. In 2018, the number leapt to 1,215. And in 2018 alone, police issued 1,362 tickets for e-bike usage. In contrast, there have been zero seizures of any e-scooters.

This week, the city held hearings to debate the future of micro-transit in New York. There were varying opinions on the issue, touching on everything from safety to distribution. But in this tale of two bike worlds, it’s important to remember that the environment, economy, and transportations are not separate issues, and that the best of times for one group can be the worst of times for another. If the city is serious about creating a quality transit policy for the future, it needs to focus first on creating transit equality.

Ash Sanders