This past session, the New York state Legislature passed upwards of 900 pieces of legislation, and more than 300 of those bills are still waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s approval ahead of an end-of-year deadline to sign legislation into law. Cuomo’s inaction on one high-profile bill in particular has some of its supporters questioning the hold-up.
In June, the Legislature passed a bill legalizing electric bikes and electric scooters, as state law prohibits riding the devices, despite their steady proliferation in cities across the country and the world. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, passed by wide margins in both chambers and was a rare piece of legislation to unite business interests, alternative transportation activists and other progressives in support. Companies like Lime and Bird, which operate shared scooter and e-bike systems, have much to gain from the legalization of throttle e-bikes and scooters, especially in metropolitan areas like New York City. Human rights and transportation advocacy groups like Make the Road New York and Transportation Alternatives advocated for legalization because those who suffer from the current ban are often immigrant delivery cyclists saddled with stiff fines for riding e-bikes on the job.
Despite broad support, Cuomo has yet to sign the legislation, in part, some supporters say, because of remaining concerns about the safety and viability of the devices in New York. Though he included the legalization of e-bikes and scooters in his executive budget this year, the governor has previously spoken out about his concerns over this latest trend in mobility. “That’s a bill that’s going to need more review and discussion,” Cuomo said of the legislation in June. “I’ve heard a number of concerns from safety advocates who don’t believe you should allow scooters and e-bikes on sidewalks with pedestrians.” The legislation prohibits riding e-bikes or scooters on sidewalks unless local officials explicitly allow it, but lawmakers including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have raised concerns that riders may flout those rules. The Buffalo News also reported on Monday that Cuomo’s concerns still linger, and that he said recently that he’s not sure if he will sign the bill into law.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that the bills, as written, are responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose,” said Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall, of the more than 300 bills still awaiting the governor’s approval.
Some of this hesitation is not unexpected – especially as Cuomo was publicly voicing concerns months ago. Even though the legislation already passed both chambers, there is the possibility of changing parts of it with “chapter amendments,” something that the governor can ask for to make changes to the particulars of a bill that he otherwise supports and intends to sign. In this case, Cuomo and the bill’s sponsors would agree on changes and Cuomo would sign the bill with the understanding that the Legislature will pass the chapter amendments when they come back to Albany in January. The bill’s supporters expected Cuomo to submit some chapter amendments to the bill, and that kind of tinkering has yet to come. “For a good while, it was our understanding that the governor's office would have chapter amendments to propose and we haven't heard back about that,” Ramos told City & State, adding that two concerns she’d heard include speed limits and the fact that the bill doesn’t require the use of helmets while riding. “We are constantly in contact with (the governor’s) team to make sure that he understands the urgency around signing the bill, particularly in relation to immigrant delivery workers in New York City, who are routinely stopped for the use of this required work tool, because that's exactly what it is for them,” Ramos said.
One potential sticking point that may be stalling the signing of the bill is the possibility that federal law would preempt the state legislation. As it stands now, the state bill defines a “class three” e-bike as a throttle bike – meaning exclusively powered by an electric assist motor – that can go up to 25 miles per hour. However, the federal Consumer Product Safety Act defines this kind of vehicle as only going up to 20 miles per hour. It’s not clear, however, that this federal consumer law would preempt this potential state law.
Legalization efforts have become particularly heated because of New York Police Department enforcement of the ban on throttle e-bikes and scooters, and the way that it has affected delivery cyclists. The NYPD issued over 2,600 summonses for moving violations involving e-bikes between January and August of this year – a 67% increase from violations issued over the same period in 2018.
At the same time however, skeptics point to mounting safety concerns about the vehicles as they roll out in other cities across the country and the world. De Blasio has consistently cited safety concerns about the devices. But in response to statistics showing a high rate of injuries while riding e-scooters, for example, advocates of legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters cite the much higher number of traffic accidents caused by cars, and point to a need to prioritize cyclists and pedestrians in street infrastructure. The New York law also attempts to address some safety concerns by allowing local officials to make their own regulations for how and when e-bikes and e-scooters can be used. In New York City, shared e-scooter service will not be allowed under the bill.
While many advocates make the case for legalizing e-bikes in order to ease the plight of those delivery cyclists facing high fines issued by the NYPD, some have attempted to hasten its approval by the governor by pointing to other benefits they say the bill would have. In an op-ed published in Crain’s New York Business, a trio of supporters – Julie Samuels of the tech industry group Tech:NYC, Tom Wright of the Regional Plan Association and Julie Tighe of the New York League of Conservation Voters – urged Cuomo to sign the bill, citing the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting down on vehicle congestion, especially in New York City. “This bill is a great example of a piece of legislation that's supported by a broad-based coalition, that will take New York forward as we think about how we move people around all across the state, as we think about environmental concerns all across the state,” Samuels told City & State this week.
Others have raised the possibility that there simply hasn’t been anyone at the governor’s office to prioritize the legislation among the many other pending bills on Cuomo’s desk. While Ramos and Rozic said they’ve been in regular contact with Cuomo’s office on this issue, advocates say they haven’t been in touch. Marco Conner, the co-deputy director at Transportation Alternatives, said that a coalition of advocates hasn't connected with anyone in the governor’s office since at least June. “That silence has been troubling,” Conner said.
Even so, lobbyists working for e-bike and scooter companies are hitting the proverbial pedal on legalization efforts. The Buffalo News reported that those lobbyists are making last-ditch efforts to sway Cuomo on the issue, with companies including Bird and Lime spending $23,000 and $42,000, respectively, on lobbying in the months of September and October.
While Rozic said she’s hopeful that the governor will sign their bill by the end of the year, she’s pushing for it to get done sooner rather than later. “With every passing day that we don't approve legislation to legalize electric bikes and scooters, it is just another day that delivery workers can be out there getting ticketed and having their bikes impounded by the NYPD,” Rozic said.
And though Ramos, too, said she hopes the bill will be approved, she said she has concerns about its fate. “I'm concerned about every single possibility,” Ramos said. “There are working class families that are really depending on this bill becoming law. I haven't lost hope that the governor will understand that it's really dire, and that he’ll do the right thing.”
Even if Cuomo doesn’t approve the bill this year, Ramos said she would take up the issue again next session. “If the bill isn't signed, we'll be reintroducing the bill and going through all of the motions all over again,” she said, adding that the legislation was a bipartisan effort and that the bill passed by veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, meaning that a veto could conceivably be overridden. “I'm confident that we will be able to put it on the governor's desk for a signature until he gets it done.”