Determining bike class can be a guessing game |

Determining bike class can be a guessing game |

Revving their way down roads and past cars trying to turn, e-bikes and mopeds, for better or worse, have taken over the streets of Queens, and the city at large.

But which ones are legal and which are not? The answers are not always crystal clear.

“It’s very difficult to distinguish at sight between the different classes,” Deputy Inspector Joseph Cappelmann, commander of the 112th Precinct, said. “You’d have to, basically, inspect the bike. You’d have to stop them and inspect it to see what type of class it is.”

Some years ago, Cappelmann said, enforcement of the rules around e-mobility devices was strict. Back then, his officers would issue a city Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings summons to users and seize the vehicle. As the bikes became more prevalent for use in the food delivery industry, officers were instructed to issue an OATH summons to the restaurant employing an e-bike user and no longer had to seize the vehicle.

Then, the pandemic hit. Food delivery, to borrow one of the era’s cliches, became essential. Indoor dining was shut down.

Naturally, a device cheaper and more nimble than a car, while also offering the comfort of as little human interaction as possible, boomed in popularity. Delivery workers could more easily get where they needed to go. Commuters didn’t have to worry about ingesting germs.

City Hall, according to Cappelmann, told police to relax enforcement of rules surrounding e-mobility devices. He says enforcement has since increased as the city climbs out of the pandemic. At the same time, use of many formerly illegal devices is now legal.

In April 2020, the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget was approved, containing a measure legalizing the use of e-bikes and certain scooters statewide. The City Council voted to lift restrictions on the devices in June 2020. The new rules went into effect in November of the same year.

Since their legalization, enforcement efforts on the part of the Police Department have changed, in part because the scope of the devices have changed. According to Cappelmann, after the passage of legislation reworking the restrictions, a phenomenon rapidly multiplied on the streets he and his officers patrol: the electric moped.

Called “limited-use motorcycles,” the vehicles do not have pedals. They can travel faster than an e-bike or stand-up e-scooter, assuming no modifications (“Now we’re seeing some [e-scooters] going 40 to 50 mph. Those are not legal,” Cappelmann said).

In short, the devices are totally different. The city Department of Transportation published a chart examining those differences, and the disparities between e-bikes and mopeds, even for a lay person (that’s to say, nonlaw enforcement officer), are fairly simple: E-bikes look like bikes with motors. Mopeds don’t have pedals. E-scooters allow the user to stand up while riding.

Where confusion may come in, for e-mobility users and those with whom they share the road, is the differences between the classifications within each type of vehicle.

E-scooters are easy: They are legal up to 15 mph (Cappelmann says the standard speed for a commuter device is 7 to 8 mph, though some can go far faster), can travel in bike lanes and on roads with speed limits below 30 mph, and don’t require a driver’s license, a registration or a helmet (for users above the ages of 16 and 17; head protection is recommended, however, for all users).

Other devices aren’t allowed on city streets at all. Segways, electronic skateboards, hoverboards and electric unicycles, devices of the kind Cappelmann says he does see riding illegally in bike lanes, are barred from roadways.

The differences in e-bikes are subtle. They are broken down into Classes 1, 2 and 3, going from slowest to fastest, with no driver’s license or registration required for use of any class, all classes restricted to use in bike lanes or on roads with a posted speed limit less than 30 mph, and a helmet required only for use of Class 3. Class 1 devices utilize a pedal assist, which only activates when the user is pedaling, and can travel at a max speed of 20 mph; Class 2 bikes utilize a throttle, requiring no pedaling (except when going up steep slopes), and can travel the same maximum of 20 mph; Class 3 cycles also utilize a throttle and can travel a maximum of 25 mph.

“All three of those classes are basically treated like bicycles,” Cappelmann said. “They’re able to ride in the bike lane, you don’t need a license, you don’t need to register it.”

A bit more murkiness prevails, however, as it relates to the electric mopeds. They too are broken down into three classes: Class C traveling up to 20 mph, Class B up to 30 mph and Class A up to 40 mph. Class A use requires a driver’s license motorcycle endorsement, while Classes B and C require regular licenses, and a helmet is required for Classes A and B but not C. But there are two major differences between the regulation of e-bikes and their faster counterparts: All mopeds must be registered, requiring their having a vehicle identification number, and Classes C and B are only permitted to ride in the right lane and on the shoulder of the road, while Class A devices are permitted in any vehicular lane.

Actually enforcing those lane permissibility regulations, though, can be difficult. The silhouettes of the different mopeds are the same on the DOT chart. According to Cappelmann, there’s very little one can do in determining moped class without an up-close look.

“I could take every cop in my precinct and just do this enforcement and nothing else, and the next day you’d see just as many out there,” he added.

That logistical issue makes it such that Cappelmann’s officers focus more on citing reckless drivers than enforcing which vehicles are allowed to go where. Pedestrian safety and protection from users speeding down sidewalks and going the wrong way on one-way streets are paramount, and Cappelmann says his enforcement reflects that.

Also at the top of his list of priorities is registration education. He says that while most people know any gasoline-powered vehicle has to be registered with the state DMV, some confusion remains on electric rides.

“People aren’t registering them with the State of New York,” Cappelmann said. “They either don’t know or they don’t have the license, or for whatever other reason.”

Cappelmann says his officers have done outreach efforts to that end on corners where delivery workers are known to gather, handing out fliers like the DOT chart to workers waiting for their next job. He also says the department has conducted initiatives targeted at removing unregistered devices from the streets.

“If they have a VIN number, they’re supposed to be registered with New York State,” he added. “If they don’t have a VIN number, they’re not able to be registered with New York State and they’re not able to be driven legally on New York City streets.”

At the Fly Wing E-bike shop in Elmhurst, manager Salvador Lopez says all of the mopeds sold in the store have to be registered. He also said some have the capability of traveling up to 60 mph.

New York State defines a Class A moped as one with a max performance speed of greater than 30 mph but, importantly, no more than 40 mph. When asked if he thought the devices being sold at Fly Wing were illegal, Cappelmann was blunt.

“Probably,” he said. “I know that the chief of transportation will often do an outreach. They’ll do an outreach, then they’ll do an inspection. They’ll go there and they’ll say, ‘Listen. These bikes, you can’t sell and you shouldn’t have them on your floor. We’re going to come in two weeks to check and make sure you don’t have these.’ Then they come and do the inspection.”

Fly Wing did not return requests for comment on the speed of the mopeds they sell in their stores. The DMV did not provide any clarity on whether or not a moped with the capability of traveling faster than 40 mph could be registered in New York.

One former Queens NYPD officer with knowledge of enforcement pertaining to e-mobility thinks the current state of recklessness surrounding use of the devices is a disaster waiting to happen.

“They’re coming southbound on northbound Woodhaven Boulevard, and, oh, ‘I’m going to take the sidewalk,’” he said. “Are you kidding me?

“It’s a matter of time before someone gets either seriously injured or killed,” he added.

When he was on the force, he says, a solution to stopping the vehicles was found in checkpoints. The unnamed officer would radio up to a colleague when he spotted an illegal device, and the colleague farther up the road would stand in the street to stop and properly cite the violator.

“If the guy took off on you, guess what, not a problem,” he said. “You’re not going to go far because right down the block, there’s the back end of the checkpoint.”

“You got to go through that, and if you double back and come to me, now you got a problem,” he added.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) says his top concern when co-sponsoring a bill in 2019 aimed at legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters was keeping the roads safe.

“For me, in supporting the bill up in Albany, it was about pedestrian safety,” he said.

A time may come, according to Addabbo, when lawmakers and police precincts have to coordinate enforcement improvements.

“It’s not enough for us to [draft a piece of legislation], and be thankful that the governor signs it, and you put out a press release and you’re all happy,” he said. “It’s about monitoring it to see if the intended purpose is obtained, and if not, what needs to be done.”

“Legislation is only as good as it’s able to be enforced,” he added.

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