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Coalition pushing for e-bikes in Albany

Coalition pushing for e-bikes in Albany

'The law is a problem in this area, and the bills are a way to bring New York into the 21st century'

A coalition supporting the expansion of electric bicycle use in New York held a product demonstration Wednesday at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, right outside the legislative offices of state lawmakers whose support they’re seeking to secure.

The coalition is spearheaded by the New York Bicycling Coalition and their their allies in the national lobbying groups PeopleForBikes and the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. The group believes the way to expand e-bike use in the state is to demystify what the law says about them.

“The law is a problem in this area, and the bills are a way to bring New York into the 21st century when it comes to the modern bicycle,” said former Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Joe Martens, who has signed on to the effort.

E-bikes are very common in Europe. Statistics provided by the coalition claim that 1 in 5 bikes sold in Germany are e-bikes, while e-bikes account for 1 in 3 bikes sold in the Netherlands. In the U.S., that number stands at 1 in 100, according to the group.

Most models of e-bikes will run $2,500 to $5,000, but those who want bikes with more features or durability should expect to spend in the $10,000 range. 

New bills seek to clarify e-bike rules

The bills Martens was referring to are two pieces of proposed legislation that the coalition is championing for passage.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Nick Perry’s bill, which has an identical counterpart in the state Senate sponsored by western New York Sen. Thomas O’Mara, would clarify the legal status of low-speed electric bicycles. The law would define such machines as bicycles with batteries that are 750 watts or less, and are operated via pedal assist (meaning the electric battery will only engage if the bike is being manually pedaled).

The bill also would require that such bikes can only reach a top speed of 20 MPH before the battery shuts off, and any additional speed would need to be obtained through human power or gravity (such as down a hill). Most importantly, the bill would allow for e-bikes defined that way to be operated on public streets and roads, which is prohibited under current rules.

As it stands, e-bikes occupy a murky legal space in the state. In New York City, for instance, “throttle e-bikes” that can accelerate and maintain speed based solely on an electric battery with no human pedal input, have been outlawed. They are, however, legal in the rest of the state provided they’re not operated on public roads. The confusion lies in where these e-bikes can be legally operated, and the coalition is focused on expanding those operating restrictions.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles allows for mopeds (which sometimes have pedals) to be registered and operated on public highways, roads and streets -- or anywhere a standard vehicle is allowed to operate, such as in a parking lot. Pedal-assist or throttle e-bikes are currently unable to be registered and operated in such spaces, and riders that do so are subject to arrest, according to DMV rules.

And yet, dozens of individuals -- including lawmakers -- took pedal-assist e-bikes out for a spin at the State Capitol and on surrounding streets on Wednesday. All of this confusion is what the coalition is seeking to clear up.

A coalition-supported bill introduced by state Senator Rich Funke out of Rochester would legalize on public roads all three classes of e-bikes: pedal assist, throttle and speed pedelec. This last class refers to pedal assist e-bikes that can generally reach higher top speeds than standard pedal-assist models.

The Assembly bill clarifying the definition of e-bikes does not yet have any co-sponsors, while its state Senate counterpart has an ally in Sen. Martin Dilan of Brooklyn (in addition to its primary sponsor, O’Mara).

The state Senate bill seeking to legalize all three classes of e-bikes does not currently have any co-sponsors. Both bills were referred this month to the Assembly’s and Senate’s respective transportation committees. The coalition is seeking to get both laws passed next legislative session.

To that end, coalition members said at least a dozen lawmakers took a spin on an e-bike at the plaza Wednesday.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who represents Montgomery County and parts of Schenectady and Albany counties, said e-bikes could augment recent development that’s occurred along Schenectady’s riverfront quarters.

“With the casino here, we’re trying to connect the waterfront with the rest of downtown,” said Santabarbara, who took a spin on an e-bike after signing a waiver and donning a helmet. “This is a great way to do it.”

Santabarbara said he’s supportive of the bill and has co-sponsored similar pieces of legislation in the past, but has yet to sign on to the Assembly e-bike bill.

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, who represents a large portion of Albany County, said she believes the rise of e-bikes can benefit the state in many ways.

“I think it will fuel eco-tourism upstate and I think it gives baby boomers who are aging another exercise option,” said Fahy. “And the more we get people outdoors, the better they will take care of the environment.”

Supporters have long touted e-bikes as an alternative exercise option to those who would normally be unable to handle the strains of riding a traditional bicycle. It also equalizes riders of different skills and speeds, and opens bicycling up to the elderly, they say.

Electric bikes gaining in popularity

Regardless of what the law currently says or will say in the future, there’s no denying that sales of e-bikes have increased in the region.

Freeman’s Bridge Sports owner Richard Himmelwright previously told the newspaper that his store sold four e-bikes in all of 2016. By late-April of this year he had already sold 12, and was in the process of ordering more to meet anticipated demand.

On Wednesday, Steiner’s Sports owner Dave Endy, whose store supplied the demo e-bikes, said the strongest sign that the market is expanding is the amount of manufacturers that have gotten involved.

“It’s a sure indicator of how things have grown with how many models are out now,” said Endy. “I’ve definitely seen an increase in sales.”

Endy said three or four years ago there were maybe a half-dozen e-bike models, mainly manufactured by smaller bike companies. Today there are over 20 models made by major players including manufacturers like Trek, Bosch and Specialized.

“We’ve sold as many this spring as we did in the whole of last year, maybe more,” said Endy, estimating his company has sold around a dozen e-bikes this year.

Former DEC commissioner Joe Martens said e-bikes have the possibility to leverage the area’s expanding selection of bike trails.

“The opportunities in New York are huge,” said Martens, mentioning specifically the Erie Canalway Trail, which connects Albany and Buffalo, and the proposed Empire Trail, which if completed will run from New York City to a border crossing south of Montreal. “E-bikes will bring that many more people to utilize these assets in our area.”

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