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The Murky Legality of E-Bikes

You’ve probably spotted delivery guys zipping around on e-bikes. Are they skidding afoul of the law? That’s tough to say.
A bicycle fitted with a prototype of the Copenhagen Wheel, the red disk, human/electric hybrid bicycle engine, hangs on a wall at the Superpedestrian manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A bicycle fitted with a prototype of the Copenhagen Wheel, the red disk, human/electric hybrid bicycle engine, hangs on a wall at the Superpedestrian manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

You’d be forgiven for thinking that electric bicycles are illegal in New York City. The local press routinely reports on NYPD “crackdowns” on e-bikes, quoting residents complaining of reckless riders clipping them on streets and sidewalks. Invariably, the culprits are shown to be people of color—often delivery workers for Chinese restaurants. But these news reports obscure a legal framework far more complex and far less consistent than meets the eye.

Under federal law, an electric bike with a maximum assisted speed under 20 miles per hour can be sold as a bicycle, not a motor vehicle. Under New York state law, riders would need to register these as they would a motorcycle, moped, or car. But there’s no clear way to register them. Because of this regulatory patchwork, e-bikes are legal to sell as bikes anywhere in the U.S. but effectively illegal to ride in New York, since they can’t be registered as motor vehicles.