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Bill de Blasio, Populist, Unleashes Police Power on Take-Out Delivery Guys

Deliveryman on two wheels, New York.
What’s the problem here, exactly? Tassilo von Parseval, via Flickr.

Imagine a citywide policy that could reduce the incomes of the poor, worsen traffic congestion, make living in a city more expensive and less convenient, and fine small businesses. It would be a remarkable achievement, putting the limited power of urban governance to maximum bad effect.

Well, congratulations to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on hitting the stupid-policy quadfecta with his announcement on Thursday of a crackdown on electronic bicycles, or e-bikes.

Though technically illegal to use in New York state, the battery-powered bicycles have helped the city’s more than 50,000 bicycle deliverymen keep pace with perennial demand for take-out food and surging requests for deliveries of groceries and consumer products. The bikes are perfectly suited for the demands of the job: They facilitate affordable, rapid transportation of lightweight goods through a metropolis with virtually no remaining streetspace, without generating exhaust or noise.

On Thursday, de Blasio announced the nation’s largest city would start fining restaurants in addition to operators, expanding and formalizing a style of broken-windows policing favored by the NYPD, which has confiscated 900 e-bikes this year. His justification? E-bikes are “just too dangerous,” the mayor said at a press conference.

How dangerous are they? Nearly 70 pedestrians (and 13 cyclists) have been killed by cars, trucks, and buses in New York City this year. No one has been killed by a bicycle. As for e-bikes in particular? The NYPD has no data on e-bike accidents or complaints. Nor does the city have any information about how the crackdown affects restaurants or riders. De Blasio was acting on instinct: The crackdown began when a local cyclist, Matthew Shefler, called into his radio show to complain.

It’s not an uncommon grudge for old-school cyclists, who often seem to resent the e-bikes more for the minimal effort of their riders than for their high speeds. Pedal-assist bikes, which provide extra support as you pedal, make cycling a lot easier—especially over long distances and on inclines. They can expand the range of a comfortable bicycle commute by two or three times, and consumers are noticing. In the Netherlands, for example, e-bike sales for the first time surpassed traditional bicycles in 2015. It’s not hard to see why: A trial conducted by Portland State University researchers gave e-bikes to Kaiser Permanente employees, and found that after 10 weeks, the percent of participants who called themselves “strong and fearless” or “enthused and confident” bikers had risen from 38 to 52 percent. The number of people commuting once a week by bicycle more than doubled.

Still, the greatest potential gain for e-bikes could be in the logistics business. Deliveroo, the Seamless of Europe, has been making e-bike deliveries for years. Delivery app DoorDash has given couriers e-bikes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C. UPS announced a trial in Portland in December. In addition to being much cheaper than cars, the bikes are easy to maneuver and park in crowded urban environments.

All this falls by the wayside if the city follows through on de Blasio’s announcement. And if the city fines restaurants, New Yorkers should be prepared for their deliveries to get slower, less dependable, and more expensive. But the real burden falls on the workforce. In the Village Voice, Stephen Miller has a great rundown on the perils of the profession, whose workers are caught between dangerous streets, exploitative bosses, demanding customers, and a police force eager to make a show of something, anything in a city with historically low crime rates. On top of everything else, the new policy creates more incentives for police to stop and question undocumented immigrants.

But don’t worry, says de Blasio: Restaurants and other delivery coordinators are welcome to make deliveries by car.

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Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices