Early this month, after more than ten years of operation, New York’s Citi Bike bicycle-share program marked a grim milestone: the first-ever death of a pedestrian hit by a Citi Bike rider. The cyclist wasn’t riding one of Citi Bike’s traditional blue-pedal bikes when he allegedly hit and killed 69-year-old Priscilla Loke, but rather an electric bike. Loke’s death is yet another reminder that battery-powered electric bikes, and their new cousins, gas-powered mopeds, are not bicycles but fast-moving motorized vehicles. Those vehicles’ proliferation on New York’s dense streets, encouraged by supposed safe-streets advocates and city government, is reversing more than a decade’s progress in making New York’s streets more hospitable to pedestrians and traditional pedal cyclists.
Police are still investigating the details of the September 5 Lower East Side crash that killed Loke, but two videos give us hints. Loke, after waiting near the curb, steps into the intersection to cross the street; the man on the electric Citi Bike plows into her. Just before the crash, it’s not clear who has the light. But a stopped car at the intersection perpendicular to Loke, and the fact that she seems to be waiting for something to change before stepping out to walk, is circumstantial evidence, at least, that she has the go-ahead to cross.
At any rate, even if the cyclist had the light, safe-streets advocates, who champion the freedom to walk and cycle safe from car and truck crashes, have (rightly) argued for decades that the person controlling a heavier, faster vehicle must yield to a person on foot. Rather than yielding, this cyclist crashed into a woman who should have been clearly visible in the fully unobstructed bike lane. Two weeks after this fatality, an e-cyclist who witnesses said was going in the wrong direction hit and critically injured another 69-year-old woman near the United Nations in East Midtown. In that case, the cyclist fled the scene; in the crash that killed Loke, the cyclist stopped briefly to alert police but left the scene soon afterward, and police are now looking for him.
What we do know is this: since New York State and City legalized e-bikes in early 2020, e-bikes have made New York’s streets meaner.
As e-bikes and gas-powered mopeds have become ubiquitous, the number of people killed by them has soared. This year, Streetsblog reports, e-bike or moped riders have killed three pedestrians. Official data are murkier, as New York City unhelpfully lumps together pedestrian deaths caused by traditional pedal cyclists, historically rare, and pedestrian deaths caused by e-cyclists. Last year, the city reports, bicyclists (including e-cyclists) killed three pedestrians; a fourth pedestrian was killed by a moped or similar device. (These data don’t include pedestrians killed by traditional motorcyclists.) In 2021, two pedestrians were killed by bicyclists, and a third was killed by a moped. In 2020, no pedestrian was killed by either a cyclist or a moped driver.
That makes ten deaths in less than three years caused by drivers of two-wheeled vehicles (again, not including motorcycles)—a massive increase in fatalities not caused by cars, trucks, or motorcycles. Through 2020, it had taken 13 years for ten pedestrians to die under the wheels of bicyclists, e-cyclists, or mopeds, fewer than one per year.
The livable-streets movement is minimizing and deflecting in response to this uptick in danger. The movement has been focused on cars and trucks for so long—and, until recently, rightly so—that it can’t or won’t see the new danger coming from two wheels. Streetsblog, an advocacy publication that favors reducing street space for cars and trucks in favor of everyone else, used Loke’s death as an opportunity to remind readers that “despite a perception that New York City streets are a ‘Wild West’ because of rogue cyclists, a minuscule number of fatalities and injuries are caused by bike riders. . . . 95 percent of fatalities and 99 percent of injuries are caused by the drivers of cars and trucks.”
Going from an average of fewer than one death per year to an average of between three and four over the past three years is not minuscule. Anyone who walks, cycles (on a regular bicycle), or drives on the streets of New York can see that the proliferation of e-bikes in the past two-and-a-half years has created new dangers and anxiety. Food-delivery apps have added tens of thousands of e-bikes to city streets, and their couriers, under pressure to pick up and drop off their wares quickly, disobey stop signs, red lights, and one-way signage; they also ride on sidewalks. What’s more, because cheap e-bike batteries have proven deadly bombs, killing at least 23 people in fires since 2021, delivery workers have increasingly switched to gas-powered mopeds. (The state doesn’t require licensing or registration for e-bikes. It does require licensing and registration for gas-powered mopeds without license plates, but neither the NYPD nor civilian transportation officials are keeping unregistered vehicles driven by unlicensed operators off the streets.)
The city theoretically limits e-bike speeds to 25 miles per hour, the default speed limit for all vehicles. But owners illegally modify the bikes to go faster. And e-bikes are heavier than traditional bikes, meaning the impact of a crash, for a pedestrian, is greater. The new reality on the street, then, is that pedestrians and regular cyclists must contend with heavier vehicles traveling at high speeds.
E-bike rider and moped driver inexperience compounds the dangers associated with these vehicles’ weight and speed. Electric Citi Bikes theoretically don’t exceed 18 miles per hour (though, riding downhill, they can). But many Citi Bike riders have no experience driving a motor vehicle or a motorcycle and do not understand that moving 18 miles per hour is dangerous to themselves and to pedestrians. A traditional light-weight pedal bicycle on a sidewalk is a nuisance; a heavy, fast-moving e-bicycle or moped on a sidewalk is a potentially deadly weapon. The city did not design sidewalk sight lines for pedestrians to dodge vehicles moving as fast as motor vehicles.
Streetsblog’s insistence on focusing solely on cars and trucks is especially misplaced given that pedestrian deaths caused by traditional motor vehicles, though still too high compared with other global cities, aren’t rising. This year, through mid-September, 64 pedestrians have died in the city overall, according to city transportation department data, down from 75 year-to-date last year and 86 the year before. This year’s toll is on pace to match the pre-pandemic low, set in 2017. In all of 2022, 116 pedestrians died in crashes with trucks, cars, or traditional motorcycles; in 2021, the figure was 123, and in 2020, an aberrant year, with traffic greatly reduced amid the pandemic, the figure was 94. Even leaving out 2020, the annual average between 2021 and 2023 is likely to be below the three-year average from 2017 to 2019 (115).
The goal, of course, should be to set a record low every year, as with annual murders. But this trend was, and is, going in the right direction, albeit too slowly and choppily. Decades of street redesign, lower speed limits, and camera enforcement action against reckless car and truck drivers, all encouraged by the livable-streets movement, have paid off. The reckless use of motorized two-wheeled vehicles is the one new factor contributing to the reversal of that progress.
Those vehicles have also discouraged traditional pedal cyclists, particularly female cyclists. The percentage of female commuting cyclists plateaued in 2018, at less than half the rate of male cyclists, after more than a decade of growth. A major goal of the livable-streets movement until recently was to encourage more women to bicycle, but it has been largely silent as fast-moving, wrong-way male e-cyclists and moped drivers who commandeer bike lanes scare female riders off the streets. This new discomfort isn’t just female intuition: riders on two-wheeled devices are dying in record numbers. This year, to date, 23 cyclists (including e-cyclists) have died, the highest in at least a decade, and 15 additional people on devices such as mopeds have died, a category of fatality that didn’t even exist three years ago. Traditionally, more cyclists on the street have meant greater safety in numbers, as car and truck drivers grow accustomed to looking out for them, but the high speed of motorized two-wheelers is now counteracting this benefit. E-bike advocates will argue that more crowded and chaotic bike lanes mean the city should build wider bike lanes. But it is not clear that it is good public policy to build superhighways for gas-powered mopeds—the real-world result, in today’s enforcement climate, of such an approach. And since when did high speed become the overriding goal of people on two-wheeled vehicles, supposedly interested in an alternative to cars?
E-bike advocates will argue that the bikes have benefits, such as allowing older cyclists and people with weak knees to ride. That is true but irrelevant in the real-world New York City context, where the costs far outweigh the benefits. There’s no evidence, for example, that the proliferation of e-bikes has lured people out of cars, thus reducing traffic. And with gas-powered mopeds now supplementing delivery e-bikes, the already-tenuous argument that these vehicles are environmentally friendly has become laughable.
Nor is there evidence that e-bikes have calmed traffic, making streets safer and more pleasant. As livable-streets advocates have long argued, the presence of pedestrians and traditional cyclists helps to slow car and truck traffic, making streets safer for everyone. But car and truck drivers who must look in all directions for fast-moving e-cyclists and moped drivers aren’t made calmer and more attentive. They are made more anxious, frustrated, and angry—and so are the rest of us as we attempt to walk or pedal around town.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images