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Politics

It’s a Bike! It’s a Truck! No, It’s … New York’s Next Climate Fight!

This weird oversized e-bike is sparking a controversy in New York City.

A cargo bike.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, NYC DOT

New York City wants to invite a new breed of delivery vehicle onto its streets — or rather, into its bike lanes.

A proposal by the city’s transportation department would enable larger, electric, pedal-assist cargo bicycles to deliver packages. By allowing a wider variety of commercial bicycles to operate, the city hopes to shift more deliveries by major carriers like Amazon and UPS out of trucks and onto bikes in order to cut pollution, reduce carbon emissions, and improve public safety.

There’s a surprisingly broad array of conveyances that are all, nominally, electric cargo bikes. You may have seen neighbors piloting these 2-wheeled consumer models back from the grocery store, which come with a small, built-in trailer or wagon. In dense cities, many companies are now making deliveries with e-bikes carting long, 3-wheeled trailers stacked with boxes behind them. But in New York, there are currently legal limits on how wide these bikes can be and how many wheels they can have. Some of the models that are growing popular with delivery companies like Amazon and DHL in London and Berlin either have bigger, pallet-sized storage containers attached to them, or more closely resemble golf carts or slim trucks than bikes.

Take this “skinny legend” recently piloted by UPS, which is similar to the model that Amazon is rolling out in London. It may not look like a bike, but there’s no steering wheel or acceleration pedal. It has handlebars and won't budge until the driver begins cycling away — at which point an electric motor kicks in and it can reach speeds of up to 15.5 miles per hour.

It’s also frankly, adorable. Maybe it’s just the innate human attraction to miniaturized things, but I mean, just look at this thing:

The New York City Department of Transportation estimates that heavy-duty vehicles account for roughly half of tailpipe emissions, despite making up a small fraction of vehicle activity, and freight traffic is growing rapidly. Pre-pandemic projections estimated that regional freight traffic would grow 67% between 2012 and 2045, but since January of 2020, the DOT estimates it’s already increased by more than 50%. Cargo bikes are part of the city’s vision for sustainable freight, as a way to make the “last mile” of delivery more efficient.

It’s already working. A NYC pilot program found that in 2022, cargo bikes made more than 130,000 trips delivering over 5 million packages, resulting in the reduction of over 650,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. The Department of Transportation has determined that there is even more unmet demand that could be addressed if larger cargo bikes are allowed.

But the proposal to allow larger e-bikes on the road has had a rocky start. It’s not surprising — the idea of one of these things bounding down the city’s crowded, narrow bike lanes is a little unnerving. The city’s bike infrastructure has improved a lot in recent years, with more routes and more protected lanes. But many protected lanes still require cyclists to exercise sharp reflexes to dodge idling trucks, parked cop cars, oblivious pedestrians, and zippy mopeds. Without a more comprehensive approach to the e-bike revolution, the city risks creating a more dangerous environment and inviting public backlash.

“We think they really are an opportunity to transition away from trucks to more sustainable and safer modes of transit,” Alexa Sledge, associate director of communications at the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, told me. “But at the same time, the way our streets are built right now is so often prioritizing trucks and cars, and we really need more space for bikes if we are going to transition to using more cargo bikes.”

During a recent comment period and public hearing on the proposal, many New Yorkers turned out to express their concerns that these vehicles pose a danger to pedestrians and other bikers. The city has already faced growing backlash from residents over e-bikes and mopeds riding on the sidewalks as food delivery has become more popular, and many commenters worried this would only make the situation worse. Others accused the bikes of being “mini trucks,” but not in a cute way.

“I am strongly against this,” read a comment by Fawn Sullivan. “The sidewalks and bike lanes are already chaotic and dangerous due to e-bikes/mopeds. We need more regulations for e-vehicles, not less.”

“If they use the same bike lanes as your everyday commuter, it’s going to be an absolute nightmare and clog up the lanes, pushing cyclists into the streets or sidewalks to get around deliveries,” read another by Michelle G. “I can see this being a total mess.”

There were also many supportive commenters who echoed Sledge’s caveat about ensuring the right infrastructure was in place. One commenter named Bill Bruno called the switch from trucks to cargo e-bikes “long overdue,” but wanted to see “wider bike lanes and many more drop-off zones.” Sara Lind, of Open Plans, a grassroots group advocating for “people-first street culture,” wrote, “Functional infrastructure will be critical to make this important program work.”

The proposal follows a program that DOT launched at the end of 2019 to track the use of cargo bikes by commercial shipping carriers. By coincidence, the data collection effort started just as package delivery was exploding due to the pandemic. After just a year, the city found that companies were rapidly increasing the use of electric cargo bikes. Between May 2020 and January 2021, the number of cargo bike deliveries increased 109%.

But existing laws restrict carriers to using bikes that are 3-feet wide and have three wheels. (Although UPS, a participant in the pilot program, seemed to have gotten around the restriction with a four-wheeled model it rolled out last year. Neither the company nor the Department of Transportation responded to my request for clarification.)

In any case, the city’s proposal would officially allow the use of models that are up to 4-feet wide, and have four wheels, like those I described earlier.

But another issue that came up in the comments was that the proposal would backtrack slightly, banning many of the models that carriers were already using on NYC streets. It caps the length of a cargo bike to 10 feet, despite many current cargo bikes measuring out to 14 feet — mostly those that are toting trailers. “We cannot risk alienating the users who have already adopted this sustainable delivery mode,” wrote Lind.

The city is still parsing public comments and has not said when it plans to finalize the rules. The DOT did not respond to a question I sent them about whether it plans to do anything in conjunction with this rule change to address bike lane safety.

This is also just one piece of New York’s broader plans to reduce truck traffic in the city. The DOT is planning to pilot “microhubs,” locations where online orders can be dropped off and then distributed locally by smaller vehicles. Plus, the decades-long battle to establish a congestion pricing scheme may finally be coming to a head, with plans to begin charging vehicles to enter downtown Manhattan sometime next year. When I spoke with Sledge, she said that’s likely to put more pressure on delivery companies to switch to e-bikes, raising the urgency of the need to re-design the city’s streets for a micro-mobility future.

“We can’t continue to have the same sort of street design we’ve had for years if we're going to ask these bike lanes to do so much more,” she said. “It will be even more important to take space away from cars and give it to people riding bikes if they’re going to be such a large number of our road users.”

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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