A surge in electric-powered mobility devices during the pandemic is likely to become a lasting feature, transforming the New York City streetscape.
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Winnie Hu and
The coronavirus pandemic has upended many of the familiar routines that make up everyday urban life, bringing tectonic shifts in office culture, classroom learning and online shopping.
Now it is transforming the way people move around the nation’s largest city. A boom in electric-powered mobile devices is bringing what is likely to be a lasting change and a new safety challenge to New York’s vast and crowded street grid.
The devices have sprouted up all over. Office workers on electric scooters glide past Manhattan towers. Parents take electric bikes to drop off their children at school. Young people have turned to electric skateboards, technically illegal on city streets, to whiz through the far corners of New York.
Though many of these riders initially gave up their subway and bus trips because of the lower virus risk of traveling outdoors, some say they are sticking with their e-mobility devices even as the city begins to move beyond the pandemic.
“I use the scooter for everything, it’s really convenient,” said Shareese King, 41, a Bronx resident who deleted the Uber app from her phone after she started running her errands on an electric scooter.
Electric bikes, scooters and other devices are in many cases made for urban life because they are affordable, better for the environment, take up little, if any, street space for parking and are just fun to use, said Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.
“In cities, many people understand there is a right-size vehicle for getting around — and that’s human size — you don’t need to put out an S.U.V.’s worth of carbon emissions just to go to work,” she said.
Across the nation, cities have increasingly embraced electric bikes and scooters as a way to get more people out of cars and fill the gap in urban transportation systems for trips that are too far to walk but too close for the subway or bus, according to transportation officials and experts.
Even before the pandemic, electric scooter share programs had spread to over 100 cities, including Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta, since 2017, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Total rides surged 130 percent to 88.5 million in 2019 from 38.5 million the year before.
Many cities saw scooter ridership soar during the pandemic. Seattle’s scooter share program has grown to 1.4 million rides since beginning just over a year ago. In Portland, Ore., rides nearly doubled to 762,812 this year through September from 385,422 rides for the same period in 2020.
Still, the e-mobility boom has brought significant safety challenges to New York’s already congested streets. At least 17 people have been killed while riding electric mobility vehicles this year, according to city officials. Revel, which operates an electric moped share program in the city, voluntarily shut it down for a month last year after three riders were killed.
E-mobility crashes have also killed three pedestrians this year, including the actress Lisa Banes, who was knocked down by a hit-and-run scooter rider on the Upper West Side.
Many pedestrians and cyclists complain about e-bike and e-scooter riders who speed, ride on sidewalks and run red lights and go the wrong way on streets.
“The e-bikes, they don’t mind which way they have to go, how they go, where they go, even if they go on the sidewalk or the opposite way on a street,” said Jacqueline Aybar, 53, who recently had a near miss with an e-bike in a Queens crosswalk. “Now when you’re crossing the street, it’s not just looking for a car, you have to look to see if any bike is coming.”
City and state officials have scrambled to keep up with the rapid e-mobility expansion. Most e-bikes and e-scooters only became legal on city streets last year, though delivery workers have long ridden them. Unlike cars, they are not registered or licensed or required to have insurance or cited by automatic speeding cameras.
Other kinds of e-mobility devices are illegal, including skateboards, unicycles, hoverboards and Segways.
“I know there is a concern and a perception about the safety of new forms of e-mobility devices,” said Hank Gutman, the city transportation commissioner. “That is an issue we are looking at.”
City officials said they have installed more protected bike lanes, launched a public education campaign about which e-mobility devices are legal and set strict safety guidelines and closely monitored the city’s first e-scooter share pilot program in the Bronx.
The city speed limit is up to 25 m.p.h. for e-bikes and 15 m.p.h. for e-scooters. Riders are required to stay off sidewalks and are allowed to travel in bike lanes and on those streets that have a top speed of up to 30 m.p.h. They must stop at red lights, go in the same direction as traffic and yield to pedestrians.
While the overall numbers of electric bikes and scooters in New York are not tracked, many companies and stores have reported increasing sales. Unagi, a high-end electric scooter company, has seen a tenfold increase in its New York City sales and subscription plans, which provide personal scooters for $49 a month.
Chartior, in SoHo, has sold thousands of its premium electric scooters and gets about 60 calls a day for new orders, its owner, Ben Hen, said.
At Bicycles NYC on the Upper East Side, some customers saved up money during the pandemic they would have spent on Metro Cards to buy an electric bike, said Sajari Hume, a sales manager. The store sells up to 10 electric bikes a month.
In the Bronx, George Diaz bought a $550 electric scooter last year to avoid being exposed to the virus on a crowded bus commute. Now he takes it whenever he can. “It saves me money,” said Mr. Diaz, 28. “I’m not around so many people.”
As e-mobility has boomed, city officials have sought to increase access to low-cost rides. The Bronx e-scooter share program started in August with three companies — Bird, Lime and Veo — and has already surpassed 175,000 rides.
Lime started the second electric moped program in the city in April, which has been used for nearly 200,000 trips. The Revel program has seen nearly 4 million trips since March 2020, the company said.
Citi Bike, the bike-share program, has 4,500 e-bikes that are used up to three times more often per day than pedal-only bikes. E-bike rides have more than doubled to 6.7 million this year from 2.7 million rides in all of 2020.
“For someone like me, who’s not necessarily an athlete, the e-bikes can give you a bit of power,” said Emily Collins, 30, who started riding e-bikes during the pandemic.
But the influx of electric bikes and scooters has also brought more conflict to the streets at a time when traffic deaths have risen to the highest level in nearly a decade because of more cars, more speeding and reckless driving.
Jose Cortes, who has been using an e-bike to make DoorDash deliveries since March after losing his job at a deli, was hit by a driver in Brooklyn. “I worry all the time,” said Mr. Cortes, 39, who fractured his collarbone.
Samuel I. Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner, said the city needed a comprehensive plan to address the e-mobility boom. “The streets were not made for the e-mobility vehicles,” he said. “We have to look at this systematically and not just single out e-bikes and e-scooters. We have to redefine our streets.”
City officials are testing the electric scooters in the northeast Bronx by providing up to 3,000 stand-up and sit-down e-scooters, unlocked through phone apps. Each scooter starts at $1 and costs either 30 or 39 cents per minute depending on the company, with discounts for low-income residents. Scooters are parked in designated corrals or on sidewalks.
The city requires program users to be at least 18 years old, and to complete safety training and pass a safety quiz on the app.
Some residents complain that people ride on sidewalks, fight over the scooters and leave them everywhere. “I think they bring more problems to the community,” said Awilda Torres, 76, a retired hospital worker.
But others count on the scooters.
Tyasia Washington, 29, rides one from her home to the closest subway station, where she boards a train to her marketing job in Manhattan. “It’s a long walk,” she said.
Ms. King, the scooter convert, said she would like to see even more scooters. After parking one outside a grocery store, she came out five minutes later to find that someone else had rented it.
“I had to start walking until I found another one,” she said.
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