Lee, who is employed by a delivery app company, works 10 to 12 hours a day. He estimates that, on average, he delivers roughly 15 orders a day.
If it’s raining or snowing on a particular day, he can make up to 30 deliveries.
“My e-bike is my indispensable tool for survival,” Lee said through a translator. “I would not be physically able to ride a bicycle for 10 hours a day.”
But the daily grind of delivering food in New York City isn’t what’s troubling him. Lee said police officers have issued him four tickets for riding an e-bike, at $500 apiece, in the last year and a half.
The NYPD has also confiscated Lee’s e-bike once, causing him to miss work.
In October 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would begin taking “heightened enforcement action” against e-bikes, which are illegal to operate in New York City.
Riders who are caught using an e-bike are currently subject to a civil summons, confiscation and fines of up to $500. Businesses that allow employees to operate them also receive summons and a $100 fine for a first offense, followed by a $200 fine for subsequent offenses.
The enforcement action has impacted immigrant workers like Lee, who shelled out $2,000 in fines. He said that equated to working for almost a month without pay.
“When the police takes away our e-bikes, we have to stop working, go to court and repair all of the e-bikes damaged under police custody,” he said.
Eduardo Perez, who has worked as a deliveryman in Brooklyn for the past year, has had similar experiences. His shift is 11 hours a day.
“Without an e-bike, I would feel exhausted and stressed,” Perez said through a translator. “Each delivery is important for me since I depend on tips.”
Last November, Perez received several tickets totaling $940 for riding an e-bike. Like Lee, he also had his e-bike confiscated by police officers.
When he went to the bank to get money to pay the fines, he was robbed. Then he was told he had to wait until his hearing to get his e-bike back.
“Us workers are not criminals,” he said. “We feed the city with our labor.”
To address these issues, state lawmakers are proposing legislation to legalize electric bikes and electric scooters across New York.
Last Friday, State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and a coalition of e-bike supporters gathered at Corona Plaza to unveil the bill.
For Ramos, who said many delivery workers live and work in her district, legalizing e-bikes will mean “increasing mobility” in the city, offering yet another way of getting around instead of driving cars. She hopes it will also reduce congestion on city streets.
But more importantly, she said, legalizing e-bikes will “lessen the criminalization” on immigrant delivery workers who rely on them.
“For far too long already, City Hall has been cracking down on our immigrant delivery workers,” she said. “It’s not fair and it does not work.
“If bicycles are not working for them, and if e-bikes are more comfortable for them in order to do their jobs better and on time, then so be it,” Ramos added. “Everybody should be allowed to use e-bikes and e-scooters in a safe way.”
Rozic, who represents a transit desert in northeast Queens, said e-bikes will give her constituents an additional transportation alternative. But like Ramos, she focused on the disproportionate impact the law has on immigrant workers.
She acknowledged that, at the state level, legislators have failed to protect these workers and their job opportunities. The assemblywoman added that New York is one of the last states to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters.
“We have a great opportunity now to turn the tide,” Rozic said.
The state legislation also received support from city lawmakers. Brooklyn Councilman Carlos Menchaca attended the rally at Corona Plaza last week to endorse the bill.
“As soon as the state passes their legislation, we will do what we have to do to protect workers here in the city,” he said.
Last November, Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a package of bills to legalize e-bikes with speeds capped at 20 miles per hour. Another bill would require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a program to help convert throttle e-bikes to pedal assist e-bikes.
Other bills in the package would legalize e-scooters and create a pilot program for those scooters, with a focus on neighborhoods that lack access to transit.
In a statement, Espinal called the city’s crackdown on e-bikes a “draconian enforcement regime” that threatens the livelihood of delivery workers.
“It is disgraceful, particularly in a city that claims to cherish its immigrant community, that we are effectively denying them the right to earn a living,” he said.
According to the advocacy group Biking Public Project, 60 percent of Asian and Latino delivery workers in the city have had their e-bikes confiscated by law enforcement.
Dr. Do Lee, a visiting lecturer at Queens College and a member of the Biking Public Project, also sifted through the NYPD’s crash data for the last year.
Lee said of the 45,000 crashes that resulted in injury or death, only 31 were clearly linked with e-bikes. Of those 31 incidents, only nine involved pedestrians.
He said the data directly challenges the mayor and the NYPD's assertions that e-bikes are dangerous.
“When we introduce anything new in the street in terms of new mobility, people are surprised out of their normal routine,” he said. “Sometimes people take that surprise and discomfort as danger.
“When you actually look at the numbers, it’s not danger, it’s discomfort,” Lee added. “That’s not the same thing.”
Mengba Lee said legalizing e-bikes will mean he won’t have to constantly fear seeing police officers on the street.
“I can therefore concentrate on riding safely for myself and pedestrians,” he said, “while better serving the people of New York.”
Ramos said she hopes to pass the e-bike bill by the end of this legislative session. It will be one of her top priorities for the rest of the session.
“We don’t have a lot of time, the clock is ticking,” she said. “But it’s nothing a little elbow grease from an immigrant community can’t do.”