Natalio Maldonado was out on his e-bike for a delivery in 2018 when he was stopped by the police. They confiscated his e-bike and issued him a summons. Mr. Maldonado, 44, was left with a $500 fine and no means to earn the money to pay it back.
During his month of unemployment, Mr. Maldonado’s 6-year-old son constantly tugged at his shirt with tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Papa, I need to eat,” he said one day to Mr. Maldonado. Mr. Maldonado had to borrow $200 from his friends just to get by.
“I felt terrible during that month,” Mr. Maldonado said in his native Spanish. “My son would cry a lot. There just wasn’t any money.”
At all hours of the day, delivery workers zip through the streets of New York City on bicycles equipped with an inconspicuous metal box. These throttle-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, are common in the city’s delivery ecosystem — many businesses require their delivery workers to use them — but they are illegal to operate.
Mr. Maldonado’s ticket accounted for one of the over 1,150 e-bike-related summonses that the New York Police Department issued in 2018. The police confiscated over 1,200 e-bikes last year alone, according to Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan, who testified at a January City Council hearing, though not all were from delivery workers.
Steven Wasserman, an attorney for Legal Aid, said, “It is a huge problem.” Legal Aid has represented dozens of delivery workers in civil suits and is suing the Police Department for its e-bike ticketing practices. “The delivery workers live in constant fear. The enforcement on these things — it’s just like being struck by lightning.”
The fines are the subject of a legal debate. Though e-bikes are illegal, e-bike summonses issued to delivery workers by the Police Department go against the city’s laws, which instruct police to issue summonses directly to businesses, and not workers, according to Mr. Wasserman.
City statutes require that businesses employing delivery workers who use e-bikes pay any associated fines, but this rarely happens, Mr. Wasserman said. Mr. Chan, in his January testimony, said businesses accounted for only 167 e-bike summonses in 2018.
The Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
New York City allows pedal-assisted e-bikes, with a motor that helps the rider pedal and can reach a top speed of 20 m.p.h. The illegal throttle-assisted e-bikes can be fully motor operated and can reach 28 m.p.h. Many workers are required to buy their own e-bikes, which can cost up to $2,000. The maximum weekly earnings of most drivers is between $200 and $400, so that $500 fine can wipe out more than a week’s wages.
Business owners and workers say they need the fast speed of the throttle-assisted bikes to make all of their deliveries.
“It’s really important for mom and pop shops like ours to have these guys on electric bikes,” said John Gjolaj, a manager at V&T Pizzeria, where Mr. Maldonado now works. Mr. Gjolaj said the restaurant helps pay for bike maintenance and would pay the e-bike fine if one of its riders were caught. So far that has not happened, he said.
Some businesses do pay the fine if their delivery workers are caught.
Victor Hernandez, 48, works for the pizza chain Papa John’s, and was caught by the police in late 2018 on his e-bike. His bike was confiscated. When he went the next day to retrieve it, the company was issued a $100 fine. Mr. Hernandez got his bike back at no personal cost and began delivering again.
“Supposedly these bikes are illegal, but we go and pay the fine and we get them back,” Mr. Hernandez said in Spanish. “If it’s illegal, they should take it away permanently. It’s illogical.”
Some delivery workers enter a cycle of being fined, losing their e-bikes, and eventually getting them back. Mr. Maldonado has had his bike confiscated twice and has paid $1,000 total in fines.
On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Community Board 8 has tried to cut down on the prevalence of e-bikes by barring restaurants and cafes that apply for liquor licenses from using e-bikes. But businesses often get around this by employing third-party delivery services that use e-bikes, according to Alida Camp, the community board chair.
For Ms. Camp, e-bikes pose a danger to pedestrians, because riders, like many cyclists, sometimes run through red lights, drive the wrong direction or ride on the sidewalk. E-bikes just happen to go faster.
“There’s a lot of potential for injury, and we just want New York to be safe and yet for people to be able to earn a living,” Ms. Camp said.
The community board does not advocate for the legalization of throttle-assisted e-bikes, but in February, it passed resolutions advocating for the city to lower the fine for riding such bikes from $500 to $100 and requiring that those fines go to businesses, and not delivery workers.
The City Council is also considering legislation that would decrease e-bike fines. But for now, Mr. Maldonado can still be fined the $500.
“We’re afraid because the police are always around here patrolling,” Mr. Maldonado said as he scanned the street. “I don’t know what I’ll do if they catch me again.”