New Yorkers enjoy many new forms of transportation such as electric scooters, electric bicycles, hoverboards, skateboards, in-line skates, electric wheelchairs, and more. The laws governing these forms of transportation are confusing and mostly unenforced, if they are even enforceable. State laws and regulations on vehicle and roadway usage typically trump conflicting local laws, except in New York City, where the New York City Council has been given much authority to promulgate laws and regulations on the use of the City’s public roadways.
Most laws are aimed solely at automobiles, traditional bicycles and pedestrians, and do not always address the new forms of transportation used in the City today. The old laws drew three fundamental distinctions: motorized or not motorized, sidewalk use or street use, and registered or not registered. The new forms of transportation do not neatly fit within these three categories. In practice, it is hard to know what is legal and not legal.
Traditional Bicycles & Pedicabs
It is easiest to begin with traditional bicycles. New York Vehicle and Traffic Law defines bicycles as two-wheeled, seated devices that require human muscle power to drive their movement. Bicycles are not motorized, may be used on public streets, and need not be registered for ordinary use.
Beyond these essentials, reality begins to deviate from the rules. Bicyclists are required to abide by the same traffic rules and regulations as motor vehicle drivers. They must ride in the same direction as traffic, yield to pedestrians, and make full stops at red lights and stop signs. Bicyclists must use their bells to alert pedestrians of their presence and equip their bicycles with a white headlight and red taillight for nighttime journeys. A bicyclist listening to a personal electronic device may do so by wearing only one earphone to ensure that at least one ear remains unobstructed. Bicyclists are required to keep one hand on the handlebars at all times. While wearing a helmet is strongly advised, it is required only if the bicycle-rider is below the age of fourteen.
Bike lanes and bike paths, when available, are the exclusive medium of transportation for bicycles operated on City streets, with exceptions. Bicyclists riding on City streets may also share traffic lanes with motor vehicles either when preparing to make a turn or when riding in the bike lane or path would be dangerous. While adult bicyclists are generally required to remain either in the bike lane or on the street, children, aged twelve and under, are allowed to ride on the sidewalk upon any device that is equipped with solid tires and built specifically for use on the sidewalk by a child.
Manual, motor-less pedicabs are permitted for use in the City so long as the drivers are licensed by the City. An individual pedicab cannot transport more than three passengers, and also cannot permit propulsion by multiple persons’ efforts. Businesses operating pedicabs are required to train its pedicab drivers to comply with state and local laws with respect to operating bicycles, such as permitted use of the vehicles within public parks in the City.
Mopeds & Electric Bicycles
Mopeds are defined by State law to be miniature motorcycles capable of traveling up to a maximum of forty miles-per-hour. The moped entered the marketplace first as a traditional bicycle with an attached motor; hence, the term “moped” from the words “motor” and “pedal.” Years of technological evolution produced a moped shaped less like a bicycle and more like a motorcycle. Many moped varieties available today are pedal-less.
The colloquial term “e-bike” stands for electric bicycle and is used today to replace the term “moped” in describing a traditional bicycle with an attached motor. The e-bike is unique because it comes equipped with a “throttle mode,” which, when engaged, propels the e-bike forwards without the need for the rider to pedal simultaneously. While throttle mode sits dormant, the e-bike functions like a traditional bicycle.
The pedelec bicycle is a hybrid of the traditional bicycle and the e-bike. Pedelec bicycles provide the rider with the option to operate in a pedal-assist mode. Pedal-assist mode, when engaged, supplements the power exerted by the rider, and for this reason, it can be utilized only while the rider is simultaneously pedaling. Cadence sensor pedal-assist mechanisms allow the rider to choose the level of power exerted by the bicycle motor, such as low, medium, and high levels of power. Torque sensor pedal-assist mechanisms provide a more intuitive riding experience than its cadence sensor counterpart by continuously measuring the amount of power exerted by the rider and providing commensurate levels of power based on these measurements.
Adding a motor to a bicycle triggers State law requirements. As a general rule, motor vehicles must be registered with the State Department of Motor Vehicles before they can be legally operated on public roadways. The State defines the term “motor vehicle” as a motor-operated device that does operate on public roadways. Registration with the State is triggered by the twin requirements of being motorized and actually operating on the public streets. The moment a motorized vehicle is driven on the street, it becomes a “motor vehicle” as defined by State law and must be registered. Operating a motor vehicle on private property is legal, so long as the vehicle never enters the public roadway.
Because motor vehicles have the twin requirements of being motorized and operating on public streets, the pedelec bicycle need not—and in fact, cannot—be registered because it is incapable of operation without the assistance of human muscle power. E-bikes and several types of mopeds such as those used often by food delivery drivers, however, may not be used in public without registration.
The State will not register all motorized vehicles, so those incapable of registration are banned from operation in the public sphere entirely. For example, the State will not register e-bikes. Some but not all Mopeds are eligible for registration as “limited use motorcycle[s]” and may be used legally on public thoroughfares. The State describes mopeds eligible for registration as two- or three-wheeled limited use vehicles equipped with either a seat or saddle for the rider. A “limited use vehicle,” as defined by the State, is a motor vehicle that can reach a maximum speed of no greater than forty miles-per-hour. A limited use vehicle—and thus, a limited use motorcycle—may not legally be operated in public unless it has been registered with the State Department of Motor Vehicles.
Before a moped can be registered, the DMV must certify it as one of three classes of limited use motorcycles. State law categorizes the three classes of limited use motorcycles—Class A, Class B, and Class C—based on the mopeds’ maximum speed. Class A mopeds can accelerate to 30 to 40 miles-per-hour, Class B mopeds can travel up to 20 to 30 miles-per-hour, and Class C mopeds move the slowest with a speed cap of 20 miles-per-hour or less. Class A mopeds are the only mopeds that require the owner to have a motorcycle license (Class M/MJ), rather than a regular driver’s license, but they are also the only mopeds permitted by law to use any traffic lane on public streets and highways. Sidewalks, however, are off-limits to all mopeds, regardless of class.
Additionally, there are electric or motorized pedicabs, which, like solely human-powered pedicabs, transport passengers for hire. Motorized pedicabs are prohibited from public usage in the City. Though pedelec bicycles are normally permissible for usage in the City, they may not be used legally for the commercial purpose of driving pedicabs through public parks.
Kick Scooters, Skateboards, & In-line Skates
A skateboard, as defined by the State, provides a platform for a standing rider to manually push two parallel sets of wheels attached on each end of the platform to each other. Kick scooters are skateboards with handlebars and only one wheel per side of platform. In-line skates are worn like a shoe with two or more wheels lined up one behind the other, which allows the rider to use manual effort to propel the user forward.
A person using a skateboard or in-line skates risks paying a fine of $50 to $100 if he or she does so in such a way as to endanger the life, safety, or property of another. As a general rule, pursuant to City regulation, skateboards may not be operated in public parks, except within areas that specifically authorize such activity. Further safety standards are applied to kick scooters such that users under the age of fourteen must wear a helmet, and the rule is enforced by holding the rider’s parent or guardian liable for the violation, subject to exceptions.
Motorized Scooters, Skateboards, & Hoverboards
A motorized scooter, as defined in the Administrative Code, is a transportation device with handlebars and an attached motor capable of operating the device without external assistance. Hoverboards are self-balancing, motorized devices with two wheels that move in tandem. They have neither handlebars nor a seat for the rider; the rider’s body movements maneuver the hoverboards. Motorized skateboards are traditional skateboards with an attached motor, which is commonly operated by the rider with a remote control. Like e-bikes, motorized scooters, skateboards, and hoverboards have become increasingly popular in recent years, though none of such devices are capable of registration with the DMV.
Motorized scooters exist in many shapes and sizes. One type of motorized scooter is a kick scooter with an attached motor, such as the Go-ped®. Segways are another type of motorized scooter that is self-balancing with attached handlebars and a floorboard to hold a standing rider. Some types of motorized scooters may be authorized for public travel under State law, but all are prohibited entirely from operating within the City limits. Lawbreakers are subject to paying a $500 civil penalty and may have their motorized scooter impounded until all penalties and fees have been paid.
The City Council banned motorized scooters in 2004. The Council declared that motorized scooters pose a risk to the health and safety of their users, passengers in nearby vehicles, and pedestrians. The Council cited a United States Consumer Product Safety Commission report that reported that thousands of instances of emergency room visits in the year 2000 were tied to motorized scooter use, and that more than a third of those injured were younger than fifteen years old. The Council further stressed that while scooters were originally produced for operation at slower speeds, today’s motorized versions operate at such a high speed that road users and pedestrians should be concerned, especially due to the lack of licensing and safety requirements imposed on the motorized scooter and their users.
The Council’s 2004 law limited the ban to motorized scooters capable of traveling faster than fifteen miles-per-hour. In 2013, the Council dropped the speed criteria from the ban so that today, all motorized scooters are banned in New York City (NYC v. Onix Guzman, ECB Appeal No. 1501125 (Dec. 17, 2015)).
Motorized scooters are illegal if they have any ability to operate without human muscle-power assistance, even if human energy is required to put the motorized scooter in motion initially. In In re Reilley, 240 A.D.2d 296 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1997), the court ruled that a scooter which is first operated manually for a distance before becoming power-enabled via a motor to run at 20 miles per hour was a “motorized skateboard,” and as such, qualified as a “motor vehicle” for which registration was required.
Selling, renting, and leasing a motorized scooter to a person in New York City is prohibited, and violators may be forced to pay $1,000 for a first-time violation and $2,000 for subsequent, additional violations. In DCA v. Laseuski, DCA Violation No. OL5088583 (June 2, 2005) (Simon, ALJ), Arco Electronics was fined $1,000 for displaying for sale a motorized scooter in its storefront in Manhattan. Arco argued that because the scooter lacked an attached seat, it was not for sale. The ALJ rejected the argument, ruling that whether the vehicle possesses a seat for the rider or not was irrelevant because, as defined by the Administrative Code, such scooters may be designed for either sitting or standing.
While e-bikes look and operate differently from motorized scooters, e-bikes are treated identically under the law in many situations. In NYC v. Niko Klansek, ECB Appeal No. 1200238 (May 31, 2012), Niko Klansek, CEO of electric-bicycle company named FlyKly, was issued a $500 notice of violation by a City Department of Transportation officer for operating a “motorized scooter,” as defined by the Administrative Code, on the public street. Klansek challenged the violation, arguing that because his e-bike also came equipped with pedals capable of propelling the wheels through human power, it was an electric bicycle—not a scooter. The ALJ disagreed and recommended that the NOV stand. On appeal, Klansek argued that his motorized device is more appropriately viewed as a moped and should be regulated as a “limited use vehicle” under state and local laws. The Environmental Control Board upheld the ALJ’s recommendation, and ruled that the electric device qualified as a motorized scooter. The fact that the device was capable of self-propulsion without the assistance of human power, but incapable of being registered with the DMV, was dispositive of the issue.
Motorized hoverboards and skateboards, in contrast to e-bikes, do not fit within the Administrative Code’s definition of “motorized scooters” because they lack handlebars. However, they are treated similarly as unregistered motor vehicles pursuant to State law prohibiting them from legally operating on public roads, highways, and in public parking lots with other motor vehicles. Motorized skateboards and hoverboards have become increasingly popular in recent years, though neither of these devices is capable of being registered with the State DMV.
The NYPD issued a statement in July of 2015 announcing its intention to fully enforce the state and local bans against unregistered motor vehicles and motorized scooters, respectively. A few months after this statement, the NYPD informed the public that hoverboards are prohibited from use on public City streets as unregistered motor vehicles, pursuant to State law. However, hoverboards are virtually untouched by local law because they lack handlebars, which are a required element of a “motorized scooter,” pursuant to the Administrative Code.
The State defines a “wheelchair” as “any manual or electrically driven mobility assistance device, scooter, tricycle or similar device used by a person with a disability as a substitute for walking.” Local law regulates their usage in the public sphere just as it does other wheeled devices, though wheelchairs are substantially less-restricted than other devices. A wheelchair is technically a vehicle, pursuant to State law, but it only qualifies as a motor vehicle when a person who is not disabled operates it in public. A disabled person operating a wheelchair is a “pedestrian,” as defined by State law, and may engage in such activities as traveling on boardwalks and walkways in public parks.
The current state of the law does not fully encompass the new vehicular concepts presented by the many new devices. This has made it difficult to know whether your new-and-improved e-device is legally usable in public. The confusion surrounding the legality of innovative transportation devices has not, however, dampened the enthusiasm of many to take these new devices into the street, despite the potential risks of fines and, perhaps, personal liability for injuries to others.
Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein ’15 is a Center for New York City Law Fellow at New York Law School.