Which ebikes are legal – and illegal – in NYC circa 2015


More and more people are wondering about electric-motor-powered bicycles aka “ebikes” and their legal status in NYC and NYS. New Yorkers see swarms of them rolling about town on a daily basis. Many of them are utilized by restaurant delivery men to expedite metro movement as they drop off food to recipients. Older folks seem to favor them as a way to keep pedaling despite advanced age. Even pedicab trikers en masse have converted to motors despite the explicit ban on their use in town.


So what’s the scoop? Well, the New York City Council decided via Int 0098-2004 to define bicycles featuring throttle-activated, pedal-free (i.e., one does not need to pedal to activate the motor) motors as “motorized scooters” and ban them on public streets. Since this design generally is the cheapest one to produce, these sorts of systems are the ones favored by delivery men and others operating without concern for laws and the like.

Where does that leave pedal-activated motorized “ebikes”? Actually, it leaves them in the clear per NYC and NYS law. NYS defines a bicycle as follows: Every two or three wheeled device upon which a person or persons may ride, propelled by human power through a belt, a chain or gears, with such wheels in a tandem or tricycle, except that it shall not include such a device having solid tires and intended for use only on a sidewalk by pre-teenage children.

Since pedal-activated motorized ebikes and trikes are propelled by human power at least in part, they’re classified as bicycles by law.

In 2006, the NYS DMV affirmed this fact in a legal opinion. Not that it matters, because it’s quite apparent by reading the definition that bicycles sporting only a pedal-activated motor qualify as a bicycle and not a “motorized scooter”.

Pedicabs, on the other hand, are not allowed to operate in NYC with pedal-activated motors because the city council explicitly stated that they are to be “solely propelled by human power”. Note the addition of the word “solely” to this particular law.

This delineation seems subtle – and, well, it is. Yet it’s critical to understanding the current landscape for ebikes in NYC. For instance, Revolution’s freight trike pictured here is 100% legal – yet some would have us believe otherwise.


What’s a concerned person to do? Councilmember Brad Lander introduced Int 0334-2014 to create a city task force to study ebikes in relation to NYC. Seems a sensible next step, for one.