Zhu’s e-bike, which he bought for around $1,000, is his lifeline. When he spoke to Fast Company, he was getting over a cold, but the extra boost from his motor allowed him to keep pedaling without exhausting himself. If he stopped making deliveries, even for a day, he would fall behind on rent and supporting his family. He tries to fit as many deliveries in as possible during a shift; there’s no other way for him to earn enough in tips to supplement his low hourly pay. And for that, the quicker bike is essential. “It would be impossible to make all those deliveries without it,” he says.
But under a revamped policy recently implemented by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Zhu could face fines, or even confiscation, for riding his e-bike in the city. Technically, due to a mismatch in the law, electric bikes are legal to own but illegal to operate, in New York. (Federal law treats motorized bikes like regular bikes. New York state law considers them vehicles, but there’s no way for riders to register them.) The New York Police Department has variably enforced this law over the years; there have been previous incidences of crackdowns on people who ride e-bikes, but this one is different: It was declared as official policy by the mayor.
It’s also been received with total silence from delivery companies like GrubHub, which have facilitated the massive boom in delivery work in cities like New York. The company issued a statement to Fast Company stating that all workers and restaurants that use the platform are obliged to follow local laws, but GrubHub has largely skirted commentary on the e-bike ban, particularly its effect on workers (the company did not respond to multiple attempts for further comment). This silence testifies to a fundamentally untenable problem within the gig economy–the distance between the big tech companies at the top, and the often vulnerable workers that power them on the bottom. While immigrant and bike advocates push for e-bike legalization, de Blasio’s crackdown should serve as a reckoning for gig economy companies regarding how they protect their workers, and under what terms.