John Surico - New York City will create a new municipal department to contend with the skyrocketing number of electric bicycles, scooters, mopeds and motorbikes that race across the city’s streets to haul packages and deliver food, City Hall announced on Wednesday.
In his State of the City address, Mayor Eric Adams proposed the creation of the Department of Sustainable Delivery, which would be tasked with regulating commercial delivery services that rely on two- and three-wheeled micromobility vehicles. These battery-powered machines are critical in the battle against pollution and traffic congestion, but their emergence has also stoked controversy: Debates rage around pedestrian and rider safety, the risks posed by e-bike battery fires and the rights of delivery workers.
“New Yorkers have been clear: We welcome the future of transit and mobility, but we cannot have mopeds speeding down our sidewalks, delivery apps exploiting workers, or chaos on our streets,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement. “Our streets — and how they’re used — have changed, and we’re changing with them. The Department of Sustainable Delivery will be a first-in-the-nation way to let us retake the reins of our streets and ensure that the next generation of mobility innovation works for our workers, our neighbors, and our city, as we continue to deliver on our vision to protect public safety, rebuild our economy, and make this city more livable for working-class New Yorkers.”
In an interview with Bloomberg CityLab, Meera Joshi, the city’s deputy mayor for operations, said the newly created entity will be a way for the city to amplify the industry’s positives while mitigating the negative effects — and ensuring that New Yorkers don’t lose their all-important access to 24/7 takeout. “We want the 4 a.m. burger, the box of tissues at 2 p.m., meals, furniture,” Joshi said. “I mean, there’s nothing we can’t have delivered to our doorstep now.”
The recent expansion of app-dispatched delivery has been “great for the economy,” she said. “The footprint of your business base is larger. It's great for innovation as tech companies put together the most efficient logistic plans we’ve ever seen. It’s great for workers, creating a lot of low-barrier-to-entry opportunities for work. But it does come with challenges.”
She described the current approach as a game of governmental “whack-a-mole.” The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection enforces labor regulations, like the city’s minimum pay rule for food delivery and bathroom access, while street design, rider education and charging infrastructure fall to the Department of Transportation. And the fire department puts out a deadly spike in battery fires.
Companies that may be interested in converting their truck fleet to cargo bikes — a number set to increase with the advent of congestion pricing in Manhattan later this year — or bringing their new apps or vehicles to New York City have been left in the lurch, Joshi said. “They don’t know who their master is, in many ways. That creates a sense of confusion for the public.”
For six years, Joshi led the Taxi and Limousine Commission, an agency that regulates the city’s yellow cabs and for-hire vehicles. When it was created, in 1971, the city found itself in a similar quandary: A surge of vehicles were competing for curb space, with little oversight. The office became a one-stop shop for both companies and workers: It ensured drivers were licensed and insured; cabs were inspected and safe; and their numbers were capped.
It also laid the legal framework to regulate innovations like Uber and Lyft decades later, Joshi said, achieving things like minimum driver pay and wheelchair accessibility for on-demand ride-hailing services. Such an all-in-one structure should exist for micromobility vehicles today, both to untangle the current e-bike pile-up and prepare for the delivery drones and robots to come.
“We have to do the same basic front-door regulation here in New York to open up the opportunity for us to do the kind of accountability work that needs to happen,” she said.
With the new entity, the city hopes to corral useful data from on-demand app companies, like trip length and demand. “When it comes to infrastructure, where these trips are happening and modeling out where they are going to happen in the future is really important to expanding bike lanes,” Joshi said. The city’s micromobility infrastructure continues to adapt: Wider bike lanes recently went in on Manhattan’s Tenth and Third Avenues to contend with a crush of new users.
In the coming months, City Hall said it will work with City Council and convene a task force, including representatives from labor groups and on-demand app companies, to help draft the office’s regulatory mission. Transportation and labor advocates said they’ll be eyeing those conversations closely, out of concern that the office could be duplicative or add undue burden to workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. Battery-boosted bikes and scooters were only made legal in recent years and still operate under a murky set of municipal rules over where they’re allowed and how much motor assistance is permitted. Delivery workers can face punitive enforcement as well as dangerous working conditions.
“Ultimately we want an e-micromobility landscape that’s safe, encouraged by city policy, and also empowers lots of New Yorkers to shift trips away from cars and trucks,” said Sara Lind, co-executive director at Open Plans, a livable streets advocacy organization. “We hope the administration will focus on broad, straightforward solutions, like prioritizing wide, protected bike lanes and letting DOT get to work installing them. We know that’s a simple way to keep cyclists safe and nearly eliminate riding on the sidewalk. There are huge gains to be made for safety, livability, transit justice and the climate if we can get this right.”