Opinion: The NYC Dirt Bike Ban is Ridiculous


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made dirt bikes public enemy number one for traffic enforcement in 2021, citing road safety, cluttered sidewalks, unwanted noise, and air pollution as his primary reasoning. He’s even released videos where the city destroyed confiscated bikes to celebrate the initiative.

“Anyone out there who has an illegal dirt bike — don’t even think about it. Because the NYPD will find it and will crush it,” Mayor de Blasio proclaimed via Twitter earlier this month. “These dirt bikes do not belong in New York City. It’s against the law. Period. Dirt bikes are dangerous.”

The focus on two-wheeled transportation comes after city leadership announced there was a growing number of shootings and robberies tied to certain types of vehicles over the spring. Local outlets also covered an incident where a small child was struck by a dirt bike and placed into critical condition last July. But the actual qualifications for what NYC considers an “illegal dirt bike” are confusing. Numerous exemptions are made for electric scooters and about half of the bikes crushed in the mayor’s video are regular motorcycles. It seems nonsensical and only gets worse when you begin to ponder the consequences of banning some of the most affordable modes of transportation available to poor New Yorkers. 

Cheap bikes are essential for the city’s delivery services and most restaurants are dependent upon a fleet of e-scooters or small, gasoline-powered motorcycles that have only gotten more important as local health restrictions have banned many from indoor dining. While some of the lightest of these vehicles can utilize bike lanes, most operators take whatever route they believe will be the fastest. This means you see them driving up onto sidewalks and following pedal bikes through red lights with alarming regularity.

They’re absolutely a nuisance sometimes. But they’re also the only way for many people to get around, as owning a car in NYC can be prohibitively expensive and troublesome. Renting a parking spot is guaranteed to cost you several hundred bucks per month and attempting to stop that vehicle anywhere else often requires double parking — which is technically legal but clogs up traffic. Buying a small scooter means you can park it just about anywhere and doesn’t require either the operator or vehicle to be licensed. Below is a gaggle parked just a few yards away from my front door. In the late evenings, this group will be five or six plate-less scooters strong, often with young men standing around talking to each other as they return from work.

It’s not quite the unbridled menace de Blasio makes it out to be.

But there are indeed roving scooter and dirt bike gangs with modified exhaust systems serving as a low-rent version of the infamous Japanese bōsōzoku street culture. Some are even alleged to have been linked to shootings and muggings, though the vast majority of riders are regular people just trying to get across town as efficiently as possible.

Meanwhile, on-demand rental companies (e.g. Revel) litter the five boroughs with their high-concept garbage. Alleged to help reduce congestion and ownership costs, the e-scooters can often be found taking up parking spaces that would have been better used by cars and usually piloted by inexperienced, middle-class people who don’t understand that they’re supposed to be constrained by the same laws as other motorized vehicles. But they don’t qualify under NYC’s dirt bike ban, so the officials claim they’re golden to continue operations.

Mayor de Blasio said he expects the city to destroy 3,000 dirt bikes by the end of 2021. However, the language used by leadership is not always representative of existing laws and is generally confusing. Technically, any vehicle that doesn’t have side mirrors, brake lights, or turn signals cannot be registered with the state and can be considered illegal. But smaller e-bikes are supposedly exempt and there are plenty of other two-wheelers that occupy a gray space unless you’re particularly knowledgeable, not that any of it seems to matter.

In the video where de Blasio notifies New Yorkers that their illegal bikes will be crushed, I noticed several curious victims. About a quarter seemed to be sportbikes (e.g. Yamaha R6), sport standards (e.g. Suzuki Bandit), or dual sports (e.g. BMW GS 650) that are totally street legal. The rest was a mix of scooters, dirt bikes, and the odd ATV.

New legislation aimed at increasing penalties for people caught operating the problem bikes was introduced in July. The bill, sponsored by City Councilman Mark Gjonaj, aims to raise fines to $750 (up from $500) for the first offense and $1,500 (up from $1,000) for all additional offenses. Though the core enforcement still comes from the mayor directing the NYPD to simply confiscate vehicles from wherever they’re found.

“This chaos must end,” Gjonaj said over the summer. “These motorcycles are endangering not only pedestrians and other motorists, but are creating havoc and lawlessness in New York City.”

Because there’s nothing lawless about confiscating people’s property because some citizens are mad about loud noises whizzing by their windows? Frankly, it seems to me that someone working for the city just wants a scapegoat for the city’s elevated crime rate and picked the easiest target.

Most of the fervor for these rules seems reactionary, authoritarian, and unpleasantly familiar. Over a dozen Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Xiamen, have banned (or heavily restricted) affordable motorcycles and e-bikes over since 2006. Officials had claimed that traffic violations and crime skyrocketed as poorer citizens flocked to small, two-wheeled vehicles for their transportation needs. While there is evidence to support claims that unlicensed scooter drivers have a tendency to skirt the rules, accusations have also been made that the Chinese government sought to keep lower-income citizens dependent upon public transit.

“It’s important to notice that the selection bias of the most vocal advocates in favor of banning e-bikes are often middle or upper middle class residents who drive [cars], live within close vicinity of a public transit line, or might even have a chauffeur,” CC Huang of Energy Innovation, an advisory firm on urban design, told Forbes in 2016.

These kinds of crackdowns also seem counterintuitive when championed by government leaders, like Bill de Blasio, that cannot stop talking about the environment and climate change. One would assume that motorcycles (which average at twice the fuel economy and half the CO2 emissions of passenger vehicles) would be a desirable alternative to people buying up cars. While gasoline-powered bikes tend to emit more nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons due to an absent catalytic converter, I find it extremely difficult to believe that a tiny vehicle consuming less than half the fuel of a standard automobile is doing the same amount of damage to the atmosphere. Of course, there are dozen of articles from the last two decades ready to tell you the exact opposite. Here’s one from 2000 saying bikes pollute ten times more than SUVs.

Though I’m not even sure how relevant the pollution factor will even be. Considering that NYC is attempting to remove the vehicles chiefly responsible for food delivery, something tells me there might soon be a monumental backlash against this. The dirt-bike ban is shortsighted and has already proven itself difficult to enforce effectively. Its only advantage appears to be raising fines on people that probably cannot afford to pay them, forcing more individuals to use the ailing subway system, and providing public officials with opportunities to grandstand.

[Image: @NYCMayor/Twitter; Rblfmr/Shutterstock]

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