E-Bikes and Immigrants: Taking a Stand

Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Do Lee standing next to his bicycle on the streetIn New York, you can own an electric bike, you just can’t ride it. The people who are caught riding them — most of them immigrant food delivery workers — are subject to $500 fines. The law, according to Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Do Lee (Environmental Psychology) (pictured at right), who has focused his dissertation on the issue, is not just murky, it’s anti-immigrant. 

In a survey, Lee found that immigrant delivery workers rely heavily on the bikes. Nearly two-thirds of them reported using e-bikes, and among those born in China, the rate was 78 percent. The contrast to the 11 percent of U.S.-born delivery workers who reported using e-bikes is stark.

Age is a significant factor. Lee found that the median age of Chinese delivery workers is 46 — compared to 27 for English-speaking delivery workers.

“What they’re telling us is that it’s really hard for them to do their jobs without electric bikes because they’re older, they’ve been doing the job for a while, and it’s not exactly a safe job,” Lee said, pointing to the threat of collisions and robberies.

The pressure to deliver quickly in order to earn a tip adds to the appeal of e-bikes, according to Lee. The immigrant workers he spoke to reported making between $20 and $40 a day in base pay before tips for 10 to 15 hours of work. “That puts enormous pressure on them to deliver quickly in order to get a tip,” Lee said. “They told us if it takes too long, we won’t get tips or a very small tip.”

Public safety is often cited as a reason to keep e-bikes off the streets. But, Lee says, there’s scant evidence for such concerns.

“No electric bike rider has ever killed a pedestrian,” Lee said. In fact, according to New York Police Department data, of 58 bike crashes last year on the Upper West Side, only one was caused by an e-bike.

Several other states have legalized e-bike riding, and most of the e-bikes used in New York City are pedal-assist bikes, rather than fully motorized versions, Lee points out.

He is concerned that immigrant voices are missing from the debate. That was the impetus for his research, and he has been working with the Biking Public Project to interview and survey immigrant delivery workers.

“It took an enormous amount of effort,” Lee said. “A lot of delivery workers are very hesitant to talk with anybody, especially in this political climate.”

As the media have taken up this issue, Lee has become an unofficial spokesperson. Outlets from WNYC to The Guardian, The Village Voice, and amNew York have quoted him. 

An avid cyclist himself, Lee looks forward to sharing the road with legal e-bike riders.

Photo by Rachel Ramirez. 

Submitted on: FEB 7, 2018

Category: Diversity | Earth and Environmental Sciences | General GC News | International Migration Studies | Student News