New York City is a dream to get around—as long as you can afford to be chauffeured from place to place, or you live near a major mass transit hub.
For everyone else — in other words, the vast majority of New Yorkers — our city is a transportation nightmare.
Even if you’re lucky enough to live near a subway or a bus, they are crowded at best and unreliable at worst. And if you’re bold enough to drive yourself, our roads and bridges are gridlocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic.
But that’s not the worst part about our broken transit system. The worst part is that it’s the least-fortunate who are paying the highest price for our transportation woes. Gentrification and increasing income inequality is forcing families to move to neighborhoods where mass transportation options are scarce, commutes are longer, and daily travel is much more stressful.
In this year’s state budget, Albany took some small steps forward for better transportation. It shored up the floundering MTA by creating new long-term revenue sources for mass transit. But it wasn’t nearly enough to improve existing infrastructure, let alone create new options that help get lower-income New Yorkers in transit deserts from Point A to Point B.
Meanwhile, Albany failed to provide a simple fix that would allow low-income to access new affordable, reliable, adequate options. The decision? Whether or not to give New Yorkers a chance to use e-bikes and e-scooters in their own communities.
But now there’s hope. Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Nily Rozic introduced legislation recently that would authorize New York City and other areas to allow these “micro-mobility” vehicles to help close the transportation equity gap. Albany should act fast to provide greater mobility for all.
Many middle- and lower-income New Yorkers live miles from the nearest subway. Millions live more than a 30-minute walk from a subway or bus stop. In fact, the more money you have, the more likely you are to be near mass transit. Yet it is the working families of New York who rely on mass transit the most. The Pratt Center for Community Development concluded that, of the 750,000 New Yorkers who travel more than one hour each way to work, “two-thirds of them earn less than $35,000 a year.”
Our mass transit system has to stretch to reach lower-income communities—but it’s not going to change soon. New subway routes are billions of dollars a mile. And dock-based shared bikes like CitiBike are only accessible in wealthy and newly gentrified neighborhoods and tend to follow the path of major subway lines, doing nothing to close the equity gap.
And even where CitiBike is present, prohibitive upfront costs make these bikes inaccessible for low income New Yorkers, especially those who are trying to keep up with ever rising rents. In comparison, dock-free scooters and bikes are affordable. Major providers charge $1 to unlock a scooter, and $0.15 per minute. Most dock-free e-bikes are $1 or $2 to unlock and $0.07 to $0.15 per minute to ride. Low-income riders on public assistance can also get massive discounts on rides. And these options can be rolled out immediately, without new infrastructure.
Legalizing personal e-bikes would also greatly improve the quality of life for a large and growing sector of the workforce. The men and women who deliver our food — and, increasingly, all kinds of goods bought online — rely more and more on e-bikes to make ends meet. Instead of helping those lower-income workers, New York City has targeted them for fines, using the outdated State law as an excuse. We can help those struggling workers as well by simply passing the Ramos/Rozic legislation.
Even more good news: Lawmakers don’t have to spend a dime of taxpayer money to get access to e-bikes and e-scooters, and to start improving local transportation for all New Yorkers right now. They just need to get out of the way.
If the legislature does not allow micro-mobility to roll forward, thousands of lower-income New Yorkers will be denied better access to mass transit, better transportation options, and better vehicles to make a living with.
Albany: let New Yorkers save time and money—and sanity. Give them affordable, reliable transportation choices to be able to move around their city regardless of their zip code, bank account, or background.
It’s time we deliver transportation justice to those who need it the most.
Jonathan Westin is the executive director of New York Communities for Change.