It’s almost impossible to walk a block or two in Manhattan and not spy a Chinese-food deliveryman on a bicycle.
For years, the tool of the trade was an inexpensive mountain bike, usually banged-up and grimy and trimmed with large wire baskets. But a new type of vehicle has emerged in the world of Chinese-food delivery: the electric bike.
The battery-powered bikes — which can travel faster than a pedal-powered bike and, let’s not forget, don’t need to be pedaled — are revolutionizing the trade of delivering Chinese food in Manhattan by extending the range for restaurants and speeding up the service.
The bikes have brought a small measure of ease to a profession that is virtually cornered by poor Chinese immigrants.
But the electric bikes have also caused problems: they are illegal to use on city streets, and their proliferation has led to controversy about how to regulate them.
Deliverymen say they have received an increasing number of tickets in recent months for riding the electric bikes. Many deliverymen are using plastic bags to obscure the electric mechanism that runs along the frame tube that extends down from the seat in hope of avoiding the police.
“It’s unfair — these bikes allow us to do what we do,” said Jihui Zhang, 42, who delivers food for Szechuan Gourmet restaurant on West 39th Street in Manhattan.
Mr. Zhang said that he and scores of fellow deliverymen he knows had received summons for using electric bikes.
The bikes cost around $1,000 and deliverymen often save up for months to buy them, especially because many restaurants give preference when hiring to deliverymen who own them, Mr. Zhang said.
The bikes generally travel up to 20 miles per hour and have batteries that last about four hours. Many deliverymen carry additional batteries with them.
Mr. Zhang said his electric bike, which he bought three years ago, allows him to make deliveries up to 80 blocks away. He said he obeyed the rules of the road but has still been ticketed simply for using the bike. Unable to speak adequate English, he said he would be unable to pass the test to operate a motorcycle.
Many owners expect employees to regularly make deliveries more than 20 blocks away, said one deliveryman. “There’s no way to do this without an electric bike,” said the deliveryman, who would only give his surname, Jian, because he said he was still waiting for his green card. “The job requires it. When we look for work, most delivery jobs are for electric bikes.”
Nancy Yang, a manager at the Lan Sheng restaurant on West 39th Street, said that the electric-bike deliveries were speedier, and helped keep customers. “Electric bikes go faster and farther,” she said. “If the food isn’t there fast enough, customers will complain.”
The fine for operating an electric bike on city streets is $65 and it is adjudicated through the city’s Parking Violations Bureau, much like a parking ticket, said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York Police Department.
The bikes cannot be legally registered in New York because many do not meet federal motor vehicle standards.
As to why, if they are illegal, there are still so many of them on city streets, Mr. Browne said more pressing crime issues take precedence.
“There are only so many police officers to witness the violations and respond to them,” he said.
The State Legislature is considering a bill that would allow certain electric bikes — ones with a top speed of 20 miles per hour and using no more than 7,500 watts of power — to essentially have the same legal status as bicycles, said Graham Parker, a spokesman for State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, a Democrat from Brooklyn who is a sponsor of the bill.
Electric bikes have also become popular with people seeking an affordable solution to higher gas prices. But they are most vital for deliveryman, a largely invisible population who tend to work long hours with low pay and no benefits.
Kevin Fu, who owns Electric Bikes, a store on Hester Street in Chinatown in Manhattan, sells and repairs the bikes, serving mostly Chinese immigrants. He said he knew little about the laws but simply tells customers to obey the rules of the road. Electric bikes that have a restaurant’s name seem to elicit greater leniency from the police compared with one ridden by a recreational user, he said.
Mr. Zhang said he was stopped recently by an officer at a red light. He could not understand the officer so he showed him a business card from the restaurant he works for. He was issued a summons but it was dismissed when the officer did not appear at a hearing, Mr. Zhang said.
Mr. Zhang, who lives with three roommates in an apartment in Flushing, said he worked six days a week and earned $50 to $90 for a 12-hour day.
He said he has been working as a deliveryman for the five years since he moved to New York City from China where he was a factory worker with a wife and child. He is saving to bring them to New York to join him, which he estimates may cost $8,000.
After two years of long hours pedaling a delivery bike, he started having problems with his knees and ankles, he said, but now the electric bike has helped him continue working, he said.
He said he is here legally, but many riders who are not worry that a police stop will put them at risk of being turned over to federal immigration officials.
“Everyone has this fear, this pressure, that they could get in trouble,” he said. “We know these bikes are illegal.’’