N.Y. Today: The downside of e-bikes

What you need to know for Tuesday.

It's Tuesday. We'll look at how e-scooters and e-bikes have changed the streetscape in New York and raised safety concerns. Scroll down and we'll look at a professor who won a $1 million prize for real-world projects, including an algorithm to predict manhole explosions.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Quietly, even stealthily — because they make so little noise — e-scooters and e-bikes proliferated in New York during the coronavirus pandemic, and they seem likely to last.

My colleague Winnie Hu writes that these electric-powered machines changed the way people get around the city. Delivery people depend on them day and night. Office workers glide to work on them instead of taking the subway. And skateboarders have discovered electric skateboards, which can do half-pipes but are not legal on city streets.

These machines have also raised new safety concerns.

E-powered machines can fill the gaps in urban transportation systems for trips to places that are too far to walk to but are too close for the subway or bus, according to transportation officials and experts.

E-scooters and e-bikes seem made for urban life because they are better for the environment; they take up little, if any, street space for parking; and they are fun to ride, said Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

"You don't need to put out an S.U.V.'s worth of carbon emissions just to go to work," she said.

Their popularity surged with the pandemic. Like many e-riders, George Diaz of the Bronx bought an e-scooter last year to reduce the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus on his crowded bus commute. Now he takes his scooter whenever he can. "It saves me money," he said.

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Not every e-scooter is for going to work. Shareese King, who also lives in the Bronx, uses hers to run errands. She found it so convenient that she stopped using ride-service cars and deleted the Uber app from her phone.

But the e-mobility boom has posed significant safety challenges on New York's congested streets. At least 17 people have been killed while riding electric mobility vehicles this year, according to city officials. Revel, which operates an electric moped share program in the city, voluntarily shut it down for a month last year after three riders were killed.

Three pedestrians have also died in e-mobility crashes this year, among them the actress Lisa Banes, who was knocked down by a hit-and-run scooter rider on the Upper West Side. And many pedestrians and cyclists complain about e-bike and e-scooter riders who speed, ride on sidewalks, run red lights and go the wrong way on streets.

"The e-bikes, they don't mind which way they have to go, how they go, where they go," said Jacqueline Aybar, who recently had a near miss with an e-bike in a Queens crosswalk. "Now, when you're crossing the street, it's not just looking for a car. You have to look to see if any bike is coming."

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City and state officials have scrambled to keep up with the rapid e-mobility expansion. Most e-bikes and e-scooters did not become legal in New York City until last year, though delivery workers have long ridden them. Unlike cars, they are not registered or licensed or required to have insurance. Unlike drivers, e-riders caught speeding by automatic cameras are not sent summonses.

City officials said they had installed more protected bike lanes, launched a public education campaign about which e-mobility devices are legal and set safety guidelines.

But Samuel I. Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner, said the city needed a comprehensive plan to address the e-mobility boom.

"The streets were not made for the e-mobility vehicles," he said. "We have to look at this systematically and not just single out e-bikes and e-scooters. We have to redefine our streets."

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WEATHER

It's a calm Tuesday, with temps in the low 70s and a mostly cloudy sky during the day. Then expect a partly cloudy evening with temps dropping to the low 60s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Nov. 1 (All Saints Day).

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She won a $1 million prize for predicting which manholes would explode

Damon Winter / The New York Times

Cynthia Rudin figured out where it could happen and how likely it was. But she never saw it actually happen.

We are talking manhole explosions.

Those terrifying eruptions can blast a 300-pound manhole cover high above the street, trailed by a hideous cloud of almost-blinding flame and rust-colored gunk. Rudin, now a professor of computer science and engineering at Duke University, led a project that used machine learning to predict which Con Edison manholes were most at risk of blowing up.

For that research and other work that applied artificial intelligence to the everyday world — including the basis of a program used by the Police Department to identify crimes in different precincts that might be related — Rudin has just won a $1 million prize. The award, the Squirrel AI Award for Artificial Intelligence for the Benefit of Humanity, was announced by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Rudin, who has also collaborated on a formula that predicts the likelihood of seizures in critically ill hospital patients who have brain injuries, became involved with the manholes when Con Edison hired researchers from Columbia University. The assignment was massive: There are more than 50,000 manholes in Manhattan alone. They serve as entrances to underground conduits housing enough electrical cable to stretch almost all the way around the world at the Equator.

The cables are a particular worry in winter, when melting snow, along with salt and chemicals from road de-icing, can seep into manholes and cause short-circuiting if the insulation on the cables deteriorates. Rudin said that even a few sparks in the tight confines of a manhole can cause combustion.

Rudin's team assembled information about every manhole on every block — a huge trove of data. The algorithm that Rudin and her team developed searched for patterns behind manhole explosions. In a test by Con Edison, the top 2 percent of "trouble holes" in Manhattan — manholes with problems — that the algorithm ranked as vulnerable included 11 percent that had recently had fires or explosions. Con Edison said it continues to use similar system analysis to predict what it calls "manhole events."

Rudin did not need an algorithm to predict what she would do with the $1 million.

"The first thing I'm going to do is allocate 40 percent to pay taxes," she said. "I feel that's a really important thing to do, to support our society."

"You hear about these multimillionaires and the interesting things they do with their money," she continued. "I've never heard anyone brag about taxes, but I'm so proud of the public schools my children go to and our police officers and our firefighters and people who tend our parks and all of those whose job it is to keep society going."

Beyond that, she said, "I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the rest of it."

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METROPOLITAN DIARY

Rainy ride

Dear Diary:

It was a very rainy and windy Tuesday afternoon, and I was walking along Fifth Avenue near Central Park. I was in a suit and tie and had my double bass and the remnants of a cheap umbrella.

I had just turned at 87th Street to walk through the park when a UPS truck pulled up, stopping traffic in the process.

"You want a ride?" the driver asked, and then opened the passenger-side door before I could muster an answer. "Get in."

Cars were honking, the rain was still coming down and I had a 20-minute walk ahead me.

Why not?

I climbed in, sat down and balanced the bass between my body and the inner wall of the truck. The driver dropped me at the C train station. He was cracking jokes the whole way there.

— Noah Garabedian

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

Melissa Guerrero, Rick Martinez and Olivia Parker contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at nytoday@nytimes.com.

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