Propel Ebikes in New York, David takes on Goliath

April 25, 2021

There’s been a struggle simmering in the background concerning the laws that affect ebikes, but here’s one story with some good news. For a variety of reasons, New York has been forced to recognize some reasonable laws, and Propel ebikes has played a part. Let’s take a look…


Chris Nolte is the guy who took on New York. He started Propel Ebikes (click here), as a retail outlet for electric bikes only, since there were already plenty of pedal-only bicycle shops around. I met Chris many years ago at the Interbike convention (click here), and he probably doesn’t remember me, but he made an impression and I remember him. I was casually interviewing any ebike shop owners I could find, in order to get a feel for what customers where actually buying. (The BH eMotion was popular at the time, and also, click here).

Chris has a shop in Long beach, in Southern California, but the store at the middle of this controversy is the shop in Brooklyn, just across the bridge from Manhattan, in New York. Ebikes have been under pressure for a long time in NY. I think some of it was due to aggressive food delivery riders, who used ebikes to get between cars in the crowded traffic.

Propel Ebikes, in Brooklyn

Also, I have a theory for which I have no evidence. I visited Manhattan several times for a job I did. There is a shockingly high cost to park your car there, and it appeared as though they didn’t want anyone to drive their own car into the city. I was working in New Jersey, right on the border. When the weekend arrived, it was surprisingly cheap and easy to park my rental car in a very secure guarded car-park, and then ride a train into the center of Manhattan.

The island of Manhattan is long and narrow. the widest part was about ten blocks, which is fairly easy to walk. If the average citizen (or tourist) wanted to travel lengthwise, the subway system worked quite well, and was also affordable. It appeared as though the fairly wealthy citizens there used taxis and limousines to travel around Manhattan (think stock brokers and celebrities).

Remember the movie where Tom Hanks played pilot Sullenberger? They took off from the airport right next to Manhattan and both engines immediately went out (due to a flock of birds going into the intakes), so he had to land the plane in the river right next to Manhattan. That’s how close the airport is to Manhattan, but…the taxi fare from the airport to Manhattan was recently listed as $52. My point is…the City of New York does not look kindly on anything that takes money away from the subway or the cabs…like maybe…electric bikes?

Taxi cabs are the “money train” in NYC, rain or shine

A smart investigator once wrote “follow the money…always”. The city of New York derives significant income from the subway and taxis. That sounds like an offhand comment, but…to get a taxi permit (called a medallion) is very high. In 2019, sixteen medallions were offered at auction, three of which sold for $137,000. That is before you earn a single dollar in cab fares. Due to Uber and Lyft “ride sharing” programs, the New York Taxi population is down to around 13,000 (not a typo). Now, I’m no math genius (googles furiously), but that means the city of New York is getting over a billion dollars a year (with a “B”) from just granting “permission” for taxis to operate there.


Covid-19 (COrona VIrus Disease, 2019)

The Covid-19 virus has had far-reaching effects. As of March 2020, New York eased up on ebike restrictions specifically to address the need for more food delivery services. For any worker, it would be horrifically expensive to actually live in Manhattan, so the majority live within commuter-train distance, and ride into work each day. With tourists staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic, and few people going to restaurants (when it was even legal to do so), there was an explosion of food delivery orders from grocery stores as well as cooked food from restaurants.

This made New York realize where they had shot themselves in the foot. There had been a long-simmering battle between New York cops and food delivery drivers who were using stealthy ebikes to ride a delivery bike 12-hours a day. Before ebikes were invented, New York was the center of the “fixie” culture. The name refers to a fixed-gear bike (a single-speed bike with no freewheel).

Manhattan is very flat, so bike delivery riders didn’t need gears, and even if they had a few gears, a malfunctioning derailleur could make the bike inoperable. No gears, because simple is reliable. Plus leaving a bike outside makes it easy to steal, even if it has a lock on it. As a result, delivery bikes were very simple and and very light, so they could be carried inside. Of course, as soon as ebikes were invented, a few delivery guys started to try to get away with using them…

A New York food delivery driver on an ebike

If a regular bicycle was involved in a 20-mph crash, its not good, but…if an ebike is involved in a 20-mph crash?…all of a sudden its a public hazard. Laws were passed, and the police cracked down. It’s bad enough if the police hurt food delivery, but they even made the sale of ebikes illegal. That’s just nuts. What if I want to buy one, but then take it with me to some trail in Connecticut on the weekend? No, New York said, you can’t ride them here, and you can’t even sell them here. Or…did they?

Chris already had a working ebike store, but thought that eventually a shop near Manhattan would be positioned well for some eventual easing of rules to a more reasonable state of affairs. It was risky. However, the actual law concerning ebikes addressed the use of hand-throttles. European format ebikes rarely allow hand-throttles, and their reasoning in the past is that a lack of hand-throttle leaves the rider ready and able to apply the brakes with one or both hands. This means that EU-format ebikes use a Pedal-Assist-Sensor, or PAS. You only get power to the wheel if you are also pedaling.

However, an old friend said that if a cop decides he is going to arrest you…even if you win in court later, you aren’t getting out of the ride to jail, with the free picture and fingerprinting. Soon after opening a Propel shop in Brooklyn, Chris was cited with a $25,000 fine (again, not a typo). This story is great, but Chris does a better job of telling it, so check out this 13-minute video he just published.


Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, April 2021

Grew up in Los Angeles California, US Navy submarine mechanic from 1977-81/SanDiego. Hydraulic mechanic in the 1980's/Los Angeles. Heavy equipment operator in the 1990's/traveled to various locations. Dump truck driver in the 2000's/SW Utah. Currently a water plant operator since 2010/NW Kansas


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