Transportation

E-Bikes: The Tale Of Two Cities

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A couple e-bikes outside a local deli. Small businesses all across the city employ delivery rides on e-bikes (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

Last week, Mayor De Blasio announced that in 2018, enforcement against e-bikes in New York City would be ramped up, as they pose a danger to pedestrians, though no data has been provided by the city to back the allegations.

We are doing a series of stories, looking at what seems to be at the heart of this issue: e-bikes, be they scooters or battery assisted bicycles, live in a legal limbo, yet enable vulnerable populations to live in the city—be they delivery people, or the disabled needing to get around. 

Our first story is about two stores, that may as well be worlds apart.

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Outside an e-bike store in Brooklyn.

On Grand Street in Bushwick, a storefront e-bike shop works as both retail and repair shop, with new e-bikes lined against the wall, and customer’s bikes in vary states of repair in every available bit of free space. Most e-bikes in Andy’s Bushwick shop sell for about $500 to $1,000.

E-bike store interior on Grand Street (via Google)

Zach, a bicycle delivery man, is in getting a brake fixed. He rides for a variety of services: Seamless, GrubHub, Postmates, UberEats—you name it, mostly delivering in Park Slope.

He’s only had one ticket, running a red light late at night on his way home from work. The cost? $500 and an impounded bike. “I had to pay it to get my bike back—I had no choice,” he said.

Those in the gig economy of delivery work, not employed by a specific restaurant, will continue to bear the brunt of fines and deal with impounds themselves.

“I don’t know, man, it’s not good,” he says in response to news about more enforcement, “I guess we have to find other work.”

A man on an e-bike crosses against the light at an intersection (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

Like most bike riders, the guys in the shop admit there are those who flout the rules—riding on sidewalks, going against traffic, not stopping for red lights—but insist the majority obey the rules. They also say the blame is to share with regular bike riders, who commit many of the same infractions.

Frank, buying a new tire for his scooter-style electric bike, is worried about the future as well. “I don’t know, man, this is probably a bad investment for me,” he says, holding up the $60 tire and tube he’d just purchased.

If the city really cracks down on e-bikes, he isn’t sure what to do. Frank has a large cast on one foot, and a walking boot lets him shuffle around, but he uses his e-bike to get to and from the doctor’s office.

An e-bike parked at the curb. Even the scooter-style bikes don’t require a driver’s license. (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

He’s only gotten one ticket, though he maintains the police were harassing him. “They said, ‘If our sergeant was here, we’d take your bike.” Instead, he got off with a $200 fine.

Still, the future is unclear for riders, and many of them depend on their bikes.

Even Andy, the owner of the shop, isn’t sure how it’ll all shake out. “The police visited me the other morning,” he said as he worked on a customer’s bike.

A delivery rider on an electric bike rides against traffic in the oncoming lane (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

The officer told Andy he could keep selling bikes, but he had to tell customers that they’d get tickets if they ride them. “I tell everyone: don’t go on sidewalks, wear a helmet, ride under 25 mph,” he said, but once customers zip away from the shop, it’s really out of his hands.

“They’re gonna cancel our business—one year, maybe,” he says. He seems frustrated, but not outraged—just resigned. Andy worked his way up from a dishwasher to a deliveryman before heading to Philadelphia to start an e-bike business. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to New York and tried again, finally finding success with the current shop.

It’s working well—for now. And in the future? Andy doesn’t even look up from the wiring he’s fixing, just shrugs. “We’ll start a new business.”

Across town, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the future of e-bikes looks much brighter. In the gleaming showroom of Propel bikes, a couple from New Jersey looks at electric-assist mountain bikes they’d like shipped to Colorado, where they vacation. It’s a world away from Andy’s storefront-slash-repair shop.

Propel’s bikes run on Bosch motors and none of them are throttle activated: they amplify a rider’s pedaling energy to assist. Leo, who works at Propel, is happy to tell me they’re legal: they’ve been to court to prove it and, apparently, Mayor De Blasio has defended electric-assist bikes on camera.

A delivery bike chained to a bike rack. While they look like regular bicycles, these throttle driven models are illegal (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

The speed of e-bikes is often cited when defending the crackdown: they go too fast and are a danger to pedestrians. Yet the legal bikes in the Propel showroom are just as fast. The Class I bikes have 350W motors rated for up to 20 mph and the Class IIIs are rated up to 28 mph—the same as throttle-activated e-bikes.

The biggest difference? A few thousand dollars. “Our sweet spot is probably $3,000 to $5,000,” said Leo, when asked about ballpark prices. “In the last year, though, we’ve sold 50 of these,” he says, pointing to a nearby bike. “Spec’d like that, they’re $7,300 each.”

While Andy’s Bushwick shop faces an uncertain future, Propel is taking deliveries of new models and planning for a big year. “We’re really bullish on 2018,” said Leo, “The market has really grown and we think it’s gonna bloom next year.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sorry to hear that the crackdowns will impact businesses and individuals – but so happy to hear they are cracking down on the delivery drivers. I, personally, have nearly been hit 3 times by the food delivery guys in our neighborhood. Twice they were going through red lights and once a guy almost hit me on the sidewalk. And many friends have similar stories. The drivers of e-bikes really need to be cracked down on.

  2. Make them have insurance and a license plate. What happens when they hit a child or damage an auto.What is the difference between e bike and electric car? Electric cars should not have to be registered,have insurance or a license plate. No drivers license should be required. You want to play then you have to pay.PERIOD!!!!!!!!

  3. It is so disingenuous to show these Asian-style mopeds in photos and call them e-Bikes. While a number of the images used in the article do show more traditional bikes with some type of electric-assist, it is the very cheap imports that clearly abuse the lack of clear customs identification by adding pedals to a motor vehicle that clearly will not ride well under human power if at all. The sole motivation is to avoid DOT certifications, customs, and duties required when importing a licensed motor vehicle. Willing retailers selling these mopeds are committing similar offenses knowing full well that if the motor scooters were properly identified, their business classification would change dramatically since they would be selling motorized vehicles that require a proper license, registration, and insurance. Propel and other shops in the five boroughs have made the necessary investment into marketing only legal pedal-assist bicycles and while their intentions are good and their instructions are clear, I suspect some of their customer’s bikes are caught up in the De Bliaso sweeps. As to the pedestrians who claim that eBikes are out to get them, do the lineup and show them images of what they believe was targeting them and I would almost guarantee that the offender was on one of the moped-style scooters and not a true pedal-assist bicycle. Most of today’s top bikes have managed to blend the drive system into the frame design that it takes a much closer look to even determine that the bike has any type of assist. I will be transparent and say as a member of the industry, I believe that it is critical that we stand up and educate the public and officials on the differences between these two and find a way to further clarify and legislatively isolate the products that do not fit into the category. Beyond that, teaching riding courtesy and etiquette would always be a benefit to both electric-assist and human-powered riders.

  4. There are some serious factual problems in this article:

    > The Class I bikes have 350W motors rated for up to 20 mph and the Class IIIs are rated up to 28 mph—the same as throttle-activated e-bikes.

    Actually, throttle-activated e-bikes go only up to 20mph, the same as the pedal-assist e-bikes sold at Propel. Neither throttles nor 28mph pedal-assist bikes (“speed pedelecs”) are legal to use in NYC. Anything above 20mph is no longer considered an “e-bike” by Federal law.

    The Arrow e-bikes (pictured with people riding them) can be converted to pedal assist by removing the throttle. Then it’s a fully legal pedal-assist e-bike with top speed of 20mph.

    > An e-bike parked at the curb. Even the scooter-style bikes don’t require a driver’s license. (Paul Stremple/BKLYNER)

    This is not a picture of an e-bike at all; but rather, a fully legal, registered moped; note the NY license plate on the back. It is also used for delivery, note the built-in mittens. Mopeds in NY require a driver’s license, registration and insurance. NY does not currently provide licenses to undocumented immigrants, making a moped out of reach for a large fraction of delivery workers.

    > Even the scooter-style bikes don’t require a driver’s license.

    Scooter-style e-bikes aren’t legal, so it’s pointless to talk about requiring a driver’s license.

    Scooter-style e-bikes are inferior in every way to the Arrow e-bikes, shown in use in this article; that’s why they are so cheap ($500-$1000). They use lead-acid batteries — which are slow, low performance, wear out quickly, and then create a disposal problem. That’s why most delivery cyclists use the Arrow e-bike — which is $1400 and uses Li-Ion tech. It’s cheaper in the end, if you want to actually get stuff done. I don’t know who is buying cheap, low-quality scooter-style e-bikes from Andy; nobody sells them in Manhattan due to lack of demand. They have no place on the road in NYC.

  5. > Propel and other shops in the five boroughs have made the necessary investment into marketing only legal pedal-assist bicycles and while their intentions are good and their instructions are clear, I suspect some of their customer’s bikes are caught up in the De Bliaso sweeps.

    No, none of Propel’s customers have been caught in DeBlasio’s sweeps (this is a fact; Nolte stands behind his customers if they are, and he’s never had to).

    E-bike shops like Arrow (Manhattan) cater to working delivery cyclists. Arrow is especially good: they sell a single high-quality Chinese model for $1400 that, while not luxury, works well and doesn’t break. It even includes lights and full fenders. It’s an amazing transportation value. They back their product fully, and do walk-in repairs. That’s why most delivery cyclists use Arrow e-bikes (pictured multiple times in this article). I have no idea who buys cheap scooter-style e-bikes from Andy’s shop, they have a short shelf life.

    Propel e-bikes makes no attempt to sell to the working delivery market. They sell higher-end e-bikes to a wealthier commuter market at SIGNIFICANTLY higher prices. If they want to sell to delivery, they will have to sell a bike for under $2000, probably closer to $1500. Arrow e-bikes ($1400) can easily be modified to make them fully legal by removing the throttle. Why should delivery workers spend $2500 on a mid-drive e-bike with sophisticated torque sensor, when a simple $1400 e-bike with cadence sensor gets the job done just fine?

    Anyway, the e-bike sweeps target working cyclists with brown skin. Even if they don’t ride an e-bike, they still get harassed. See:

    http://www.intersectionalriding.com/2017/10/26/visionzeroapartheid-part1/

    > As to the pedestrians who claim that eBikes are out to get them, do the lineup and show them images of what they believe was targeting them and I would almost guarantee that the offender was on one of the moped-style scooters and not a true pedal-assist bicycle.

    No, the Arrow e-bike (pictured multiple times above) is the most common e-bike in NYC BY FAR. Most people who claim an e-bike almost got them either saw an Arrow e-bike; or they saw a brown-skinned delivery person going fast on a manual mountain bike, and mis-took it for an Arrow e-bike. E-bike complaints in NYC are largely a proxy for complaints about immigrant delivery workers.

    > Most of today’s top bikes

    You can stop right there. Delivery workers aren’t going to buy top bikes; unless the get a union and a SIGNIFICANT raise. Find a way to sell a quality e-bike for $1500 that works in all weather, doesn’t break, and is cheap/easy to repair. If you can’t do that, just get out of the way and let the Chinese e-bikes keep the largest e-bike market in NYC (restaurant delivery); one they pioneered, which constitutes 20% of ALL bikes out on the road.

    > we stand up and educate the public and officials on the differences between these two and find a way to further clarify and legislatively isolate the products that do not fit into the category.

    NYPD is figuring it out without your help. It’s not so complex, they just look for a throttle. The few who ride scooter-style e-bikes are just asking to get stopped, and everyone already knows it.

    > Beyond that, teaching riding courtesy and etiquette would always be a benefit to both electric-assist and human-powered riders.

    Do you really understand the e-bike scene in NYC? Comments like this make me think you don’t…

  6. > What is the difference between e bike and electric car?

    e-bike = 50lb; e-car = 5000lb
    e-bike = 350W; e-car = 150,000W (200 hp)
    e-bike = 20mph; e-car = 100mph
    crash e-bike = broken nose; crash e-car = you die

  7. I’ve been around careless cyclists, be it regular bikes or e-bikes. And I’ve been around courtesy cyclists, be it regular or e-bikes. If the city wants to crack down, crack down on people who are reckless, don’t harass people just because of their type of bike.

    It’s ridiculous that we’re doing this crackdown when people can drive 2-ton SUVs through crosswalks while looking at their Uber app without consequences.

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