A New York e-bike shop owner has told the story of how he was handed a $25,000 fine within six months of opening because he was selling e-bikes. It is largely a tale of inspectors not properly knowing the law when it comes to new forms of transport.
After returning from serving in Iraq with a back injury, Chris Nolte struggled to stay active until he discovered e-bikes.
In 2011, he founded Propel Bikes. At first he ran the business from an office building on Long Island, but in 2015 he opened a store in Brooklyn.
In 2004, New York had outlawed throttle-activated e-bikes and that was still the legal situation when the shop opened. However, the law didn’t say pedal-assisted e-bikes were illegal.
Nolte took the entirely logical view that if something wasn’t illegal, it must be legal. “So I said, okay, I’m going to open this store and we’re going to sell exclusively pedal-assist bikes.”
He said he knew he was taking a risk, but that the upside was potentially very big, “and I figured this is something that really needs to happen.”
Six months after he opened, Nolte got a visit from an inspector from the Department of Consumer Affairs. He told Nolte he was there to write him a violation.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, the inspector took the view that e-bikes were illegal, whereas Nolte, of course, did not.
The law at the time said that two- or three-wheeled vehicles that could be operated without human assistance needed to be registered, otherwise they were illegal.
Nolte said: “I knew that pedal-assist bikes, they require human assistance to be operated and I was willing to push that boundary. He wasn’t really willing to listen and basically he wrote me this fine.”
Among the many places Nolte called while attempting to fight the fine was the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs.
In a spectacularly New York moment, a few days later he was told, “It’s taken care of.”
However, a year later, the Department of Consumer Affairs came back and gave him a $7,000 fine.
Rather than taking the same course of action again, this time Nolte decided to go to court.
“I went to court and the judge heard both sides and it was clear. In the same instance, the inspector really didn’t know what they were talking about. And [the judge] basically said, yeah, this is not right. The law is not written in such a way that these pedal-assist bikes are considered electric scooters.”
Nolte’s case therefore helped set a precedent that pedal-assist e-bikes were legal. He has since opened a second branch of Propel in Long Beach, California.
You can hear his full story in the video below.