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SGV Connect 112 Interview : Joe Linton and Carlos Morales

Joe Linton (JL): Hi, this is Joe Linton. I'm the editor of Streetsblog Los Angeles. I'm here talking to Carlos Morales of Stan's Bike Shop and a long history of bike activism in Los Angeles. And we're going to be exploring some of the regulations coming down the pipe regarding e bikes and maybe some other stuff. So, Carlos, you want to start at sort of the national level? What's the what's the big picture? Start there.

Carlos Morales (CM): Okay, great. Well, first of all, thank you, Streetsblog LA for having Jos. Great seeing you, you put a big smile on my face when I walked in Chris, always a pleasure. So since I own a bike shop, and I've been following the e bike trends. And what really caught my attention for me to keep on this was, I remember going to my first CicLAvia 12 years ago or whatever it was-

JL: Yeah, 10/10/10 Right? 

CM: Yeah, there you go, thank you. And I remember there was like 99% conventional bicycles and skateboards and just human powered bikes, pedestrians, versus 1% on an E bike. And you could tell it was an E bike, because the way they were riding it, they look different. And now I go back, my wife and I went to one of the latest Ciclovias. And boy, were we surprised. It was 60% e bikes versus 40% conventional bikes. And I says, "wow, it's an impact." Here at my store, we do sell e bikes, I've been selling them for the last six years. I'm probably considered one of the babies in the industry. I was one of the last ones to jump on board to sell e bikes. It's always been conventional bikes. But I get phone calls, people walking in, and I see what they're asking for. Then I belong to a couple of trade organizations. And one of them it's called BRAIN, it's the retailer Business Association. And they announced that they were doing a fireside chat on E bikes. And right away, I was one of the first ones who signed up. And I thought I knew a lot about E bikes. And I learned a lot. And, and I'm here to share what I what I learned with you today. One of the things so it was it was hosted by the Bicycle Retail Association. And the guest speakers were the UL Listing is the agency that actually certifies products for it being safe for public safety. There was some insurance companies, the New York Fire Department was there. And I was kind of surprised, but again, not surprised, because many of the fires e bike fires have been happening in the city of New York, Chicago, a lot of the municipalities where they have a lot of high rises, there's condos, apartments. Then as I was following this, I'm seeing that bike shops were catching fire, warehouses were catching fire. And it was just amazing to see how much activity has been around e bike fires?

JL:  Do you think this is really widespread? Is it still kind of a rare thing? Or how common are those fires?

CM: I'm actually, it is more common than people realize. And the only reason I'm grasping at it, because I'm getting information from across the country and around the world. And that's why I kind of see the "Wow, here, and wow, here" and I'll have conversations with my wife and I told her "Hey, there was this shop that burned down over here" and she goes "wow, another one." So we start talking about it. So it's happening more than what people realize

JL: it because I remember, you know, they wouldn't let you take like hoverboards, those little like electronic skateboards on airplanes because of the fire risk and stuff. I mean, there's a lot of sort of, I shouldn't say a lot, there's enough for you to hear about it. Sort of shoddy electronics that that catch fire. Tell us about it.

CM: Absolutely about it started with the hoverboards, and the hoverboards grabbed the major municipalities in America like crazy. Everybody wanted them. It was the perfect birthday gift, graduation gift. Kids in college, kids in school, would have them. And then they started catching fire. And it was I remember Sept -- they they came out in the summer -- September came in and all the shops were getting ready to order them for Christmas. All right. And then within a couple of months the laws changed and they made them, they actually prohibited them because how dangerous they were, not just in the tripping hazard, but of them catching fire.

JL: And is it sort of, like the first generation of them are good quality? And then there's a bunch of knockoffs that catch fire or is it that is it inherently like you bikes or hoverboards -- are they inherently dangerous?

CM: Well, it's like exactly what you said. There are people who make them and they make them well, they use quality parts, they use a good size, gauge of wire, the way things are soldered and then there's guys who try to cut costs pennies on it, and they use a thinner gauge wire, the soldering is not there. There's no, back then I don't think they had any what's called Battery Management Systems. On an ebike the batteries are asking for power, and they're telling the charger give me power, give me power. And then when they're full, like just like when you eat, you get food, you says, "Okay, that's enough," and you push your plate away. Well, the charger and the battery are not talking to each other. And this guy says, "No, I made all this food, you're gonna eat it" and it keeps feeding it. And that's when the fires happen. 

JL: So what would be your advice to the consumer? Somebody's looking  to get an E bike. What's the first thing they should look for in terms of to get a safe product? 

CM: Yeah, so the first thing you want to look at is the actual components just like an any conventional bike. If you see that the bike has some components, then we're going to hope that the electronics behind it is also there. So  this whole conversation is about what to what what to look for and how the industry is changing. And one of the things that I would say currently in the United States, I would say perhaps 10%, and I'm being generous, have UL certification, or any type of third party certification that somebody came in, look at the electronics, look at the way the mechanisms are talking to each other. And 10% is very low. However, there are many bikes out there that are that are quality bikes, they just haven't gone through that certification. One of the reasons, it cost like $10,000 at a minimum per SKU [stock keeping unit]. So say Giant has, they make -- I'm just throwing it out there -- 15 different bikes, that will be $10,000 per bike model.

JL: So what do the regulations look like? What does New York City or  what does the United States do to try to prevent these fires and get safe products out there and keep dangerous products off the market?

CM: So one of these things that we had these Fireside Chats was to actually start the dialogue. Even though people have been talking about it, no one has taken the first step in actually making a standardized protocol for manufacturers, distributors, bike shops, and the consumer. There's been no education on that. So in New York City, there's been condos, apartments, bike shops, entire complexes burned down to the ground, and they'll blame it on an e bike. One of the things in the conversations when I was talking to the fire department, I was saying, "Well, wait a minute, that e bike was modified." He goes, "How do you know that?" And I says, "Well, you could just see they added a second charge, a battery to it," or stuff like that. So a lot of these fires, even though I'm not there to investigate it, but just looking at the pictures and the video, you could see that some of these bikes have been modified. So I was trying to justify, or trying to tell them "don't blanket and say all the bikes are bad" because that's not what it was. And also there was another group of People for Bikes that really really advocated to change the law as it's as it's coming down in New York and eventually it's going to be across the country. They've actually fought pretty hard to not blanket the entire industry.

JL: And talk about these mods are they, are  they home kits, are they people who know what they're doing electronically? Or who knows?

CM: Well, I think that's the reason so a lot of people want the bikes to go faster. They want the bikes to go longer than what the bikes are spec'ed out to be. And they do that and they start Mickey Mousing, putting a Y adapter and getting two batteries to try to get it going. Or when that batteries on then they get the one that they modified and then connect it. They made a special connector to connect it to get extra mileage. So those are problems. I get phone calls all the time where people want to do that. People want to put a larger battery, if they don't want two batteries, they want to make a larger battery and they Mickey Mouse a connection there. They're using different chargers that are not meant for that battery, and they're swapping out connectors to make it fit. And these are all red flags. Even when bikes come into my shop, and I see any type of modification, I don't do any work on it. It's just a really bad lliability and unsafe. If something happens, even though you didn't touch that part of the bike, and if it catches fire, he goes, "Oh, he's the one that touched it last." So yeah, it's not safe.

JL: So what sort of legislation or protections do you anticipate at federal level or otherwise?

CM: Okay, so right now, what's happening, a couple of months ago, or what went into effect in the city of New York, they put a ban on consumers taking their bikes, in apartments and in condos. And basically, we started getting calls. And the reason you know, so why are they calling you, I have two phones, one, this phone is strictly with e bike questions from across the country. And this one is the normal store. So when this one rings, I know it's an e bike question. 

So people were calling me about the new law that was going to take place and what could they do? So I started telling them to talk to their management company, the whoever owns the property, and, and tell them you're taking these different steps to try to to prevent e bike fires. So there's a couple of things that a consumer can do on their own to help reduce the risk. And there's some things that they can't, and they don't know, because they're poorly made e bikes.

JL: But what do you recommend for consumers, if you have an e bike? What should you do?

CM: So on a consumer what we should do is, first thing to do is set your timer on your phone. And if you're going to give it a full charge five or six hours, put an alarm on your on your phone for the five hours, when that alarm goes off, you're gonna go and disconnect it, a lot of people make the mistake of charging them overnight. And again, it's the battery management system are not talking to each other. And this guy's just giving them all the juice and he's already full. And that's part of the problem. Another thing I'm asking people to do is every hour to two hours, go to your battery charger, and put it in your hand and grasp it tight. And if it doesn't burn you, if you could hold it for a couple of seconds you're alright, some battery chargers normally will get warm, but they shouldn't get hot, where you can't hold it in your hands. So I tell people do it every hour, two hours and go and go and check it. The other thing is to find a place where you're going to charge your bikes or scooters or electric wheelchairs, and you're going to try to do it in a floor with no carpet, away from drapes and look at the circumstances around is this something that's going to be able to catch fire quick. One of the problems regarding these e bike or E mobility fires, when these batteries catch fire, even the fire departments across the country, they're putting their heads together, to try to figure out how to put these fires out there is no protocols yet on how to put them out and one cell goes up and then the next one goes and it's a continuous thing. So one of the things that we're telling people to do is keep charging them accessible, where you could take it outside of your home. If you could do it in a carport or what have you, but in New York we don't we don't have those. But try to do it where it's accessible throw out of your door. That's and never modify or alter your LCD to try to make it faster. A lot of people try to do that. If it's factory set, leave it leave it like that.

JL: Have there been fires in Southern California?

CM: Oh, several, several the two that come to mind. One was in Venice Beach. There was a bike shop that the entire bike shop broke down right at the Venice board Boardwalk. Yeah, and this bike shop rents out bicycles because he's right on the beach. It's pretty natural. I have a feeling he'd he had a lot of bikes on a maybe a power strip, charging these up overnight and his place -- And it's my guess it hasn't been you know [verified]...

JL: And have you heard any talk about California or Southern California municipalities doing any sort of legislation around restricting e bikes? 

CM: Yes. So right now on national parks you can't take a class three e bike in a national park across the country. And those for you, there's three types of E bikes, it's class one, class two and class three. Class One is usually the lower one, it's like a throttle only. The class two has a throttle on a pedal assist. And both class one and two would only go to 20 miles an hour. The class three bikes would go to 28 miles an hour, a lot of the people are actually on unlocking what's called governors in the bike, and the governors are there to keep you safe, to keep you at a manageable speed. These guys are taking off the governors and they're exposing it. There's there's bikes that go 45 miles an hour, 60 miles an hour. And it's just ludicrous for them to be riding like that. You know, if you want something like that, go get yourself an e motorcycle or a motorcycle. And even worse, these guys are riding at those speeds on the sidewalk where they're going to get in trouble with pedestrians and kids and pets. It's nonsense.

JL: So what about you had mentioned insurance companies? What's their role? What are they what are they putting pressure on?

CM: Oh, this is really good. This is where it gets exciting. And you get into politics. So there's a lot of insurance lobbyists that yeah, they said, "Oh, e bikes dangerous. Good. Let's put it on, and we're going to increase the coverage." And here in California now that we're here, just recently the two largest insurance companies are no longer writing homeowners insurance. And that's AllState and State Farm, I believe. They just announced, like two weeks of each other that they're going to stop writing new policies. And part of that --

JL: Regarding wildfires, though I thought it was..

CM: Well, it's yeah, it's the wildfires, floods. And I'm sure that the E bikes are going to be a part of it. During these conversations, the insurance companies were of course, pushing it there, "It's a dangerous thing to have at your house. So you got to be careful." And we know where that was gonna go.

JL: So what about manufacturers and distributors? What sort of, are there going to be regulations on them? How's that gonna affect the bikes?

CM: So, there is a lot of stuff coming down the pike, and it's gonna be done on a state by state, county by county, city by city. But right now, I'm gonna backtrack just a bit. In December of 2022, the Consumer Protection Agency, send out an email to over 2000 bike manufacturers, battery manufacturers, the scooter manufacturers, anything e mobility, they send out to 2000. And they're saying that they're requesting them to have a UL certification, to go get that. And it was it was only a matter of time that this was happened. So in March of --

JL: So talk for two seconds, what is UL certification? Is it that little sticker you see, like on your toaster or something? 

CM: Yes. So any appliance that you have at your house, even down to the cell phone charger, if you look at the little tag or the box, it's gonna have a u and an l and a little registered trademark, and that's a UL Laboratories. UL Laboratories has testing laboratories in every continent of the world, I found out through these chats. And I was talking to the global support manager, and he had a lot of information regarding that. 

JL: So that'll make these safer? Theoretically. I mean, is that being enforced? You were saying there was a sort of a notification email?

CM: Yes. So that notification was more of a suggestion. There wasn't really nothing forcible until in March of 2023, a couple of months ago, New York City Council passed unanimously, five to zero vote and the Mayor Adams signed it into law that in 180 days you couldn't, bike shops, and manufacturers, distributors could not sell e bikes that are not certified, UL certification. And there's a fine of $1,000 per unit. And so  it also prohibits the sale of refurbished batteries, which is the majority, I would say of the problems that we're having. So, now all of a sudden -- this is crazy, and it gets me a little bit upset. And I call it kicking the can down the road. So now you have manufacturers that have made these bikes shipped them over in a container. They're in the Port of LA, we have warehouses across the country full of these e bikes. Right now, across the country, e bike sales were a little bit slow, because mostly because of the weather conditions. In California, we had four months of rain, and we still haven't had much sunshine. So sales are down. So that means the warehouses have a lot of E bikes on their hands. There's there's boats coming across in the ocean ready, and none of these are UL certified. So in the East Coast, they're already, we see that happening in New York, that takes effect on in the middle of August of this year. So a month and a half away, any any bike shop caught with bikes, they're selling bikes that are not UL certified. That's $1,000 Fine, not per model, but per bike is a fine. So now you have some bikes that, I mean decent bikes that are $1,000 and then up to like $10,000 So if you got $1,000 bike and you're gonna get fined $1,000 You're you're not making any money. 

JL: So they're just not gonna be able to sell those in New York City, they're going to they're going to be sold in shops that aren't aren't in New York City or??

CM: They're going to try to sell them to shops outside of New York City. However, this same type of law is going to domino effect across the country. 

JL: Is that happening yet, or it just started in New York?

CM: It's just going to be started in August of this year, of 2023. So people have been calling me "What am I going to do?" So this is why I say they're kicking the can. So now the distributors are in a panic, we got to get rid of these bikes because we don't want them, so they're going to start -- literally a fire sale -- to the bike shops. "Hey, we got these bikes on sale, come and get them." The bikes, it's very tempting. The bike shop owners don't know any better. They think they're getting a good deal. They're gonna take them on. And, and then they're selling these bikes to the consumer. So it's still not solving the problem, but who's gonna bite the bullet, who's gonna, eat that loss? 

JL: How dangerous are those bikes, though? I mean, you weren't you were saying around 10% of inventory  has UL certification. About how much of the non UL certified is actually a dangerous bike. 

CM: So I'm gonna say I'm gonna, I don't have the stats, but I'm gonna say like, maybe 15% of all the bikes that are out there are bad bikes. And most of those bad bikes are sub $1,000. They're in the $300 to $600 range. Those are the ones that you got to [watcht out for]. You could see them at Costco and people buy them because they want to inexpensive bike, and all of a sudden a couple a couple of months later it's in for repair and the battery's dead, the charger is gone. And then when I tell them what the cost is, they says "well, that's more than the bike" and I says, "yeah, exactly. It's not meant to be written every day the way you ride it to go to school." So yeah, it's a problem.

JL: And then how are retailers doing. Are you getting the squeeze from from this sort of danger and certification and whatnot, and actually does a certification make the prices go up? And then they're  harder to sell but they're safer?

CM: Yeah, it's like I said, $10,000 per model, which it is going to increase the price again, it's going to get passed on to the to the consumer, however, the consumer is going to have a safer product at home. It's something you don't have to worry about with your family. What's happening is they're having these fire sales, pushing these to the bike shops. Most of the bike shops have no idea what's what's going down. If I wasn't connected with the people that I'm connected and actually trying to educate people, then I would be in the dark as well. And I'm talking to my friends with other bike shops and letting them know, the bike manufacturers that I work with directly from China, I've been telling them about what's going on. And they're already in the queue, which I'm very happy to say these guys were ahead of the bottleneck that's going to happen with UL, because all of a sudden, as these laws change, people are going to find out we need we need to get certification, do it, and then there's gonna be a big long line.

JL: So how about California and Los Angeles? What sort of regulations might be coming up here? What what's affecting the the e bike market?

CM: So what what's happening is, I think, Los Angeles, California as a whole has adopted e bikes. However, legislation, the lawmakers they really haven't been briefed on, it hasn't affected them. To the exception there has been south of us in Del Mar, Oceanside, San Diego areas, there has been legislation that actually prohibit some E bikes from being written in there in different parts of the city. Just recently, there was another law that actually said that was unconstitutional for having bikes not be able to have access to the beaches or bike paths or stuff. So that that just got changed, it got kind of reversed. At the same time, there was a lawmaker out in Laguna Niguel that just passed a bill that Governor Newsom signed, which is something that I really like and what it is, is it's going to make it mandatory for all the school systems in California to have bike education classes now and specifically caring about E bikes, what to do and what not to do. And the agency in charge of that is the California Highway Patrol. They've gotten funding to do it and their deadline to turn in this online class that the school systems and probably anybody in the state of California would be able to use. Their deadline to have that presentable is September 2023.

JL: Great ... What's your... it seems like... my worry... So I've got a nine year old and I've got her on an acoustic bike and she does fine. And her mom, my wife hasn't has an e bike and my daughter, I can see what would like an e bike. Hope she doesn't listen to this. Yeah, but I kind of worry that you get somebody who doesn't have a lot of experience, bicycling. And you give them sort of a lot of power. It's like Spider Man, with great power comes great responsibility, you know, so what's your sense of how our not fire risk, but how dangerous is it for sort of beginner bicyclists hopping on an e bike, you know, shooting up to 20 miles an hour without really knowing the basics of bicycling? 

CM: Yeah, and that is a really major concern for me, because I see kids that want to get on them. The problems that they were having in Orange County was there was a lot of, and it was in the news. There was a lot of e bike accidents, and it was younger kids riding these bikes and they had two passengers three passengers on the e bike. They thought it was fun. And they were getting in accidents, major injuries to both the pedestrians and the riders. Some weren't wearing helmets. I mean, anything that could go wrong, they were doing, so it is something. Families have come into the shop and they want to buy e bikes for their kids. And we have folding e bikes that a smaller stature individual could use and believe it or not, yeah, I want to make sales but I talked the parents, the families out of it because it's not safe. The bikes look cute, they're they're functional. The kids are having a good time. But again, they don't have the vision and the reflexes and the experience to know how to break and how fast you could go. And they don't know the rules of the road. One of the things that I'm getting getting back to the education piece, back in 2012, I wrote an article for Streetsblog LA when Boyle Heights just got the bike lanes and they painted them green for the first time and all of a sudden the people in the city were contacting me, "Hey, what are these lanes mean? What do we do?" And the whole presence of the article was, "okay, we built we built this infrastructure here, but where's the education?" They're not teaching it at school. The bike shops are not teaching it, law enforcement's not teaching it, and here again, so we're going, what, 10 to 11 years now. And we're going into the same problems. But hopefully with the with the California Highway Patrol doing this education piece, people will gravitate to it.

JL: Well, how about rebate programs? So Pasadena is starting a rebate program. There's a state rebate program that sounds like woefully underfunded. There's an AQMD rebate program, how are those working?

CM: Oh, my God, it's been a pet peeve. The Biden administration came in and they said we're going to do this national e bike rebate program. Here we are three years into the thing and it still hasn't hasn't gone and people have called me, "Hey, what's going on?" So we've been following, there's a lot of bike advocacy organizations that are keeping on top of it, but there's really nothing happening, there is no movement on an on a national level and a local level to to push these rebates.

JL: Yeah they're supposed to be I think the California one has like a soft opening this summer. I laugh because it's sort of the expectation is that it's just gonna get gobbled up. Because I mean, ebike sales are pretty good without any rebate, right? 

CM: Yeah. Actually, this this past year. So I've been selling e bikes for six years. I was telling Chris, earlier that a this past year in 2022, I just realized that we sold more e bikes in this store than conventional bikes. And it wasn't I wish I could take credit like I had a master plan, or this was my this was my business plan to do it. But no, it wasn't. It's just the demand. During COVID and coming out of COVID, there's a lot of people that didn't want to take the public transportation because of the illness and the craziness and the unsafe conditions that are in there. So they're they're biking to work back and forth. So that's where the bulk of my e bike sales happened. It was working class people using it as transportation. Versus if you were to go to Laguna Niguel, you go to Santa Monica, they would use it for recreation, for camping. Here in my community, they're using that as a need for transportation.

JL: I think that's about all. Is there anything you want to add to that?

CM: No, I just want to thank you guys for doing what you do. It's amazing. We need more Joe Lintons and Chris's out in the world. You guys are awesome. Keep it up.

JL: Well thank you for the bike activism you've done for decades and all the rides you've led, and the way I think your shops have operated as sort of community hubs and whatnot. So thank you for your time.

CM: I appreciate appreciate both you.