It didn’t take long for bystander footage to spread: thick gray smoke poured from the building’s windows as firefighters rappelled down the side of a Midtown Manhattan high-rise apartment to rescue several people trapped in one of the units. At least 43 people were injured in the Nov. 5 fire, several of whom were left in serious condition. The source of all that destruction? A lithium-ion battery in an electric bicycle, according to authorities.
So far this year nearly 200 fires in New York City have been sparked by these batteries – nearly double the rate of similar incidents in 2021 and quadruple in 2020. Blazes caused by lithium-ion batteries, which are found in personal mobility devices like electric bikes and scooters, are generally intense and can rapidly gain ferocity, particularly when several devices are located together. The results have occasionally been fatal. Over the summer, an electric bike’s battery caused a fire that killed a woman and child in a Harlem apartment building. Another child died in a Queens house fire a little over a month later under similar circumstances. Six people have died so far this year, according to the New York City Fire Department.
As the number of blazes linked to electric bikes has soared in recent months, members of the New York City Council are grappling with the ramifications of their decision to legalize the use of electric bikes and scooters throughout the city in 2020. Council members are currently considering a slate of bills that would regulate these devices and increase the city’s outreach to users about how they can mitigate the dangers of lithium-ion batteries, which generally occur while they are charged. Uncertified and refurbished batteries, which are cheaper than the ones certified in laboratories, are responsible for many of the problems.
“This is a crisis, and this is a crisis that will not go away on its own … it requires a legislative solution,” said New York City Council Member Oswald Feliz during a rally at City Hall Monday morning. “We need to make sure that products sold in the city of New York are safe for New Yorkers.”
Though the majority of, if not all, stakeholders are united in the belief that public safety should be a priority, settling on a resolution is far from simple. Electric bikes have been a transformative tool for food couriers and delivery workers in particular. Boasting benefits like lower emissions and easy, swift transportation, electric bicycles have soared in popularity over the last couple of years. Many people paid a lot of money to purchase these devices and their livelihood now depends on them.
Though some restaurants store delivery workers’ electric bikes overnight, many people work independently and have no choice other than to charge the devices in their homes. According to the fire department, the long, arduous hours that many delivery workers undertake on the electric bikes each day puts a lot of wear and tear on the batteries. This means they take longer to fully recharge, increasing the chances of problems arising. Using a mismatched charger for an uncertified battery also sometimes results in the charger not turning off on its own, meaning the battery continues to heat to potentially dangerous levels. The city currently restricts the number of big lithium-ion batteries allowed in a residence to five, but the fire department doesn’t have the enforcement power to seek out people who may be charging multiple batteries in their home at once. Given the fire hazard all of this poses to tenants, the New York City Housing Authority recently considered banning electric bikes in its buildings, but ultimately backed down from this proposal following public outcry from advocates and delivery workers who said a ban would jeopardize their livelihoods.
Advocates say that any efforts to regulate the use of electric bikes needs to largely hinge off the input of delivery workers as they have more of an in-depth understanding of how to use these devices. Many delivery workers have urged the city to implement safer alternatives like accessible, outdoor public charging stations instead of punitive measures or outright bans.
“Whether the city likes it or not, those who have been using it for years now happen to be the deliveristas. They are the experts, they know which batteries are available in the market, they know where to get these batteries, they know how to handle these batteries,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Workers Justice Project. “We’re saying bring to the table experts and design a more holistic approach in a way that doesn’t impact working class people and doesn’t criminalize working class people and doesn’t create economic burdens on those who are relying on e-bikes for day-to-day survival.”
The New York City Council faces the task of bridging both aspects of the issue: the fact that electric bikes and lithium-ion batteries pose a public safety issue that needs to be addressed, as well as the fact that delivery workers’ shouldn’t bear the onus or be punished for using a greener, more efficient alternative than cars or bicycles.
Some of the legislation currently being considered by the council were drafted in hopes of striking that balance. One piece of legislation, sponsored by Feliz, would require a national testing laboratory to approve every battery before it can be sold. Another bill, sponsored by New York City Council Member Gale Brewer, would ban the sale of second-use batteries within the city. She has a second bill that would require the fire department to develop an informational campaign to educate the public about fire risks posed by electric bikes and other personal mobility devices. Brewer has also said her bill to ban the sale of second-use batteries is a first step and that she’s committed to being in touch with delivery workers and other stakeholders in order to craft the best legislation possible.
Elected officials first considered the bills Monday morning during an oversight hearing held by the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. Leaders from the fire department attended to answer questions.
Guallpa said that while the Workers Justice Project is in favor of educational campaigns, members have serious concerns about anything that would regulate the sale of lithium-ion batteries. Ultimately, she said, these types of policies would only likely drive up the costs for delivery workers.
“Our concern is we understand this needs to be regulated, but how are we going to ensure affordability, accessibility to the working people who relied on these batteries – especially knowing that those who are mishandling are not necessarily deliveristas,” Guallpa said. “We are against any approach that will economically harm deliveristas, that will penalize deliveristas for using this equipment.”
Council Member Robert Holden said elected officials should be taking a stronger stance, putting public safety above all else. He expressed frustration that the fire department and other city agencies don’t seem to have an adequate understanding yet of what elements lead up to lithium-ion batteries causing the fires. His legislation would require the department to report additional information about the circumstances surrounding fires that start because of electric bikes and similar devices.
“I consider safety to be paramount in any of these things and I know for a fact that these scooters and e-bikes aren’t safe,” Holden said. “We need to take a proactive stance and not just push this along very slowly and piecemeal.”