New York City

Why e-bike batteries are becoming the most dangerous object in New York

A boom in riders and a flood of uncertified batteries has sparked deadly fires in apartments and buildings across the city.

Last year, four people were killed during an e-bike fire at a Manhattan repair shop.

Last year, four people were killed during an e-bike fire at a Manhattan repair shop. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Get them outside. That’s the message New York City Fire Department Commissioner Laura Kavanagh has been emphasizing as fires tied to lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes climb to historic highs.

City leaders and organizations representing delivery workers have largely embraced the sentiment, but efforts to set up outdoor charging stations – infrastructure that would actually facilitate the shift – face a bevy of pushback and delays. Just last month, a Manhattan community board shot down a proposal to build an e-bike charging hub outside City Hall. The federally funded project, backed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, would give e-bike users a safe place to charge their batteries outside of their homes.

The city plans to proceed with its plan, but the community board’s opposition is perhaps representative of a long-standing broader issue: NIMBYism’s iron grip on many facets of public life and its role as a major impediment to solving life-or-death issues.

“It’s absurd,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said of the community board’s vote. “Sometimes we know exactly what we need to do and we still don’t do it.”

Delivery drivers – a significant population of whom are immigrants – are bearing the brunt around the spike of fires as they grapple with difficult choices surrounding personal safety and financial stability.

“They need you, but they don’t want you close to them,” said Gustavo Ajche, a member leader of the Workers Justice Project and co-founder of Los Deliveristas Unidos. The labor organization, which helped come up with the charging hub proposal, testified at the community board meeting before members rejected it. “It’s weird for us who are dealing with this,” he said. “Some people say we support you, but we don’t want you here.”

Lithium-ion batteries, used to power e-bikes, e-scooters and a wide variety of electronics, have become a leading cause of fires in New York City as a surge of new micromobility devices began hitting the streets during a pandemic-era market boom. Fueled by a lack of regulation and supporting infrastructure, the problem has quickly become one of the biggest public safety issues in the city. In the first two months of this year, there were more fires linked to battery-powered mobility devices than in all of 2019.

It’s not a simple problem to solve. The city has been flooded with uncertified batteries and e-bikes and e-scooters of questionable quality. Efforts to combat this – like more FDNY inspections of commercial spaces, trade-in programs and a new city law requiring retailers to ensure lithium-ion batteries meet certain safety standards – are undercut by a relative dearth of state and federal regulation.

A growing problem

Amar Bhatia only had a few minutes. Just a few minutes to gather his belongings and escape the smoke as flames engulfed his Harlem apartment building. It was chaos. As he opened his front door to try and get out, thick black smoke crashed into him like a wave, driving him back inside his apartment and out to the fire escape. Realizing it was locked, he had to break the door to reach it. Outside, he saw other people crammed onto their fire escapes at almost every floor waiting for rescue.

The apartment had been his solace, the first place to put down roots in a new city after he graduated from University of California, Berkeley. He’d only lived there for a few weeks before the fire. He worried for the safety of other residents. He feared what would happen to the things he wasn’t able to grab. He wondered how the fire had started and whether everyone would make it out.

Later, Bhatia returned to collect his belongings. He’d been lucky. The smoke hadn’t destroyed most of his things. But grief already sat heavy on his shoulders. Twenty-two people were injured in the fire and one resident – 27-year-old journalist Fazil Khan – died. “The emotional part is far bigger than the material for this. This is just a lot,” Bhatia said.  The fire was started by a lithium-ion battery that had been charging in a third-floor apartment shared by six delivery workers, according to FDNY. Tenants had apparently previously warned the building’s landlord about the potential fire damage after spotting e-bikes chained to the fence outside.

The Feb. 23 Harlem apartment fire was just one in a long string of recent New York City blazes started by lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes. In 2019, 30 fires were attributed to the batteries, but the number of fires more than tripled to 104 in 2021. Things have only roared further out of control since. In 2023, 268 fires were caused by lithium-ion batteries, killing 18 people. 

While only 13 people were hurt by fires involving lithium-ion batteries in 2019, 150 people were injured last year – a 1,000% increase. In the first three months of this year, there have already been 45 fires, 29 injuries and one death, as of March 24.

“It’s probably one of the most important issues that we have right now in the city for public safety,” said New York City Council Member Joann Ariola, chair of the Fire and Emergency Management Committee.

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t inherently dangerous. The rechargeable batteries power a host of devices, like toothbrushes, power tools, laptops and phones, but those objects have not been linked to a sudden rash of deadly fires. The spike in popularity of e-bikes in New York City – which use batteries that contain far more stored energy than those used in electronics – created a perfect storm. Batteries can overheat or malfunction and ignite with little to no warning, violently spewing projectiles and toxic gas. This sometimes happens when people overcharge their batteries or mix and match charging equipment. Uncertified batteries are particularly prone to these failures. Individual battery cells ejected during a battery explosion also pose a risk of starting a new fire long after the initial blaze, making their careful retrieval essential.

“These devices fail so quickly and so violently,” said Daniel Flynn, chief fire marshal of the FDNY Bureau of Fire Investigation. “They almost present as what we used to see traditionally as an arson fire, where the fire spreads so quickly, it looks like what you would get when you poured a gallon of gasoline in the building.”

Most e-bikes and e-scooters have only technically been legal in New York City for a few years. Hoping to relieve pressure on delivery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York City Council moved quickly after the state Legislature passed a bill giving localities the ability to regulate the vehicles in April 2020. Use of e-bikes and e-scooters has soared since the City Council’s own measure went into effect that fall, tied to the boom in food delivery services and commuters looking to avoid public transportation. The devices have been heralded as an environmental and economical boon – particularly by the largely immigrant population who use them to make faster, easier deliveries compared to traditional bicycles.

But the city didn’t expect the uptick in fires. Scant regulations and supporting plans were put in place in anticipation of legalization. Poorly manufactured batteries and devices flooded the market, and without any public outdoor charging stations – or widespread information about safe practices – users largely brought their batteries indoors to charge.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, the sponsor of the state bill that legalized e-bikes and e-scooters, said New York City has failed to build out the necessary infrastructure to support users. She cited poor street design or building out a robust bike lane system as well as battery storage. She also blamed former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for not issuing an executive order banning the sale of second-use lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes. The state is currently working on a similar measure, but the effort comes several years too late.

“We need the infrastructure to exist. We have municipal parking lots. Why don’t we have bicycle docks in strategic places? What happened to these Deliverista hubs that the mayor promised?” she said. “It’s about creating a culture of safety. It shouldn’t take so much political will to create a culture of safety for e-bikes.”

Patchwork solutions

State, federal and city officials alike have scrambled to find ways to regulate lithium-ion batteries and the e-bikes and e-scooters they power without adversely impacting the livelihood of delivery workers.

New York City became the first city in the country to regulate the safety of e-bikes and e-scooters last year after the City Council passed legislation banning the sale, lease or rental of e-bikes and e-scooters – as well as their batteries – that don’t meet recognized industry safety standards. Council members have also beefed up enforcement and penalties for illegal sales. The FDNY has ramped up its inspections, although its jurisdiction really only extends to commercial spaces. Many bike shops have changed their practices as a result, according to Kavanagh. The shops that the FDNY visits now are “chronic violators of the law,” she said. Of course, many people are still purchasing uncertified batteries online or in neighboring counties with little difficulty.

With several safety measures making their way through the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to ban the sale of uncertified lithium-ion e-bikes, regulation is beginning to take shape. Still, officials said mandatory federal standards will be essential.

“That’s where we are at,” New York City Council Member Gale Brewer said of the need for federal action. “We have done, I would call it throwing spaghetti at the wall. … There’s like six or seven things that have been tried, but every time I hear there’s a fire I go ‘oh my goodness.’ I literally panic.”

There has been some movement in Congress. A bill that would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create a federal, mandatory standard for building and importing batteries passed unanimously through a subcommittee and full committee late last year.

Support has been bipartisan and Rep. Ritchie Torres – the bill’s sponsor – credited the FDNY for that. Department officials have repeatedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the legislation. Testifying before Congress in February, Flynn emphasized that the fires aren’t just happening in New York City – it’s a problem that is happening in red and blue states alike. Torres thinks the message is catching on.

“The legislative process in D.C. is notoriously cumbersome, but we’re making progress given Republican control of the House,” Torres said. The same can’t be said of the measure’s Senate counterpart, but the effort does have the backing of Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The Senate version recently got its first Republican sponsor, which Torres hopes will accelerate matters.

While the city waits on new federal standards, Williams and some City Council members have encouraged investments in products designed to more safely contain lithium-ion batteries. In March, the public advocate urged the Adams administration to purchase fire-resistant storage bags for the city’s 65,000 delivery e-bike drivers, estimating that the city’s bulk purchasing power would bring the cost down to a total of roughly $500,000.

While not a permanent solution, the city could buy battery storage bags quickly while longer-term measures take shape, Williams told City & State.

The FDNY is skeptical about his proposal. The department has tested various bags and containers at its headquarters, but none have worked so far, according to Kavanagh. Official research on the products is limited, but one recent study on fire blankets from ECS Advances – a somewhat similar product – found that containing a lithium-ion battery may only exacerbate the danger. E-bike expert Mike Fritz was skeptical that any bag would be effective.

“Putting battery bags in the hands of Deliveristas to put their lithium-ion battery packs into while sleeping overnight in their apartment is a bad idea,” he said. “It will not smother a fire. It will only accelerate the propagation of the fire within the bag, which will cause an overall worse scenario.”

Kavanagh said giving up entirely on bags would be premature, but the most important thing is to help people get batteries out of their homes. At this point, it’s the biggest thing the FDNY is pushing in regard to public education. Even properly certified batteries can fail when damaged or eroded with time.

“They are always going to present a lot of danger if they fail, even if that risk of failure goes down,” Kavanagh said. “I would not keep one in my house. I don’t know anything that could really be more persuasive than that. I don’t want one in my apartment. It wouldn’t matter how well manufactured, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.”

Problem is, there are currently very limited options for users to charge or store their batteries outside.

The first of five outdoor e-bike charging stations opened in Cooper Square in late February under a six-month pilot program launched by the New York City Department of Transportation. The other locations at key points in Brooklyn and Manhattan have also since been installed, according to City Hall.

Other efforts – like the charging station proposal outside City Hall – have faced delays. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Schumer announced the pilot program in 2022, billing it as a way to create rest stops for Deliveristas out of repurposed defunct newsstands. Last year, an Upper West Side community board voted against a proposed stop for delivery workers – a counterpart to the City Hall location.

Last summer, Schumer and Gillibrand announced a $25 million federal grant for the city to build 173 outdoor charging stations at dozens of New York City Housing Authority developments, but none have been built yet, The City recently reported.

Misdirected blame

Legislation that would require e-bikes, e-scooters, and other mobilized vehicles to be registered and equipped with a license plate will likely be the next big e-bike initiative in the City Council. A similar bill was also recently introduced in the state Legislature.

The bill’s sponsor, Council Member Robert Holden said elected officials should be taking a stronger stance on e-bikes, putting public safety above all else. He believes his bill, which had a breadth of sponsors from across the political aisle, would hold e-bike users accountable by discouraging them to flee from crash scenes.

“We knew about this for a long time yet we still don’t have the laws to protect the public, either on the streets, or in their homes,” Holden said.

Delivery workers oppose the legislation. They feel that requiring them to register their personal e-bikes – and obtain insurance and inspections – would mean taking on those burden and costs when lawmakers should focus on the app companies that profit off of the unregulated devices.

Frustration spurred by the increase in fires – and the presence of e-bikes in general – has bled into existing anti-immigrant biases. A makeshift migrant shelter, where around 70 men had been living in the basement of a Queens furniture store, was first discovered because of the prevalence of e-bikes outside.

Williams said the public could put its “energy and fury” into holding manufacturers and sellers accountable, but many people instead put pressure on those they may already have a bias against rather than looking internally.

“We often tend to blame the lowest person on the totem pole and not look at the manufacturers, not holding them accountable, and also ourselves – our need for quick delivery also fuels some of this,” Williams said. “We like to have a lot of conveniences without understanding what that does.”

Recognizing that thin line, the FDNY has tried to avoid demonizing e-bikes and their users by focusing their enforcement on manufacturers.

“We try not to go after the one delivery worker, because what’s the point? They want a safe bike,” Kavanagh said. “From a practical matter, they don’t have a lot of resources. They are making cents or dollars in a day. We’re trying to go after people who have the money to set up infrastructure, they have the resources to send out a letter to a million people.”

Signs of progress 

It’s not easy to get a qualified, certified battery in New York City – even setting aside the price bump that comes with getting a good battery. Ajche, who has been a delivery worker in New York City for around 20 years, said many e-bike shops don’t have certified batteries. They can order them, but they cost far more. He said that barrier makes it even more important for the city to educate all e-bike users. Most delivery drivers are familiar with the dangers at this point, but that’s not necessarily the case for the general public, he added.

There are promising signs that more significant progress lies ahead, even if the data doesn’t back it up yet. More co-ops and condos are setting up public outdoor charging stations on their properties, according to Ariola. The FDNY’s experience investigating fires linked to lithium-ion batteries has helped guide the U.S. Fire Administration as it develops a new data collection system that will be able to track the issue nationally, according to Flynn. Los Deliveristas Unidos remain steadfast in their commitment to help solutions cross the finish line.

And while more sweeping efforts to infuse the city with outdoor chargers has hit a few snags, the city’s pilot could be expanded – and add more force behind the proposals that have yet to come to fruition. The infrastructure, provided by companies Swobbee, PopWheels and Swiftmile, has seen a flurry of use at Brooklyn Army Terminal, Essex Market on the Lower East Side, Plaza de las Americas in Washington Heights, and near MetroTech in Downtown Brooklyn.

“(The Department of Transportation) has received a very enthusiastic response from delivery workers; the chargers are being used; and we look forward to a comprehensive evaluation after the six-month pilot,” a City Hall spokesperson said in a statement.

Ajche said he thinks the charging stations are going to be a big help, but he cautioned that it’s just a start – solving the problem will take time and a public actually committed to making safety a priority.

“We are talking about a charging station for 65,000 delivery workers plus hundreds of New Yorkers that started using e-bikes, and scooters,” he said. “I hope people really focus on solutions in safety. A lot of people when they see 65,000 delivery workers, they see these people as numbers. They see us as money.”