The tragic e-bike fire in the Two Bridges/Chinatown neighborhood last month cast a renewed spotlight on the dangers of unregulated e-bike batteries. More to the point, it put a focus on an entire unregulated industry — namely, restaurant and food app deliveries.
These deliveries, usually by e-bike or e-scooter, sometimes by gas-powered mopeds — increasingly rarely by actual pedal-powered bicycles — have exploded in recent years. They have added a new layer of often-chaotic whizzing traffic on the streets — and in our bike lanes. Far more dangerously, the lithium-ion batteries for these e-bikes also sometimes — and sometimes is too often — literally violently explode, with deadly consequences.
So far in 2023, lithium-ion batteries — including the June 20 fire on Madison Street that killed four residents due to smoke inhalation — have caused 108 fires, leading to 13 deaths and 66 injuries, according to the Fire Department.
The main culprit, we’re told, is e-bike batteries that are not UL certified, so-called aftermarket and refurbished batteries, usually ones that are damaged or overcharged. But the delivery workers — who are scraping by, zooming around frantically to earn a living wage — are naturally going to go for the cheapest batteries they can find.
Councilmember Christopher Marte, theoretically, is right to call on the delivery apps themselves to ensure that the workers’ equipment is safe. However, technically, the “deliveristas” are contracted workers, so we’re not sure how enforceable that would be.
Of course, the city, at one point, did move to require restaurant delivery workers — meaning those who work for specific restaurants, not for an app — to carry ID, wear reflective vests and the like. Yet, coincidentally — or perhaps not — soon after that, the delivery apps emerged, removing the restaurants from liability.
At the end of the day, though, the onus is on the city to regulate this industry, something it has not done a very good job of up until now.
After the deadly Madison Street fire, Mayor Adams and Fire Commissioner Kavanagh announced some immediate changes to increase safety. Putting responsibility on residents and customers, they said they should call 3-1-1 if they see dangerous conditions in e-bike shops — such as e-batteries being charged within 3 feet of each other or being charged with extension cords, e-bikes blocking store entrances and the like.
They also said that, after receiving a 3-1-1 call reporting a dangerous condition in an e-bike store, firefighters would respond to the scene more rapidly — within 12 hours instead of 72 hours, the previous window.
That’s actually not very reassuring, though, since it’s only a relative increase in safety. As the mayor himself has said, these e-batteries — at least the uncertified kind — literally burst into fire like nothing we’ve seen before, and then the flames spread alarmingly quickly.
Making things worse, the volatile, high-energy power packs can keep igniting, even after being extinguished by firefighters, as happened a couple of times after the Madison Street fire.
One of the most important things that we’re not hearing is any mention of a residential ban on e-bike shops in residential buildings. That seems to be a no-brainer to us. How many more of these incidents do we have to see? In December 2021, two teens at the Riis Houses in the East Village had to shimmy four stories down a pipe outside their building to escape a raging inferno in their apartment sparked by e-bike batteries. Their mother was severely burned and her boyfriend, who allegedly repaired e-bikes, perished.
And now, as of April, New York City is allowing e-bikes on subways, buses and commuter rails. …
We have an extremely serious crisis on our hands with these devastatingly flammable e-batteries. A growing number of residential buildings are banning e-bikes in apartments, and the New York City Housing Authority has prudently banned home-based e-bike repair businesses. The mayor must do more to lead the way: For starters, the city must immediately ban e-bike stores and repair shops in residential buildings.
We also strongly support a package of five new laws passed in March by the City Council that, among other things, bans the sale of non-UL-certified, second-hand or refurbished e-batteries. Another of the new laws calls for the Fire Department to create a public-service awareness campaign on safe batteries and best practices. We want to start hearing and seeing those campaigns soon — just like we currently hear the city’s ones cajoling us to eat more tofu and black beans. Another one of the new regulations calls for the city to create materials on e-bike safety to be distributed by apps like Grubhub and Uber Eats to their delivery workers.
Yes, it’s important that delivery workers continue to be able to make a living — and it’s critical (yeah, right) that people be able to get their burgers, tacos and smoothies delivered to them in a flash at a touch of their smartphone screens — but not at the expense of these devastating and often fatal fires. It’s about priorities. We are glad that Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, for one, has spoken out strongly for increasing regulations on e-bike batteries.
These new laws, however, won’t kick in until a few months from now — plus, don’t do anything about all the dangerous e-bike batteries that are already out there. And most e-bike delivery guys reportedly carry three batteries on them to keep them speeding around through their workday. A buyback program for these volatile batteries is essential.
In the wake of the Madison Street tragedy, the city recently announced that, under a $25 million program, it will be installing e-bike charging stations outside NYCHA complexes — which is safer, at least, since if the batteries explode, at least it’s outdoors, not inside someone’s apartment.