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To prevent fires, NYCHA could ban e-bikes, leaving delivery workers stranded

E-bikes have become an essential tool workers use to meet brutal delivery schedules. They’ve also sparked deadly fires in public housing.

July 8, 2022 Greg B. Smith and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
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In the early hours of Dec. 16, a fire erupted inside a fourth-floor apartment in NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, killing one tenant, seriously injuring another and forcing two teenagers to shimmy down an electrical pole to escape.

More than 180 firefighters responded, and when the smoke cleared, the Fire Department discovered seven e-bikes inside the unit where the blaze ignited. Fire marshals determined that one of the bike’s lithium-ion batteries had exploded, sparking the deadly conflagration.

The incident was not the first — nor the last.

In fact, there have been 25 lithium-ion fire investigations in NYCHA buildings since Jan. 1, 2021, including eight so far this year, according to the FDNY. The housing authority confirmed that 10 fires in its properties “have received an official or probable cause related to e-bikes and related devices.”

As a result, NYCHA is now, for the first time, proposing to bar tenants and their guests from storing both the bikes and the batteries inside its 177,000 apartments citywide.

Under a proposed rule change, any tenant caught storing one inside their apartment or connected to one stored in a NYCHA building’s common area would be considered in violation of their lease. Housing Authority Chairperson Gregory Russ said the rule aims “to prevent fires and preserve the health and safety of residents.”

When THE CITY asked if that means a tenant could face eviction for storing an e-bike or battery in their unit, a NYCHA spokesperson responded via email, “This is still in the public comment phase and no policy has been enacted at this time. NYCHA will begin with a robust resident engagement process to ensure any residents with these devices are brought into compliance.”

The proposed ban is meant to solve one serious problem, but is having the unintended effect of creating another: presenting a challenge for the lower-income food delivery workers who rely on these bikes for their livelihood.

If the rule is adopted as is, anyone who currently stores e-bikes in their apartment will have to find another place to put it. NYCHA notes that would include tenants who aren’t delivery workers but store bikes in their units to lease to the workers. “Home-based businesses for repairing, charging or storing e-bikes, e-bike batteries or gas-powered vehicles” would be barred, the rule states.

Delivery workers who spoke with THE CITY strongly opposed the proposal, saying it would make their jobs much more difficult. Many appeared to believe the rule would bar them from making deliveries to NYCHA’s 335 developments — which it does not — but the rule as proposed would clearly have an impact on delivery workers who live in NYCHA and workers who lease e-bikes from NYCHA tenants.

“A Tool I Need for Work”

As food delivery apps have expanded options for customers to order from outside of their own neighborhoods, delivery workers have been faced with increasing pressure to deliver warm meals quickly over longer distances.

As a result, many have turned to e-bikes to meet these demands.

If a delivery is even a few minutes behind schedule, workers can be penalized and locked out of the apps entirely, losing a day’s work or more, said Manny Ramírez, 34, who delivers for Grubhub, Relay and Doordash and owns his own e-bike.

“Often the apps want to keep their clients happy at the expense of delivery workers and keep their promise of quick deliveries, while we’re obligated to zip up and down crowded streets, running against the clock, breaking laws and risking our safety, all to make $2 to $3,” Ramírez, who delivers within an area spanning the Upper West Side to the northern tip of Manhattan, said in Spanish. “For us, e-bikes are not a fad, and they’re not a toy — this is a tool I need for work.”

While acknowledging the very real incidents of fires and explosions caused by e-bikes and batteries, Ramírez said e-bike drivers were being unfairly singled out by NYCHA.

“I think whoever is drafting this rule needs to take us into consideration, too,” Ernesta Galvez, 42, who delivers on the Lower East Side and also owns her own e-bike, said in Spanish. “Let us work.”

The management of the Housing Authority — the nation’s biggest — is acutely aware of the potential for fire-related disasters in public housing. Several months ago, the city Department of Investigation began looking into a series of fires inside NYCHA properties, most of which appeared to have begun inside faulty trash chutes.

Public comment on the proposed rule change was supposed to end Sunday and the rule was scheduled to go into effect Aug. 15th, but late Wednesday NYCHA Chair Russ said in a statement to THE CITY that the comment period has been extended until Sept. 6 “at which time NYCHA will review and consider stakeholder feedback before issuing a final policy.”

“Thermal Runaway”

The December fire at Riis Houses was an extreme case, starting in an apartment that contained multiple e-bikes. Authorities believe the tenant was leasing the bikes out to delivery workers and re-charging them overnight in the apartment.

That is a recipe for disaster, fire officials say. Under certain circumstances, such as a battery becoming damaged or overcharged, it can overheat and sometimes explode.

Brian O’Connor, P.E., a fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), described what happens as “thermal runaway.”

“Once one [battery) cell goes into thermal runaway, it’s kind of a short circuit. It overheats and it also heats up the adjacent cells next to it. Once it heats up one cell, it starts propagating from cell to cell, intensifying the fire,” he said.

A pair of teens survived a fire at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village after climbing down a pipe, Feb. 1, 2022.
The aftermath of a fire at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, Feb. 1, 2022. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The lithium that powers the battery gives off flammable and toxic gasses when it burns, O’Connor said, and “it creates either an explosion hazard or this very strong fire. It creates its own heat. It creates its own fuel.” Plus the thick coating that encases it makes the resulting fire difficult to put out.

Fire Department officials have been warning about the volatility of e-bike batteries for the last two years. As the number of the devices proliferated throughout the city, the number of e-bike-caused fires rose as well.

So far this year there have been 99 fire investigations related to e-bikes citywide. Seventy-six occurred inside structures where bikes were stored, while the rest occurred while parked on the street or even while they were in operation. These fires have resulted in two deaths and 37 injuries.

“FDNY has long worked with NYCHA on general fire safety education for residents, and will continue to do so regarding lithium ion batteries and all fire safety topics,” the FDNY stated in response to THE CITY’s inquiry.

The FDNY lays out rules on the proper way to store e-bikes, recommending that owners use only devices listed by qualified testing labs, rely only on the specific cords and adapters provided by the device’s manufacturer, and store batteries at room temperature and never in sunlight.

Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates for the reduction of motor vehicles in New York City, said City Hall should push to install secure bike parking and public e-bike charging stations instead of targeting NYCHA tenants.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between keeping their housing or keeping their job,” said Juan Restrepo, a senior organizer for the nonprofit. “We understand the real concerns here but believe this policy will rip away the livelihood of essential workers who make deliveries and punish those who commute to work by bike.”

Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for Uber, which operates a delivery subsidiary Uber Eats, said Thursday that the company has pushed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to fund more e-bike charging stations locally, warning that delivery workers in New York City are forced to store bikes in dangerous conditions.

“Many delivery workers resort to charging stations in the back of convenience stores or in the apartments where they live, which often means charging several batteries at once and creating potential safety issues,” Uber’s Head of Federal Affairs C.R. Wooters wrote in a May letter to Buttigieg.

Goldstein said the company has also worked with the FDNY to get educational materials on proper storage and charging protocols to delivery workers.

“The safety of those who deliver on our platform is critical and we want to make sure they have the information they need to properly charge and store their bikes,” Goldstein said.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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