Last week, 5-year-old Erica Williams became the youngest victim of Gotham’s latest deadly scourge: e-bike fires. Batteries, which burn fast and hot, have killed five New Yorkers this year, including three last week. If Mayor Eric Adams doesn’t act, he will face a mass-casualty incident.
Little Erica, her father Erick, and her father’s girlfriend, Chakaina Anderson, were asleep Wednesday in Harlem’s New York City Housing Authority-owned Jackie Robinson Houses when Erick’s e-bike caught fire. Erica and Chakaina perished; Erick suffered burns.
The same week, Venezuelan asylum-seeker Rafael Elias Lopez-Centeno died in his Bronx apartment when his e-bike ignited.
That makes five e-bike fire deaths this year, plus 66 injuries. For all 2021, New York had four deaths, including a 9-year-old boy, and 79 injuries.
No one died in an e-bike fire before 2021 — the year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio legalized them.
E-bike batteries pack enough energy to power vehicles going 25 mph (illegally modified, faster). A reliable bike with an Underwriters-Lab-tested battery is expensive, and the battery needs to be maintained by people who know what they’re doing. The city’s thousands of delivery e-bikers, like Lopez-Centeno, aren’t buying certified batteries.
Delivery workers and other poorer New Yorkers are buying discount “batteries that are not properly made, uncertified potentially imitation batteries,” says Ari Kesler, co-owner with his wife, Jessica, of Brooklyn-based My Battery Recyclers. This is “not something that existed 10 years ago.”
Exposure to rain and salt, poor maintenance and poor charging practices compound the problem. “You can’t put a charger [in an outlet] that’s powering the AC,” says Kesler.
This is a problem in NYCHA buildings because tenants don’t pay metered electricity. An industry has sprung up to recharge delivery bikes for cash. “You can’t have someone in their apartment charging 20 batteries,” says Kesler.
In December, a man died charging several batteries in Manhattan public housing; two children escaped down an outside pipe.
It is “fruitless” for a civilian to try to extinguish a lithium-ion fire, Kesler adds. And people are throwing used batteries down trash chutes, requiring an FDNY response.
Nine deaths in 20 months are bad — but what happens when someone charges multiple bikes near a public exit for, potentially, dozens of panicked tenants?
Mass amateur charging should be banned; non-UL-certified and DIY-repaired batteries, too. But how to enforce?
“Startup” apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats are the biggest players in a food-delivery biz that didn’t exist in its current form half a decade ago. They’ve outsourced all the risks to cyclists, whom they don’t even employ directly. “Independent contractor” deliverers must procure their own hazardous equipment, critical to their jobs, and store it in their apartments.
Those “independent contractors” are often recent, desperate border crossers. Not exactly the parties best suited to take on the burden to procure, store, charge, maintain and dispose of toxic, hazardous and flammable equipment.
This is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, work-from-home version, in the making. The FDNY does not allow e-bikes at its headquarters.
The apps are exploiting their “contractors” to stall a NYCHA e-bike ban. “E-bikes have become an essential tool workers use to meet brutal delivery schedules,” The City reports.
No: The “brutal” schedules weren’t possible until the city legalized e-bikes.
A worker who wants to ride a pedal bike can’t keep up. “We’re . . . breaking laws and risking our safety, all to make $2 to $3,” one e-cyclist for the apps, Manny Ramirez, told The City.
Adams should prohibit apps (and restaurants who hire cyclists) from this dangerous outsourcing.
The delivery businesses should bear the responsibility of purchasing, registering, maintaining, storing, charging and disposing of hazardous and toxic equipment in an FDNY-approved location (not in a storefront with apartments above, like the grocery apps do). Workers can pick bikes up for shifts and drop them off.
The apps instead suggest that the city provide charging stations. Um, no — this is your multibillion-dollar mess. You fix it.
Let’s also stop pretending this delivery industry is a “green” alternative. Before e-bikes, delivery workers weren’t in cars; they were on pedal bikes.
If you’ve noticed there are more deliverers than ever, you are right: this is yet another “tech” industry that is poised to shrink, anyway. Like the “old” Uber, it’s massively subsidized by investors and not consistently profitable.
No need for dozens more to burn up, literally, before investors burn their money.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.