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UP IN SMOKE? Private Buildings Step Up E-Bike Bans in Wake of Fires

More and more buildings are simply banning electric bikes — a classic baby-and-bathwater solution. Photo: FDNY

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Private buildings and institutions across the city are banning e-mobility devices of all kinds in the wake of growing fears over fires attributed to faulty lithium-ion batteries that have killed six people so far this year and left many more without a home.

Call it a fitting reaction to the fires or an over-reaction to them, but several residential management companies — as well as at least one private university — have told their tenants and students that e-bikes are banned on the premises. And other building managers say they are mulling over similar policies to protect their tenants while depriving others of a revolutionary, low-carbon mode of transportation.

Advocates and even some residents don’t believe that prohibition is the solution, as they argue it only hurts those who prefer electronic devices to get around, or simply need them for their jobs — including the city’s 65,000 delivery workers — and that bans won’t stop people from using them.

“There are fires that are causing real harm. That’s a challenge,” said Shabazz Stuart, the founder and CEO of Oonee, a secure bike parking company. "On the other hand, e-bikes are overwhelmingly really safe and you got people who are relying on e-bikes for their livelihoods, and you got a climate change revolution that relies on divesting from cars that kill way more people than e-bikes do.

"These are two sides of a complicated issue,"  Stuart concluded.

Building blocks

Streetsblog spoke with tenants at three apartment buildings — one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens — whose buildings' management company have either already banned e-bikes or are considering doing so. A co-op building on 85th Street in Jackson Heights recently posted the notice below:

No electric bicycles, scooters, or similar e-mobility devices or vehicles using lithium-ion batteries are permitted in the apartment, on the terraces, balconies ... or in the common areas of the building (including but not limited to the public halls, lobbies, basement, elevator, vestibules, stairways or garage).

One resident who owns two e-scooters with his wife said the ban came "out of nowhere."

"The feeling I get is that they're washing their hands of liability if something happens,” said Andrew Littlefield, who lives in the 85th Street co-op.

Littlefield says he hopes the new policy doesn’t hinder the growing movement in the city that’s shifting away from private cars — which kill about 200 people each year and injure more than 40,000 — and towards safer and more sustainable modes of transportation.

As the number of e-mobility devices on city streets has grown in the last few years, so has the panic over both the fires and the e-bikes themselves. But despite the hysteria, which has been bolstered by elected officials, e-bikes still only contribute to a very small percentage of crashes in the city. Last year, for example, of the 3,101 crashes that injured a pedestrian between Jan. 1 and June 25, 2021, only 132 crashes — or 4 percent — were caused by users of e-bikes, e-scooters, mopeds or motorscooters (plus all the other words that cops use to classify two-wheeled motored vehicles). Those crashes also tend to be less violent because even a moped still weighs 1/10 of a car.

Littlefield doesn't want the second wave of hysteria around e-bikes to further prevent the city's acceptance of them.

“I hope it doesn't hurt momentum for a very useful technology for people,” said Littlefield.

Littlefield also saw some hypocrisy in banning electric micromobility when the building itself sits over a garage filled with equally flammable materials.

“The garage is filled with fossil fuel cars — why are they allowed to be there? And the ban is not applied to electric vehicles, like Tesla,” he said.

In Chinatown, Ashlea Mayne says the management company of her small apartment building at the corner of Canal and Allen streets banned all e-mobility devices, excluding wheelchairs, last month. Mayne doesn’t use an e-bike herself, but is worried about the impact it will have on others. And she questioned why the building didn’t differentiate between batteries that are considered safe, such as those approved by the Underwriters Laboratory, or give any guidance on safe charging practices and storage.

“It’s a blanket ban, nothing about the type of battery, if you need to store them in a specific safe way, just no longer allowed on the premises at all,” she said.

And in Downtown Brooklyn, Aaron Charlop-Powers says his co-op is considering instituting a similar policy. He says he understands the concerns, but doesn’t believe a ban will solve the problem.

“Everybody is concerned about safety, nobody wants their building to go up in flames,” said Charlop-Powers, who became a member of Families for Safe Streets after his mother was was killed while riding her bike to work in the Bronx in 2010. "A ban is blunt and an overly broad correction that probably does two things: one it’s counterproductive to the movement towards efficient and sustainable modes of transportation and, two, probably drives unsafe practices further underground."

The bans and discussion of bans comes after the city backed down from a contentious policy proposal that would have barred e-bikes anywhere on New York City Housing Authority property.

Negative charge

The dangers of lithium-ion batteries, and especially those that are improperly manufactured, second-hand, or have withered too much wear and tear, are undisputed — the chemicals inside them make the flames uniquely difficult to put out, according to the Fire Department.

So far this year, the city says it’s investigated 202 fires related to lithium-ion batteries — out of 5,418 total investigations — for which there were 142 injuries and six fatalities. Last year, the FDNY investigated 104 battery fires, which led to 79 injuries and four deaths.

But the FDNY says it has no way of determining how many of the fires associated with lithium-ion batteries are the result of e-bikes specifically and not other ubiquitous items or devices that rely on the same charging mechanism, like laptops, scooters, iPhones, or Citi Bikes.

“We don’t track that and have no way to do that,” an FDNY spokesperson told Streetsblog.

But it's clear, both anecdotally and statistically, that other devices don't explode with the same frequency, or at all. Take Citi Bike, for example. According to a spokesperson for Lyft, users have taken more than 10 million e-bike rides this year with zero battery incidents, thanks to UL certification and strict safety and operating protocols like testing all batteries before they go out in the field, and throughout their lifespan.

One of the major differences between a certified battery in a Citi Bike e-bike, and one that's not, is what's called a Battery Management System that shuts down charging when the battery reaches full or overheats. Batteries that have not been UL certified may not have proper systems — and the battery could have what’s called a thermal event, meaning it starts to swell, shake, and smoke, reaching temperatures of 1,000 degrees, and ultimately catching fire or exploding, Streetsblog has previously reported.

“The Battery Management System in those tend to fail during the state of the charge,” Ari Kesler, the owner and founder of My Battery Recyclers, a Brooklyn-based environmental waste management company, told Streetsblog last year. "If it’s full and keeps charging the battery can get really hot, and have a thermal event. Lithium-ion batteries reach 1,200-1,300 degrees instantly."

For now, the FDNY is not calling for a ban, but merely continuing to advise residents of how to charge and store their devices safely. And the Real Estate Board of New York is also simply recommending safe practices.

“REBNY has taken steps to educate members on the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, as well as safety recommendations regarding their use, storage and disposal, and we’ll continue to provide opportunities for our members to review and discuss such issues related to the safety of their buildings and residents,” said a REBNY spokesperson.

But several private buildings are taking action anyway, as well as some private universities in the city and across the country. As first reported on Reddit, Fordham University sent out a notice last week that a ban on all e-bikes across its campus, including “walkways and sidewalks,” will take effect in the new year.

A spokesperson for the Bronx university confirmed the news, but declined to comment further, instead pointing to other schools across the country that have also banned the electric devices — including Boston College, where one student called the policy “authoritarian.”

At NYU, electronic devices like “hover boards, self-propelled skateboards/scooters, and similar devices” are already banned in residence halls, and last year, Columbia University banned all kinds of personal electronic vehicles in its housing buildings, as well as prohibited the charging of lithium ion batteries in any of its buildings. But neither university responded to requests for comment if they plan to take further action. And at the public university system CUNY, a spokesperson told Streetsblog on Friday that it "does not currently have a system-wide policy for the use of e-bikes and e-scooters," adding that its campuses follow the guidance issued by the FDNY to restrict "indoor storage and indoor charging of these devices due to the national safety concerns."

What's next?

Stuart, whose company is also working on integrating safe, public battery charging kiosks into the public realm, says he’s concerned about the trajectory of these revanchist policies and what it could mean for the micromobility movement.

“It’s reductive to assume that public agencies are alone in their risk assessment, this is going to be a domino effect. There are a lot of private developers, a lot of building owners, there are a lot of private companies that are going to say, ‘Well, now that you mention it, why not?’” said Stuart. “They're not going to have the same political and moral and ethical sensibilities our friends in the public sector have and say, ‘I have no problem banning e-bikes.’”

The difficulty, according to Melinda Hanson, the founder of urban mobility company Brightside, is partly that the city has to figure out the cause of the problem before it can come up with a solution. And there are several factors, said Hanson, who is also part of the Equitable Commute Project.

“One of the core challenges is there isn't total consensus of what the root cause is. The FDNY isn’t fully trained in detailing what's happening in each situation,” she said, pointing to myriad issues like low-quality and damaged batteries, a mix-match of parts, and leaving batteries charging overnight.

Another big factor is that certified batteries are expensive, sometimes more than $1,000, often making cheaper, second-hand batteries more attractive to the delivery workers who rely on them — the majority of whom are low-income immigrant men who take home just $7.09 per hour on average, excluding tips.

Hanson says city officials are thinking about multiple solutions, starting with simply requiring wall timers attached to the batteries that shut off once it’s done charging, to more strictly controlling what gets sold. And one of the most important long-term solutions is building out public infrastructure that allows for safe charging, like the new hubs created out of retrofitted newsstands and Oonee's in-the-works charging kiosks.

“Having a wall timer that stops the battery from continuing to suck energy is a quick and easy fix,” said Hanson. "Others are more related to parking and charging infrastructure outside the apartment."

Following a tragic fire sparked by a space heater in a Bronx apartment building last year that killed 19 people, Gov. Hochul signed legislation just this week requiring electric space heaters be equipped with thermostats and automatic shut-offs, and be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But no such legislation or city-or-state-wide policies exist for electric bikes, despite their being finally legalized by the state in 2019. The FDNY last month said it is backing a package of bills aimed at addressing the rise of deadly fires attributed to faulty lithium-ion batteries — but advocates have said that the reforms don't go far enough.

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