NYC adopts e-bike rules with focus on fire safety and equity

The new policies aim to make it easier for low-income residents to access high-quality models, without banning the zero-emissions devices many workers depend on.
By Maria Gallucci

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A man wearing a helmet, a mask and a winter coat rides an e-bike on a city street. He has a food-delivery backpack on.
A delivery person rides an electric bicycle through the streets of Manhattan in November 2022. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City this week adopted a series of policies intended to make it safer for residents to ride, charge and store their electric bicycles and scooters.

The measures are the city’s first concerted effort to address a conundrum that’s growing increasingly urgent in major urban hubs worldwide.

In New York City, tens of thousands of residents rely on battery-powered devices for commuting or for performing their jobs as app-based delivery workers. At the same time, though lithium-ion batteries are usually safe, a proliferation of low-quality devices and dangerous charging practices has caused a rash of deadly fires inside apartment buildings and, most recently, at a daycare facility.

The dilemma reveals the nuanced reality of the micromobility movement that’s taking hold as cities work to curb tailpipe pollution and reduce car traffic. Often, the people who benefit most from riding electrified two-wheelers — low-wage workers — can’t afford to buy higher-quality models or to take the time to slowly and safely charge batteries.

If cities adopt policies that restrict riskier e-bikes and batteries but don’t help people access safer models, they could put an important zero-emissions transit option out of reach for many residents, advocates say.

We need to find solutions for the equity and the safety issues that can be rolled out as soon as possible,” Melinda Hanson, founder of Brightside Strategies, a Brooklyn-based mobility consulting firm, told Canary Media.

She said the new policies in New York City are an early but important attempt to address both of those aspects.

On Monday, Mayor Eric Adams signed five bills into law, including one that requires e-bike batteries sold in New York City to meet recognized safety standards, and another that prohibits local shops from tampering with or selling repaired batteries, which are more likely to catch fire.

The bill-signing coincided with the release of the city’s new Electric Micromobility Action Plan, which outlines initiatives for both improving battery safety and encouraging residents to embrace emissions-free transportation. In one test project, the utility Con Edison will install outdoor e-bike battery chargers and storage areas around four public-housing developments to keep cyclists from charging inside their apartments, which can be dangerous. Officials said they’ll advocate for state-funded e-bike rebate programs and subsidies for low- and moderate-income households.

Our shared goal to prevent fires involving lithium-ion batteries is a tough one,” city councilmember Alexa Avilés said at Monday’s bill signing, adding that the new measures are a step in the right direction.” 

Avilés represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the city’s public-housing committee. Last year, when the New York City Housing Authority considered banning e-bikes in its buildings due to safety concerns, Avilés pushed back, calling for a more holistic approach.” Many of the city’s 65,000 delivery workers live in public-housing apartments — which have also been a common location for battery-related fires.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of battery fires more than doubled in New York City, from 104 to 220, according to the New York City Fire Department. In January and February, the city saw 30 such fires, which resulted in two deaths and 40 injuries.

Keeping bad batteries off the streets and out of homes

Most high-quality lithium-ion batteries — whether for smartphones, laptops, electric cars or bicycles — are certified by Underwriters Laboratories, whose battery safety standards are among the most stringent. The cells these batteries contain are designed to withstand internal or external shocks.

However, the U.S. still imports plenty of relatively cheap, uncertified batteries that may not have such safeguards in place. Lithium-ion batteries contain oxygen atoms and liquid electrolytes. If a battery runs too hot, or if it’s punctured, the heat, oxygen and electrolyte can begin feeding off each other, causing extremely hot explosions and releasing toxic gas.

Offering rebates for e-bikes with certified batteries, or incentivizing people to trade in riskier models for new ones, would ensure more people can access safer devices, according to Hanson. A regular bicycle equipped with a top-notch electric pedal assist” system can run around $2,000. But electric mopeds with more powerful and uncertified batteries can be found online for half the price, if not less.

Nobody buys a dangerous bike because that’s their preference,” Hanson said. They’re buying low-quality bikes because it’s what they can afford.”

Still, even the best batteries can pose fire hazards if they’re not properly maintained or repaired. In New York, the crushing demands of delivery workers’ jobs can lead to risky practices. Some workers will tamper with their e-bike systems so they can go faster. Many convenience stores charge multiple bike batteries at once so that workers can quickly exchange a spent battery for one with juice. Often, local repair shops fix damaged batteries themselves rather than send them back to the original manufacturer.

If a cyclist charges one of these altered batteries at home, or leaves it plugged in too long or overnight, the risk of fires increases substantially.

New York City’s e-bike charging pilots and fire-safety outreach efforts could help address some of these problems, including by moving charging into the open air and by encouraging the use of inexpensive but effective outlet timers. These devices cut off power flow once the battery is sufficiently charged.

Still, city officials can’t curb the influx of uncertified batteries on their own. Despite the new law requiring New York City vendors to meet battery-safety standards, residents can still buy e-bikes and scooters online. In the United States, imports valued at $800 or less generally aren’t subject to customs inspections or quality checks.

To that end, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has pushed the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to step in.

In December, the independent federal agency called on 2,000 manufacturers and importers to review their product lines and ensure they comply with established voluntary safety standards or face possible enforcement action.” The FDNY applauded the agency’s action but urged its commissioners to go even further, including potentially by seizing imported devices and penalizing manufacturers for not meeting industry standards.

There are basic steps that can make e-micromobility devices safer while not significantly increasing the costs to consumers,” Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh wrote in a February letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The FDNY is on the front lines of this fight against deadly fires involving batteries in e-micromobility devices, and we are grateful for every tool available to help.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.