Amid a rise in fires and deaths, New York City enacts new e-bike rules

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(NEW YORK) — The story has become a sadly familiar one in New York.

A delivery worker finishes a long day, parks their e-bike outside, and leaves its drained battery in their hallway overnight to charge.

The battery ignites overnight, spreading with the ferocity of an explosion. Residents are trapped in their apartments, the fire spreads, and New Yorkers die.

New York witnessed 219 fires related to these kinds of devices in 2022, causing 147 injuries and six deaths. So far in 2023, 33 fires, 42 injuries and three deaths have been attributed to these fires.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams signed a package of e-bike safety legislation Monday to stop that chain of events, two weeks after the New York City Council approved the laws.

“E-bikes and e-scooters are here, you might as well get used to them,” Adams said. “They are now part of our movement, now we must make sure they are incorporated in our everyday lives … in a safe and efficient manner.”

The legislation most notably ensures that any micro-mobility device meets standards set by UL solutions, an industry leader in battery technology. Other measures ban the resale of bikes or batteries, change New York City Fire Department reporting standards, and restrict the reconditioning of used batteries.

Amid a surge in demand for food and grocery delivery, New York legalized electric bikes and scooters in August 2020, opening the door to a relatively unregulated market of potentially dangerous e-bikes. Shoddy batteries in New York have had a catastrophic impact on residential buildings, not only starting fires but also potentially causing structural damage due to their explosive nature, officials said.

“They are not just regular fires, they are basically explosions and they spread so rapidly, and it’s more than just water to take them out,” Adams said.

Despite New York City passing the comprehensive set of laws governing these kinds of devices, it remains unclear how these new laws will retroactively prevent fires from the 65,000 e-bikes purchased before this law took effect in New York.

Nationwide, e-bike sales have rapidly grown since the pandemic changed the lifestyle habits of millions of Americans, including the proliferation of app-based delivery services.

“More than 65,000 app-based delivery workers rely on these electrical micro-mobility devices to meet the brutal delivery schedule that they receive from the app delivery industry, to be able to travel the long distances, and also to be able to do as many deliveries a day so they can provide for their families,” Workers Justice Project executive irector Ligia M. Guallpa said at Monday’s press conference.

A projected one million micro-mobility devices were likely sold in the U.S. in 2022, an exponential growth compared to the 288,000 sold in 2019, according to Ed Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association.

At least 19 people died nationwide in 2022 because of fires stemming from micro-mobility devices, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said this week.

According to UL Solutions Chief Scientist Robert Slone, the regulations governing micro-mobility devices (notably UL 2272 and UL 2849) already existed prior to the New York law. Despite the framework for governing e-bikes already existing, lawmakers have been delayed in responding to the quick growth of micro-mobility devices.

“I think it’s the type of a technology that was initially slow to be adopted and then ramped up very quickly, and I think the laws and the requirements are catching up,” he said. “The standards have been there for quite some time.”

The delay in preventing unregulated e-bikes has had deadly consequences for New York. Slone said the most common living arrangement in New York — multi-story apartments in which residents literally live on top of each other — can also increase the impact of these challenging fires.

“When first responders like FDNY are fighting these fires, it appears to be out and then it comes back and reignites with no sign that it’s going to do that…,” he said. “So they are more complicated fires to fight, and in some ways, honestly more dangerous fires to fight when they do happen.”

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