The Looming Public Safety Crisis in New York City
It's not what you think
On Sunday, an enormous, 5-alarm fire tore through a supermarket in the Bronx, injuring seven people. The fire caused an “extraordinary amount of damage,” according to Laura Kavanaugh, the commissioner of New York City’s Fire Department. Hundreds of firefighters battled to contain the blaze. The fire spread to a laundromat next-door and even reached the iconic Bronx Zoo. “There is nothing left and it is all because of this one single bike,” Kavanaugh said.
How does a bike cause a fire? It doesn’t, of course—unless it’s powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the technology that fuels e-bikes and e-scooters. In just a few years, these vehicles have transformed New York City’s streetscape. E-bikes dart up and down major thoroughfares and side streets alike, many of them aiding delivery workers who labor for app-based companies like DoorDash and Uber. E-bikes exploded in popularity during the pandemic, becoming an attractive alternative for New Yorkers who wanted to avoid the subway. When they were legalized, after much wrangling between Democrats in the state legislature and Andrew Cuomo, the governor at the time, they were pitched as a victory, generally, for progressive politics. “New York’s status as a stubborn holdout against electric bikes and scooters appears to finally be over,” reported the Verge in 2020. “Included in the state’s tentative budget agreement reached on April 1st is a provision that would legalize throttle-based bikes and scooters, which would effectively end the City of New York’s unfair and frustratingly long-running crackdown on immigrant delivery workers.”
Democrats in the state legislature championed e-bikes and e-scooters as green technology that could get people out of automobiles and help exploited immigrant workers, many of them undocumented, who race around the city delivering takeout from restaurants. The app companies cheered the legalization push too, since their freelance labor could now peddle much faster. Scooter and bike-share start-ups like Lime and Bird celebrated, too. It was, it seemed, a true win-win for everyone involved.
Everyone, perhaps, except for fire victims. Little-remarked upon by politicians at the time, e-bikes require lithium ion batteries to function properly. A good battery is less likely to catch fire. But an off-market, refurbished, damaged or improperly charged battery is a tinderbox waiting to happen. E-bikes charged in apartments are a particular threat. If one small battery cell is defective, overcharged or damaged, a tremendous amount of energy can be released in the form of heat and toxic flammable gases. Putting out these fires is incredibly difficult. The Fire Department warns against using fire extinguishers or water. In 2019, there were just 28 battery fires resulting in 16 injuries citywide. In 2022, there were 216 fires, with 147 injuries and six deaths. This year, e-bike batteries have been responsible for at least 30 fires, 40 injuries, and two deaths, according to the Fire Department.
Democrats in the city and state legislatures, as well as the many advocates who pressured them to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters, plainly did not think this through.