It was just after midnight on Tuesday, June 20, when a Lower East Side deli worker saw smoke pouring from the shuttered HQ E-Bike Repair shop at 80 Madison Street. The worker called 911, and the fire department arrived within four minutes. Firefighters began pulling residents, some unconscious, from the smoke-filled apartment building above the shop. But they couldn’t stop the intense fire from burning through to the apartments above and into the building next door. It even blasted through the shop’s metal security gate. Four people died in the blaze, and two others were critically injured.
Fire officials were familiar with the repair shop; it had been previously cited for improperly storing and charging e-bike batteries. “It is very clear that this was caused by lithium-ion batteries and e-bikes,” New York City fire commissioner Laura Kavanagh said at a news conference.
Sadly, such tragedies are increasingly common. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), at least 19 Americans died in fires related to battery-powered bicycles, scooters, hoverboards, and other “micro-mobility” products in 2021 and 2022. New York is the epicenter of the problem, with six people killed in 2022 and 13 deaths so far this year.
While most discussions about zero-emission transportation focus on electric cars, e-bikes and scooters represent a significant portion of non-fossil-fuel-based travel. Import data suggest that Americans bought nearly 800,000 electric bikes in 2021, compared with about 652,000 electric cars (including plug-in hybrids). Environmentalists cheer this boom in micro-mobility, especially since the resources needed to build an e-bike or scooter have a much lower environmental footprint than those that go into an electric car. National Geographic suggests that e-bikes might be the “future of green transportation.” But the growing epidemic of fires caused by these small-vehicle batteries suggests substantial hidden risks to the micro-mobility revolution.
The problem is international. China, where e-bikes caught on much earlier, reported 10,000 e-bike fires and more than 200 deaths between 2013 and 2017, according to Consumer Reports. London saw 70 such fires in 2021. The problem is growing, too. New York City firefighters confronted 104 lithium-ion-battery fires in 2021. That number roughly doubled the following year, and the rate of fires is on track to rise again in 2023.
It is no coincidence that New York seems especially hard-hit. In recent years, two sweeping technological and cultural trends have converged in the city. The first, of course, is the rise of e-bikes and other micro-mobility modes of travel. The second is the growth of app-based food-delivery services like Uber Eats, Door Dash, and Grubhub. Both trends accelerated during the pandemic and now appear to be permanent fixtures of city life. Today, New York is home to an estimated 65,000 “deliveristas,” independent contractors who typically work 12-hour days, racing to deliver orders on battered electric bikes and scooters. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Gelinas, who has reported on both trends, notes an additional problem: New York’s political dysfunction. “The city is plagued by executive incompetence on the part of the mayor and his fire commissioner and ideological muddle on the part of city council,” she told me. So far, the city’s efforts to stem the rise in e-bike fires have been ineffectual.
New York’s dense housing intensifies the risks of micro-mobility. The kinds of cheap, Chinese-made e-bikes and scooters favored by delivery workers usually feature a large, removable battery pack. Workers often carry extra packs to help them get through a day that might involve more than 50 miles of travel. At night they bring the batteries into crowded apartments to charge. Last year, a scooter battery exploded in the Queens apartment of delivery worker Alfonso Villa Muñoz. He was unable to fight his way through the flames and smoke to reach the bedroom where his eight-year-old daughter Stephanie was sleeping. She died of smoke inhalation. Many delivery bikes are sold and serviced in small storefront businesses like the one at 80 Madison Street. These typically occupy the ground floors of residential buildings. Jamming dozens of cheaply made batteries into these shops amplifies the risks.
A lithium-ion battery is at once an inherently dangerous way to store electricity and a beautifully efficient way to power machines. Lithium is the lightest metal, which is helpful in designing a lightweight battery. It is also the most “electropositive” element—that is, it easily sheds electrons, which helps produce a strong electric current. Lithium is also highly reactive, which means that it burns intensely. A typical battery cell includes negatively and positively charged chambers of electrolytes separated by a membrane. If properly manufactured, these batteries are safe for normal use. But if anything disrupts the membrane—such as physical damage, improper charging, or a manufacturing defect—energy begins to leak across that gap. This can produce a “thermal runaway” that will ultimately lead to the cell rupturing and spewing flame and sparks like a road flare.
Over the years, lithium-ion batteries in cell phones and laptops have been involved in hundreds of fires. In 2016, Samsung recalled millions of Galaxy Note 7 phones due to a battery flaw that made some catch fire while charging. Today, problems with small batteries are rare. But the batteries in e-bikes contain an order of magnitude more power. E-bike battery packs are typically made up of roughly two dozen shotgun-shell-shaped cells. If one of these cells overheats, the others are likely to cook off as well. “It’s very violent, very fast; it’s hard to extinguish,” Daniel E. Flynn, chief fire marshal at the Bureau of Fire Investigation in New York City’s fire department told Consumer Reports. An exploding battery pack “can shoot these cells as far as 60 feet,” he added, “so multiple fires can be related to the battery failing.”
The day before the Madison Street fire, the National Fire Protection Association held a panel discussion on e-bike risks at its annual meeting in Las Vegas. “It’s a huge challenge,” Steve Kerber of the UL Fire Safety Research Institute told the audience. “What we’re seeing is people trying to modify these batteries to make the bikes faster or to go for longer periods of time.” Unauthorized modifications and botched repairs increase the risk of fires. Today, most fires involve the inexpensive, China-made bikes that delivery workers favor. These workers, many speaking minimal English, “are the hardest to reach when it comes to safety messaging,” noted Nick Petrakis, an engineer with Energy Storage Response Group.
Higher-end, name-brand e-bikes generally have batteries tested and approved by UL, the independent safety organization originally known as Underwriters Laboratories. To my knowledge, no group has conducted an across-the-board survey of micro-mobility battery safety, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the batteries used in name-brand e-bikes are significantly safer than those in delivery bikes. Superior manufacturing probably plays a major part in that. The batteries in delivery bikes are also subjected to rougher and more prolonged use. It seems likely that, as the e-bikes and scooters used by ordinary consumers get older, problems will eventually surface with some of them as well.
Today, most cities and states regulate e-bikes on a model closer to that used for conventional bicycles, as opposed to the rules applied to motor vehicles. Under both federal and local law, e-bikes fall into what Consumer Reports calls, “a regulatory black hole.” On the federal level, they are regulated by the modestly funded CPSC rather than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The CPSC limits e-bikes to a top speed of 20 miles per hour when the bike is operating on electric power alone (with help from the pedals or a downslope, they can go much faster). Other than that, the agency sets few requirements.
If e-bikes were simply a modest upgrade to a traditional bicycle, such a light regulatory touch would be a good thing. But most e-bikes today are bigger, heavier, and go dramatically faster than the typical human-powered bike. (Twenty miles per hour might not sound very fast, but it is nearly twice the speed of a typical urban bike rider. Some scooters and illegally modified bikes go much faster.) In cities with a busy food-delivery trade, e-bikes are essentially employed as low-powered motorcycles. Research shows e-bike riders sustain more serious injuries when they crash and are three times more likely to collide with pedestrians. And, of course, conventional bicycles don’t spontaneously catch fire in the middle of the night.
Dealing with the problem requires a two-tiered approach. The major focus should be on e-bikes used in the delivery trade and the firms that employ these workers. E-bikes and other powered vehicles used for commercial purposes should be licensed and insured for street use. The city also needs to crack down on the trade in poorly made e-bikes and batteries. Earlier this year, New York mayor Eric Adams signed e-bike legislation that requires bikes and scooters sold in the city to come with UL-approved batteries. It also limits the resale and reconditioning of used batteries. That’s a start, but it is unclear how the new rules affect the estimated 65,000 delivery e-bikes already on the road. And enforcement methods remain vague. (Multiple citations from the Fire Department failed to induce the Madison Street bike shop to solve its obvious safety issues.) Gelinas advises a ban on storing, charging, or repairing commercial e-bikes in residential or mixed-use buildings, like the one on Madison Street.
Manhattan borough president Mark Levine proposes that the city launch a program to buy back older batteries. In fact, such a program would be a backdoor subsidy to the enormous Silicon Valley companies driving the food-delivery boom. Uber, Grubhub, and Door Dash are massive, highly capitalized operations. But their business model forces the risks of the e-bike-delivery economy onto workers, pedestrians, firefighters, and city residents. New York and other cities should require those companies to cover the true costs of their operations. “This is a business, and this is business equipment,” Gelinas notes. “Companies that require their independent contractors and/or employees to use dangerous equipment to do their jobs should be responsible for owning, storing and maintaining that equipment at an industrial worksite.”
We should be wary of heavily regulating the e-bikes ridden by general consumers. But consumers do need to be educated about the dangers hidden inside those sleek e-bike battery packs. Fire codes and local regulations should be updated to reflect these risks. Everyone understands why it is dangerous to store a fully fueled motorcycle inside a house or apartment. The same thinking should apply to charging an e-bike in residential spaces. Fire codes generally require sufficient barriers between garages and residential spaces in the home in order to slow the spread of fires caused by fuel or other hazardous materials stored in the garage. For homeowners with one, the garage is the appropriate place to store and charge an e-bike. Apartment complexes with bike-storage units should look to enhance the fire protection around those spaces. In New York’s many crowded residential buildings, unfortunately, finding ways to store and charge micro-mobility devices safely will continue to pose a challenge.
We shouldn’t discount the benefits of micro-mobility. Many people are rediscovering the joy of two-wheeled transportation and find that using e-bikes for local errands and modest commutes is a good way to save money. Theoretically, if more people use e-bikes instead of cars for short trips, it will add up to a big drop in emissions and help alleviate congestion and parking woes. (In cities like New York, it remains to be seen whether micro-mobility travel displaces car use. Some researchers believe it mostly replaces subway travel.) Nonetheless, policymakers and green-transportation activists alike have been slow to recognize the growing risks of this new form of travel. Compared with the more than 42,000 people who died in conventional motor vehicle crashes in 2022, the dangers of e-bikes and scooters might appear modest. But that doesn’t make them acceptable—especially since they can be prevented with a few modest rules and more attention to basic safety guidelines.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images