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

At least 19 people died nationwide in 2022 due to these devices.

March 20, 2023, 1:29 PM

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.

PHOTO: FILE - An electric bike with a battery sits parked outside of a Bronx supermarket the day after a 5-alarm fire tore through a market that fire officials are blaming on a faulty lithium-ion battery, March 06, 2023 in New York City.
An electric bike with a battery sits parked outside of a Bronx supermarket the day after a 5-alarm fire tore through a market that fire officials are blaming on a faulty lithium-ion battery, March 06, 2023 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

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. A projected 1 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 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."

While the new laws in New York City are groundbreaking in their scope, advocates said they have concerns that the laws would not adequately protect delivery workers and stop fires.

Workers Justice Project Executive Director Ligia Guallpa told ABC News that 90% of the 65,000 micro-mobility devices used in New York by delivery workers lack the critical safety certification that new bikes will require.

While Guallpa said the new laws were a promising first step, the city does not currently have a plan to transition preexisting bikes to safer batteries. Delivery workers typically carry multiple batteries to make it through a day of deliveries, and new UL-certified batteries can cost over a thousand dollars. While other efforts, including a plan from Adams and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer to roll out charging hubs throughout the city, are in the planning phase, no plans currently exist to help cover the financial cost of transitioning to safer batteries.

ABC News spoke with multiple delivery workers who said their bikes, which can cost upwards of $2,500, are the most expensive thing they own. Guallpa said delivery workers do not receive a “living wage” from many companies.

“A lot of delivery stars have been forced to transition into the bikes to be able to meet the brutal delivery schedules that they receive from the industry, to be able to travel long distances and to be able to make as many deliveries per day because most of their income relies on tips,” Guallpa said.

Antonio Martinez is a leader within Los Deliveristas Unidos –a group that represents delivery workers organized by the Worker’s Justice Project – and also works as a delivery worker on his moped. He said the timeline, process, and cost for transitioning to UL batteries under the new law has created uncertainty for many delivery workers. In the meantime, delivery workers have to live with the potential danger stemming from their e-bikes.

“I am worried because there have been many fires, and I've been worried for the family … and I'm also worried because a lot of people are living around me or living in the same building, and it makes me worried for the safety of everyone,” he said.

ABC News’ Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.

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