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Don’t blame the e-bike

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Rafael Elias Lopez-Centeno, a refugee from Venezuela who double-shifted delivering food for Bronx delis, died in August after riding the electric bike he was charging near his apartment door. caught fire. In the same week, two people, including a 5-year-old child, were killed when a fire started by an e-bike battery trapped them in their Jackie Robinson Houses apartment in East Harlem. Earlier this month 46 people were injured after a fire caused by an e-bike battery tore down a downtown skyscraper. Until recently, being injured by a lithium-ion battery was a “relatively rare occurrence” in the city, according to New York City Fire Department acting fire prevention chief Thomas Currao, who is voiced this week during a city council hearing on the e-bike. security and storage. There were only 13 such injuries in 2019. In 2021, that number rose to 79. “To date,” he said on Monday, “we have already identified 140 injuries and 191 fires attributed to lithium-ion batteries this year.” So far, six people have died.

The hearing, called in response to the recent spate of fires, was what council member Gale Brewer called “the start of a conversation”. The proposals included a citywide ban on owning refurbished batteries, stricter regulation of the sale of batteries known to be unsafe (which will require some cooperation with the federal government), and a campaign to public education on safer charging practices. And although at least one local property manager has banned all electric micro-mobility vehicles in their buildings, Monday’s city council hearing came to a more realistic conclusion: micro-mobility vehicles are here to stay, and the goal is to make them safer. That means tackling batteries – not bikes, Council Member Oswald Feliz said, after presenting his own legislation at the hearing. “We need the federal government to step in,” he said. “We also want to make it very clear that there is space in the city for e-bikes.”

The advice is correct: many fires in New York have occurred when people were powering up cheap batteries that had been refurbished for use in vehicles, or with chargers, for which they were not originally designed. the origin. Like Wilfred Chan wrote here earlier this year, it’s a common practice among delivery people who do ad-hoc maintenance to get the most out of their bikes. But that’s because new bikes and new batteries are expensive. As Nora McCauley, who works at the Propel e-bike store in Brooklyn, testified in court, a brand new bike from their store starts at $3,000 and comes with a certified Bosch-branded battery backed by a warranty that costs $800 to $1,000 to replace. These batteries have never started a fire in the city, according to McCauley. But that price is out of reach for low-wage workers. The brand popular with delivery people is a Chinese company named Arrow with electric bikes that go for $1,000, used and in questionable condition, on Craigslist. (A SEOfor an e-bike, battery, and charger, says the bike “needs the wires hooked up again. Someone on the street picked on that. It’s also only $650.)

Brewer’s proposed legislation to ban refurbished batteries targets the right problem by removing the dangerous element of e-bike operation out of people’s apartments. But it won’t go anywhere without a parallel plan to get safer batteries — which cost more — into the hands of the workers who depend on them. Getting it right and fast is crucial: the stigma of e-bikes risks stifling the city’s micro-mobility revolution, which is making the city safer, less congested and more climate-friendly. The city doesn’t track the number of e-bikes on the road, but advocates estimate there are at least 65,000 delivery people and at least 20 times as many e-bikes and e-scooters as there are cars. Nationwide e-bikes currently sold electric car. The benefits of cleaner air and clear streets, coupled with their growing popularity, mean that the task of making e-bike ownership more accessible and affordable should be a top priority for lawmakers.

“We can’t go back to the days when workers were arrested for using an e-bike,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, policy director for Los Deliveristas Unidos. But neither can we stay where we are, as FDNY officials testified on Monday. Beyond the proposals targeting battery resale markets, interveners at the hearing also addressed the problem of the safe charging and storage of bicycles, two issues that currently fall almost entirely on the owners of e-bikes and e-scooters. There is a lot of free parking and even a planned public charging for cars, but in a city with an epidemic of bike theft – one in four households in New York got a bike stolen — there are few safe options for parking e-bikes on the street and fewer options for charging them publicly. A new charging hub for delivery people that the city rides in an old newsstand at city hall is a much-needed win for delivery people, but unless workers can safely store their bikes there for hours or overnight to get a full charge , this will only be useful for recharging their batteries in small increments while they are paused. A more sustainable solution would be to invest on a large scale in the infrastructure of electric bicycles: public charging stations and secure parking and storage out of the 3 million free parking spaces currently reserved for cars.

According to a new coalition called Safer charging. Charging batteries in a safe, central facility and swapping them out in the field wherever vehicles are parked is what micro-mobility companies like Lime are already doing with their shared scooters and bikes. A similar program is available for moped riders in Taiwan. At a press conference outside City Hall ahead of the e-bike hearing, the coalition called on the city to release citywide battery standards (like requiring batteries to be UL listed , a federal electrical certification given to any home appliance) and to adopt a battery-exchange pilot program. “My neighbors are worried,” said Shaquane Mitchell, who lives in Riis homes where a man was killed by e-bike battery fire in his fourth-floor apartment almost a year ago. “We are asking that these batteries be regulated, especially in buildings like mine.” A battery swap could also work for seniors who use mobility devices, said Delores Sampson, who uses a motorized scooter to make deliveries for DoorDash, which she charges by hanging a cord from her fourth-story window. .

A wide range of city-run services would go a long way to helping e-bike users save money while getting dangerous batteries out of circulation, said Safer Charging co-founder Baruch Herzfeld, a long-time advocate of safer e-bike practices and founder of the battery swap start-up pop wheels, during the rally in front of the town hall. “These e-bike batteries have a shelf life. As the batteries become less efficient, they are going to need a new one,” he said. “They might have the option of depositing $600 for a new battery, or $40 a month to be part of a battery swap network.”

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