New York’s E-Bikes Keep Catching Fire, and It’s Getting Worse – VICE UK

Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

A few weeks ago, I was in my local bike shop in Brooklyn waiting on some repairs. The bike shop sells mostly regular bikes, but some e-bikes too from name brands like Specialized and Trek. I was chatting with the owner about e-bike fires, which have been making the local news recently. As we spoke, a young man walked in and asked the owner if they do e-bike battery repairs for a specific brand. The owner said they don’t carry that brand so they can’t do repairs, either. The man said, “OK, I guess I’ll buy the battery I saw on Alibaba then,” and walked out. 

“And that’s how you get fires,” the owner said.

The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has been posting about e-bike fires for more than six months. On April 21, it posted yet another plea on Instagram. “In the last 24 hours, FDNY Fire Marshals have determined that there were 4 accidental electrical fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in electric scooters/E-bikes,” the Instagram post read next to photos of burned out bikes and scooters. 

In those four fires—three in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn—12 people were injured, according to the FDNY. As of that April day, the FDNY reported “more than 40 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in electric scooters/E-bikes” with more than 20 injuries. A spokesperson for the FDNY told Motherboard that, as of July 7, the department has reached 104 lithium ion battery fires for the year so far tracked by the fire marshal, matching the number for all of 2021, although it’s not clear if that number includes all lithium ion battery fires or just ones from e-bikes. 

Regardless, there’s no debate that New York City has an e-bike fire problem that is getting worse. But that is about all we know. And in a well-intentioned push to curtail the fires but lacking critical details like which type of bikes catch fire and in what conditions, an industry-wide blame game has erupted, most especially towards low-income delivery workers who rely on e-bikes to make a living, with no clear path to actually solving the problem.

“It is a big bunch of problems,” said Manny Ramirez, an experienced e-bike mechanic and a leader for the advocacy group Los Deliveristas Unidos. “But we are trying to fix it one by one, little by little.”

E-bike fires, like all lithium-ion battery fires, are tricky for firefighters to deal with, because they are chemical reactions that, once underway, cannot be extinguished like traditional fires. Large batteries like the ones found in e-bikes can have up to 90 cells, and once a cell goes into “thermal runaway,” the only thing to be done is try to prevent the bad cell from creating a chain reaction. And if lots of lithium-ion batteries are stored together in the same room, one exploding battery can cause the others to go into thermal runaway, too. Not only do lithium-ion batteries cause extremely hot explosions, but they also create toxic gas that, if in an unventilated room, can be just as dangerous …….



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