What's Driving The Demand For E-Bikes?
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The New York City Fire Department says at least 200 fires and six deaths were caused by lithium batteries on electric bikes in 2022.
For Delores Solomon, losing her electric mobility scooter means losing her livelihood as a delivery driver.
"It adds a little more to my Social Security because it’s hard living on a fixed income. You see today, everything is going up," Solomon said.
But she says it isn’t worth risking her life.
"I'm scared because you never know, like New York City has mad potholes, bad streets, so you never know when a battery might dislodge," Solomon said.
Last year, she was almost killed when she was delivering food on her scooter and hit a pothole, causing the battery to fly out.
"It ejected from the bike, and it exploded, but by God’s grace and mercy I didn’t get a scratch," Solomon said.
The New York City Fire Department says at least 200 fires and six deaths were caused by lithium batteries on electric bikes in 2022, often used by food delivery workers.
At least 38 people were injured, some of them critically, in Manhattan in early November.
Baruch Herzfeld an advocate and unofficial bike expert says the batteries on e-bikes are extremely flammable and dangerous.
"Inside this case, it’s many many small battery cells. They’re called cells. It looks like a double a battery — slightly bigger. They’re all wired up together. If any one of those connections goes bad, you can have a short circuit. Also, a short circuit can trigger an explosion. Each cell has flammable material inside and if it reaches a certain temperature the liquid that’s inside that’s flammable will turn into a gas — that gas can expand and that expansion can blow up," Herzfeld said.
Herzfeld started "Safer Charging" an advocacy group pushing to create a "battery swap" network modeled after similar systems in countries like India and Taiwan.
"There we go. Somebody would come in, we would put out the battery," Herzfeld said.
The system would allow workers to place their used batteries into shared outdoor charging cabinets and grab new ones. In New York City, an estimated 65,000 delivery workers are employed through low-paying apps, like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and GrubHub.
Some of the high-end machines are sold in showrooms or bike shops for over $5,000.
"People dying in fires and then people getting into, you know, into wrecks because the bikes fall apart underneath of them and stuff like that. It's awful," said David Coccagna, a manager and mechanic at NYC Velo.
But Coccagna, manager and mechanic at a Manhattan bike shop, says the vast majority of vehicles used by New York City workers come from unknown manufacturers — purchased online at cheap prices with no quality control as a consequence.
"There are layers upon layers of quality control that go into selling the ones, the electric bikes that go to actual bike shops, that you don't have to meet those requirements or it doesn't seem like they meet those requirements that are direct to consumer," Coccagna said.
Officials who manage public housing in the Big Apple proposed banning the e-bikes, but later backed down after backlash from low-income residents who rely on the transportation for their livelihoods.
"I don’t want them to ban any bikes or anything because this makes me feel useful," Solomon said.
Solomon wants safer measures, but says the right to gainful employment shouldn’t be taken away from anyone.
Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly causing accidental fires, including an apartment fire that claimed a life in New York City.
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There were no injuries in the Saturday incident, according to a statement from the attorney general's office. A motive has not been established.