Twisted mountains of charred bikes, scooters, wheels, and battery casings. The distinctive, acidic smell of burnt chemicals. And where delivery workers once stood in line chatting while waiting for repairs, now blackened ruins and a somber crowd of neighbors behind police tape. This was the scene – one that’s become horrifyingly common – after yet another deadly lithium battery fire in New York City.
Four people, including a 71-year-old man and 65-year-old woman, died in the inferno just after midnight on Tuesday – the latest victims of a growing problem that’s now claimed the lives of 13 people this year in the nation’s densest city, compared with six such deaths in all of 2022. The fires are caused by the cheap, dangerous electric batteries powering the two-wheeled devices that the city’s 65,000 delivery workers use to meet the demands of Silicon Valley gig platforms. And without decisive action, more carnage is guaranteed.
Tuesday’s disaster, the 108th lithium-battery-related fire this year in New York City, started at a shop called HQ E-bike Repair, on an immigrant-heavy street of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and quickly spread to the apartments above. The shop had been cited before for violations related to charging the batteries, said New York’s fire commissioner, Laura Kavanagh. But lithium battery fires often cause explosions that give victims almost no chance to react, she said. “The volume of fire created by these lithium-ion batteries is incredibly deadly … We’ve said this over and over: it can make it nearly impossible to get out in time.”
Among those gathered at the shop’s burnt wreckage was Alberto Lugo, a former frequent customer who lives down the street. “A lot of places, they’ll charge you an arm and a leg, but the owner was very fair,” Lugo tells me. He recalls the owner as “careful” to not charge devices indoors, saying he often did repair jobs on the sidewalk. “So when I heard about it this morning, my tears came out, because they’re good people,” he says.
While the fire department advises that people only use batteries that have been certified by UL Solutions, a rigorous safety testing lab, e-bikes that use these batteries easily cost thousands of dollars. That’s beyond reach for most delivery workers and immigrant city dwellers, who tend to buy no-name vehicles, batteries and chargers, for a fraction of the cost. Walk into one of New York City’s e-bike shops and you’ll often see rows of these batteries juicing up side by side on overloaded power strips. But even if they’re not being charged, batteries stored in tight quarters can still catch fire and cause a chain reaction.
New York’s city council recently passed a measure banning the sale of non-UL certified electric bikes, scooters, and batteries, as well as their reconditioning and resale. That doesn’t do much for the countless New Yorkers who still use uncertified equipment – and who don’t have the means to ditch it.
One is Mr Wu, another former customer of the shop, in his 60s. Even as we stand before the smoldering vehicles, he tells me that he can’t stress about his cheap e-bike catching fire; the chances of it happening would be like “winning the lottery”, he reasons. “What matters most is that it’s good and cheap.” Another onlooker is Terence, a 57-year-old Bronx e-bike owner whose father was a firefighter. But “I’ve had my e-bike now for five or six years, and I’ve been using this sort of battery, and I’ve never, ever had a problem,” he says.
Even those who fear the risks feel stuck. Gustavo Ajche, a delivery worker and founder of the labor group Los Deliveristas Unidos, carries two batteries when he works so that he can go longer distances – there’s simply no way to make a living without them. But he can’t afford to replace the packs, which aren’t UL-certified, so all he can do is charge them more cautiously. “I charge it a little bit when I get home and the next day, I charge it a little more, because I don’t want to be in this kind of mess with this fire,” he says.
Recently, Los Deliveristas helped win the city’s first minimum wage for delivery workers – $17.96 an hour, which passed over the vehement objections of gig companies like Uber and DoorDash, which have been trying to appease investors by raising prices while slashing worker pay. The tech firms have been just as unhelpful in addressing the lithium battery issue, says Ajche. Recently, Uber announced a trade-in scheme for workers to exchange their old e-bikes for a reported credit of just $200 toward a new, UL-certified e-bike that would cost more than $3,000. Ajche says the offer made him laugh out loud. “It’s a joke,” he said. “They’re not here to help us, they’re just trying to make money.”
DoorDash’s sole monetary contribution has been little more than a Band-Aid: a $100,000 donation to New York’s fire department to “help increase fire safety messaging, education, and outreach”, according to a DoorDash spokesperson.
Grubhub, which also donated $100,000 to the fire department, has partnered with the electric bike-share platform Joco to offer 500 of its top delivery workers access to free rentals of safety certified e-bikes, in addition to opening a downtown Manhattan “rest stop” for delivery workers. It’s a promising idea, but Ajche says workers are frustrated that a fully charged Joco bike only goes about 30 miles – about half of a typical worker’s shift – and Joco’s battery exchange locations shut down in the evening, when work is busiest.
Amy Perlik Healy, Grubhub’s vice-president of government relations, told the Guardian “no single company, manufacturer or organization is going to solve this problem” and the company would continue to “gather data that will help inform how we can best support riders moving forward”. Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
If the gig companies don’t step up, Ajche says workers like him could benefit from a city-backed battery swap program, so that New York’s e-bike and e-scooter owners can trade in their questionable packs for certified ones. But a promising battery swap bill proposed by the Manhattan city councilman Keith Powers in the spring has yet to see a vote. It also faces technical challenges even if passed, given the vast array of micro-mobility devices and battery styles out there – and at well over $1,000 per UL battery, the program could be expensive.
In the meantime, delivery workers have been fighting for another solution: small charging hubs placed at high-traffic areas throughout the city, where deliveristas can rest and refuel their batteries safely. The idea was approved by New York City last year, with a pledge of $1m in federal funds from Senator Chuck Schumer, but the initiative is off to a shaky start. A charging hub proposed for the swanky Upper West Side almost immediately ran into fierce resistance from wealthy residents – which is “sad”, Ajche says. “They need delivery services, but they don’t want to have us close to them.”
But with nobody willing to take responsibility for prevention, more batteries will explode – and more people will die. The last such incident came in April, when a seven-year-old and a teenager died in their second-floor apartment building after a bike being charged in the building’s vestibule suddenly ignited. It took firefighters just three minutes to reach the home, but the inferno had already raced up the stairs. The victims, the fire department said, “didn’t have a chance”.