Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on June 15, 2022.

EMERGING TECHNOLOGY
New rule would ban e-bikes from all public housing in New York City  
 
 

BY ANGELO VERZONI


Listen to a related podcast on e-bike and e-scooter fire safety.

Fueled by concerns over fire safety, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is considering a new rule that would ban e-bikes and e-scooters from all its properties. 

“NYCHA is considering the adoption of a new rule that would prohibit e-bikes and related devices from its properties, including residents’ apartments and public and private spaces throughout all developments,” a spokesperson for NYCHA wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “This proposed new rule is open for public comment until July 10, 2022, at which time NYCHA will review stakeholder feedback and amend the rule accordingly.”

RELATED: Learn more about the New York City Housing Authority’s public comment process
 
According to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), battery-powered electric bicycles and scooters have caused more than 75 fires in New York City so far this year, putting the city on pace for nearly 190 e-bike or e-scooter fires in 2022. Last year, the department reported 104 such blazes, which killed four people. 

“The numbers increase weekly. That’s how active this issue is,” said Joe Jardin, chief of fire prevention at FDNY. “It’s scary, frankly, how fast the environment in the fire area diminishes, how severe the fire becomes in a matter of a second or two.” Jardin spoke with NFPA Journal for a podcast on e-bike and e-scooter fire safety released June 14, as well as a feature story on the same topic slated to appear in the magazine’s upcoming fall issue. 


A burned e-bike recovered from the scene of a fire. Image courtesy of FDNY

While the new ban has been proposed with fire safety in mind, critics fear it would unintentionally hurt the people who rely on e-bikes and e-scooters for income, such as food delivery drivers. 

“I’m not sure why e-bikes would pose more of a safety hazard in public housing than they would in private housing,” Howard Yaruss, co-chairman of the CB7 Transportation Committee in Manhattan, wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “E-bikes are an important alternative mode of transportation that is particularly affordable when compared to cars. Therefore, I think it would be particularly odd to ban e-bikes solely for people with limited incomes.” 

Officially, some 340,000 people live in public housing in New York City, although experts think the actual figure could be nearly double that. 

The Housing Authority’s proposed ban isn’t the only recent effort New York City has made toward stemming e-bike and e-scooter fires. In April, the city’s Fire Code was amended to include language on e-bikes and e-scooters. The code now requires e-bike and e-scooter charging equipment to comply with standards published by Underwriters Laboratories as well as enhanced fire protection measures for rooms where six or more e-bikes or e-scooters are being charged or stored. These measures include fire sprinklers, spacing between devices, dedicated electrical receptacles, and fire-rated walls and doors, said Nick Petrakis, an engineer and former assistant deputy director at the FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention.

The addition to the code isn’t meant to restrict private citizens from storing or charging their own e-bikes at their homes, said Julian Bazel, director of the bureau’s Code Development Unit. It is intended, instead, to “prevent the use of dwelling units to warehouse and charge fleet e-bikes and other activities involving the bulk storage and charging of powered mobility devices.” In other words, if a building owner wants to provide a space for storing and charging e-bikes or e-scooters, they can, Bazel said, as long as they provide increased protection measures like the ones Petrakis described. 

The new NYCHA proposal would take things even further, though, with a total ban of e-bikes and e-scooters in the city’s public housing properties. According to a copy of the proposed rule obtained by NFPA Journal, the ban would be written into the lease agreement public housing residents must sign before taking up residence.

In Petrakis’s opinion, any e-bike– or e-scooter–related safety measures will take a lot of education to enforce, he said. “I was in Queens a few days ago, and I was walking down the street and I passed a couple of bike shops,” Petrakis said. “They had eight or nine e-bikes parked outside, and I peeked inside, and they had way more charging. These industries just aren’t that familiar with the fire code.” 

Outside of New York City, there is little data on how often or why e-bikes or e-scooters, sometimes referred to collectively as micromobility devices, catch fire. A spate of recent incidents in India has been attributed to poorly manufactured battery cells. “The battery cells were found to be an issue as well as the battery management systems,” an unnamed source close to the investigation told Reuters

Typically, these devices are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have been known to ignite. Fed by a chemical reaction known as thermal runaway, lithium-ion battery fires can emit toxic fumes and generally require copious amounts of water to extinguish. Even when lithium-ion battery fires appear to be out, the batteries can reignite days or even weeks later due to energy that can remain trapped inside the damaged cells (read more about this phenomenon in “Stranded Energy,” January/February 2020).

To learn more about e-bike and e-scooter fire safety, listen to the recent episode of The NFPA Podcast featuring Chief Jardin, and be sure to look out for the upcoming NFPA Journal feature story on the e-bike and e-scooter fire problem, out in August.

ANGELO VERZONI is the associate editor of NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: Pixabay