To prevent fires, NYCHA could ban e-bikes, leaving delivery people stranded

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In the early hours of December 16, a fire broke out in a fourth-floor apartment at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, killing one tenant, seriously injuring another and forcing two teenage boys to scramble over a pole electric to escape.

More than 180 firefighters responded and when the smoke cleared, firefighters discovered seven e-bikes inside the unit where the fire started. Firefighters determined that one of the bike’s lithium-ion batteries had exploded, setting off the deadly conflagration.

The incident was not the first, nor the last.

In fact, there have been 25 investigations into lithium-ion fires at NYCHA buildings since Jan. 1, 2021, including eight so far this year, according to the FDNY. The housing authority has confirmed that 10 fires at its properties “have been given an official or probable cause relating to e-bikes and related appliances”.

As a result, NYCHA is now, for the first time, proposing to ban tenants and their guests from storing both bikes and batteries in its 177,000 apartments across the city.

Under a proposed rule change, any tenant caught storing one inside their apartment or connected to one stored in the common area of ​​a NYCHA building would be considered in violation of their lease. . Housing Authority chairman Gregory Russ said the rule is “to prevent fires and safeguard the health and safety of residents”.

When THE CITY asked if this meant a tenant could be evicted for storing an e-bike or battery pack in their unit, a NYCHA spokesperson replied via email: “This is still in the public comment phase. and no policy has been adopted at this time. NYCHA will begin with a robust resident engagement process to ensure that all residents fitted with these devices are brought into compliance.”

The proposed ban aims to address one serious problem, but has the unintended effect of creating another: presenting a challenge to low-income food delivery people who depend on these bikes for their livelihood.

If the rule is passed as is, anyone who currently stores e-bikes in their apartment will have to find another place to put it. NYCHA notes that this would include renters who are not delivery people but store bikes in their units for rent to workers. “Home-based businesses for the repair, charging or storage of e-bikes, e-bike batteries or gas-powered vehicles” would be prohibited, the rule says.

Delivery workers who spoke with THE CITY strongly opposed the proposal, saying it would make their jobs much more difficult. Many seemed to believe the rule would prevent them from making deliveries to NYCHA’s 335 developments – which it does not – but the rule as proposed would clearly impact delivery people who live in NYCHA and workers who rent properties. e-bikes to NYCHA tenants.

“A tool I need to work”

As food delivery apps have expanded options for customers to order outside of their own neighborhood, delivery people have faced increasing pressure to quickly deliver hot meals over longer distances.

As a result, many have turned to e-bikes to meet these demands.

If a delivery is even a few minutes late, workers can be penalized and kicked out of applications altogether, losing a day of work or more, said Manny Ramírez, 34, who delivers for Grubhub, Relay and Doordash and has his own e – Bicycle.

“Oftentimes apps want to keep their customers happy at the expense of delivery people and keep their promise of fast deliveries, while we’re forced to navigate crowded streets, race against time, break laws and risk our safety, all to make $2-$3,” said Ramírez, who delivers to an area from the Upper West Side to the northern tip of Manhattan, in Spanish. “For us, e-bikes aren’t a fad, and that’s not are not a toy – it is a tool that I need to work with.”

While acknowledging the very real incidents of fires and explosions caused by e-bikes and batteries, Ramírez said e-bike riders were unfairly singled out by NYCHA.

“I think whoever writes this rule has to take us into consideration as well,” said Ernesta Galvez, 42, who delivers to the Lower East Side and also owns her own e-bike, in Spanish. “Let us work.”

The management of the Housing Authority – the largest in the country – is acutely aware of the potential for fire-related disasters in social housing. Several months ago, the city’s Department of Investigation began investigating a series of fires inside NYCHA properties, most of which appeared to have started inside faulty garbage chutes.

Public comment on the proposed rule change was scheduled to end on Sunday and the rule was to go into effect Aug. 15, but Wednesday night NYCHA President Russ said in a statement to THE CITY that the comment period had been extended until September 6. at that time, NYCHA will review and consider stakeholder feedback before issuing a final policy. »

“Thermal runaway”

The December fire at Riis Houses was an extreme case, starting in an apartment containing several e-bikes. Authorities believe the tenant rented the bikes from delivery people and charged them overnight in the apartment.

This is a recipe for disaster, say the firefighters. Under certain circumstances, such as a damaged or overcharged battery, it can overheat and sometimes explode.

Brian O’Connor, PE, a fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), described what happens as “thermal runaway.”

“Once a cell[de batterie]goes into thermal runaway, it’s a kind of short circuit. It overheats and it also heats the adjacent cells next to it. Once it heats up a cell, it begins to spread from cell to cell, intensifying the fire,” he said.[battery)cellgoesintothermalrunawayit’skindofashortcircuitItoverheatsanditalsoheatsuptheadjacentcellsnexttoitOnceitheatsuponecellitstartspropagatingfromcelltocellintensifyingthefire”hesaid[battery)cellgoesintothermalrunawayit’skindofashortcircuitItoverheatsanditalsoheatsuptheadjacentcellsnexttoitOnceitheatsuponecellitstartspropagatingfromcelltocellintensifyingthefire”hesaid

The aftermath of a fire at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis homes in the East Village, February 1, 2022.

The lithium that powers the battery gives off flammable and toxic gases when it burns, O’Connor said, and “that creates either an explosion hazard or this very powerful fire.” It creates its own heat. It creates its own fuel. In addition, the thick coating that envelops it makes the resulting fire difficult to extinguish.

Fire officials have warned of the volatility of e-bike batteries over the past two years. As the number of devices proliferated across the city, so too did the number of fires caused by e-bikes.

So far this year, there have been 99 e-bike related fire investigations across the city. Seventy-six happened inside structures where the bikes were stored, while the rest happened while they were parked on the street or even while they were in operation. These fires left two dead and 37 injured.

“FDNY has a long history of working with NYCHA on general fire safety education for residents, and will continue to do so regarding lithium-ion batteries and all fire safety topics,” the FDNY said in response to the inquiry. of THE CITY.

The FDNY sets rules on the proper way to store e-bikes, recommending owners use only devices listed by qualified testing labs, rely only on specific cords and adapters provided by the manufacturer of the device and store the batteries at room temperature and never in direct sunlight.

Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates for reduced motor vehicles in New York, said City Hall should push to install secure bicycle parking and public e-bike charging stations instead of targeting NYCHA tenants. .

“No one should have to choose between keeping their accommodation or keeping their job,” said Juan Restrepo, the association’s main organizer. “We understand the real concerns here, but we believe this policy will destroy the livelihoods of essential workers making deliveries and punish those who cycle to work.”

Freddi Goldstein, spokesman for Uber, which operates a delivery subsidiary Uber Eats, said on Thursday the company had pushed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to fund more e-bike charging stations locally, warning that delivery people from New York are forced to store bicycles. in dangerous conditions.

“Many delivery people resort to charging stations in the back of convenience stores or in the apartments where they live, which often means charging multiple batteries at once and creating potential safety issues,” wrote CR Wooters, manager. of Uber’s federal affairs, in a May letter to Buttigieg.

Goldstein said the company has also worked with the FDNY to obtain educational materials on proper storage and loading protocols for delivery people.

“The safety of those delivering on our platform is critical and we want to make sure they have the information they need to properly load and store their bikes,” Goldstein said.

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