This story was originally published by Canary Media.
On Gustavo Ajche’s busiest shifts, he can deliver takeout dinners and groceries to two dozen doorsteps across New York City. Riding a sturdy bicycle with fat tires, he zips beneath Manhattan’s soaring buildings, propelled by his two feet and the lithium-ion battery attached to the bike’s frame. The extra juice enables him to cover more ground in a job that is only growing more physically demanding as home deliveries surge.
“Sometimes for a delivery, you have to travel 30 blocks away, 50 blocks away,” Ajche says on a rainy afternoon in late August, during a pause between orders for the delivery apps DoorDash and Grubhub. “Using a regular bike before was really, really hard. These e-bikes make it a lot easier for us.”
Ajche is the founder of Los Deliveristas Unidos, a collective of app delivery workers who advocate for better working conditions. Some 65,000 people now ferry food, medications, bottles of wine, and clothing through the city’s crowded streets. Like Ajche, the vast majority of couriers rely on two-wheeled transportation — and, increasingly, battery power — to perform their gig work.
Delivery workers represent a significant share of the micromobility movement that’s taking hold worldwide as cities work to curb tailpipe emissions and reduce reliance on cars. Yet in New York City, this burgeoning group of e-bike users has encountered hurdles, ones that raise complicated questions about who can access electrified transportation and how.
Most recently, the New York City Housing Authority has proposed banning the loosely defined category of “e-bikes” from public-housing apartments, where many delivery workers live. The proposal, announced in July, is meant to address a serious problem: the rising number of building fires linked to lithium-ion batteries. In the latest incident, in early August, a 5-year-old girl and a 36-year-old woman died after the battery of an electric moped — also referred to as scooters — exploded inside an apartment in Harlem.
Workers’ rights advocates and micromobility proponents are pushing to stop the proposal from taking effect. They argue that a blanket ban would unfairly punish the low-income and immigrant delivery workers who need the battery-powered devices for their livelihood. Both critics and proponents are searching for solutions that can address the underlying causes of battery fires. That includes how batteries are manufactured, repaired, and charged, as well as the often-hidden steps workers take to hastily deliver hot meals and cold drinks to people’s doors.
“We need to be more holistic in our approach,” said Alexa Avilés, a city council member who represents Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, which is home to many delivery workers. Avilés heads the city’s public-housing committee and helped get the New York City Housing Authority to extend the proposal’s public comment period by a month; it now closes on September 6.
“I don’t expect the city will be able to manage it on its own,” Avilés said of the e-bike conundrum. “Multiple levels of government are going to need to think about a smart policy strategy that is much more comprehensive, rather than just an outright ban.”
Lithium-ion batteries are generally considered to be safe. The smartphones that we carry in our pockets have them; a rising number of us sit above them in our electric vehicles. Batteries used for bicycles and mopeds are no different, and many come certified by Underwriters Laboratories, whose battery safety standards are among the most stringent.
The problem is that sturdy certified batteries are typically much more expensive to make and buy than poorly assembled versions. Ajche said his bicycle with the electric “pedal assist” is of good quality and costs around $2,000. But other models used by delivery workers, including more powerful mopeds, can be found online for half the price, if not less.
A battery fire involves three components: heat, oxygen, and fuel. The cells in lithium-ion batteries contain oxygen atoms and liquid electrolytes — the fuel — as part of their chemistry. If a battery overheats, or if it’s punctured, the three components can start feeding off each other, causing extremely hot explosions and releasing toxic gas. Higher-quality cells are built to prevent internal shocks from happening and to better withstand external shocks.
“We’ve learned to be very careful, to make sure we’re controlling the way that energy is released,” said Venkat Srinivasan, a battery scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. “But if you’re being shoddy and you aren’t taking the time to do all these things very carefully, it’s very easy to release that energy in an uncontrolled fashion.”
Srinivasan recently authored a newspaper op-ed about the rash of moped battery fires in India. He explained how a well-made battery isn’t enough on its own. The entire unit — the cells, the battery packaging, the vehicle, the charging infrastructure — should be designed to work together. A big challenge in India and in New York City is that low-end manufacturers or do-it-yourself technicians tend to mix and match various components. It’s like trying to use an Android phone charger on an iPhone, only with potentially dire results.
Recently, the New York City Fire Department flagged the risk of malfunctioning batteries in a letter to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, an independent federal agency. The New York City Fire Department urged the commission to “consider regulatory measures on lithium-ion battery manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors” and encouraged it to “implement the necessary policies to prevent future injuries and death.”
So far this year, the New York City Fire Department says it has investigated 130 fires tied to lithium-ion batteries, which have resulted in 73 injuries and five deaths. That’s up from 104 investigations for all of last year, and it’s a dramatic leap from the 44 fires linked to batteries in 2020 and the 30 in 2019.
“The most equitable solution would be for manufacturers to design their devices to be safer, rather than relying on consumers and delivery workers to bear the burden of mitigating risk,” Acting Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh wrote in the August 19 letter.
Yet even top-notch batteries with well-integrated systems can run into trouble if they’re not properly maintained or repaired. Delivery workers, under pressure to quickly fulfill numerous orders, often don’t have time to stop and charge their batteries. Instead, they exchange their spent battery for a charged one in the back of convenience stores or bike shops, where multiple batteries are plugged in at once. Some workers tamper with their e-bike systems so they can go faster to meet the demands of their jobs. Damaged batteries are often repaired in local shops, not necessarily by the original manufacturer or retailer.
“There’s a really thriving, more underground community around [e-mobility] that’s making these vehicles work for the purposes of delivering in New York City,” said Melinda Hanson, co-founder of the micromobility firm Electric Avenue. “Workers have a way of repairing and exchanging and helping each other out.”
In that sense, making electric two-wheelers safer means addressing not only technology issues but also the infrastructure challenges and working conditions that drive the need for makeshift e-bike economies.
When it comes to reducing fire risk from battery-powered fleets, there are some relatively simple steps delivery workers and public officials can take.
Among the fastest fixes is for e-bike owners to use an outlet timer whenever they charge their batteries. These small devices plug directly into a wall socket; the battery charger then plugs into the timer. Fires generally happen when the battery is plugged in overnight or for extended periods of time — the constant charging causes batteries to degrade and overheat. The timers stop the flow of electrons once the battery is sufficiently charged.
“Not only is it the safest way to charge, but it’s also a good way to preserve the life of the battery,” said Natasha George, director of battery engineering for Pure Lithium near Boston. She noted that these simple devices, such as this model by GE, can be had for around $7 online.
Another fairly straightforward approach is to make higher-quality bikes more affordable for delivery workers and for lower-income residents in general. Dozens of cities in the United States and Canada are providing or considering financial incentives to boost the adoption of e-bikes — a term that in this case usually refers to bicycles with electric pedal assist, not mopeds or scooters.
In Denver, the city has budgeted about $3 million this year for instant e-bike rebates, which are funded through a voter-approved sales tax. Residents can receive rebates worth $400 or $1,200, depending on their income status, at participating bike shops around the city. Bulkier cargo e-bikes fetch an additional $500 rebate.
Since launching in April, the city has awarded 2,100 rebates worth $1.9 million, and thousands more people are on the waitlist. About 60 percent of funding has gone to “under-resourced cyclists,” said Mike Salisbury, the transportation energy lead for the city and county of Denver.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to reduce greenhouse gases from the transportation sector,” he said. “This is a really important way to give Denver residents a way to replace vehicle trips, whether it’s running errands or just getting around town.”
Hanson, of Electric Avenue, is working on a proposed pilot program for New York City called the Equitable Commute Project, which would provide electric micromobility options for low-income workers, including through upfront discounts and accessible financing options for people without a credit history.
“One of the challenges is making sure these incentives get in the hands of people who really need them so they can access better-quality vehicles,” she said. “Especially in a place like New York where you’re seeing the majority of users, and the really high-frequency users, tend to be living more on the margins.”
Other solutions for safer micromobility will likely require more time and bigger public and private investments in order to take hold.
Battery scientists are developing alternative chemistries, such as lithium-ion phosphate and solid-state batteries, that are less prone to catching on fire than conventional lithium-ion devices. In Southeast Asia, where electric motorbikes are going mainstream, startups like Gogoro and Oyika are rolling out more formalized battery-swapping programs that let riders exchange spent batteries for charged ones at “cabinets” sprinkled across cities. George, the battery engineer in Boston, co-founded the startup SomEV with the goal of building battery kiosks along major travel corridors.
In New York City, Los Deliveristas Unidos is pushing to establish “hubs” where delivery workers can use the bathroom, fix a flat tire, and safely charge and store their electric two-wheelers. This could help reduce the risk of fires happening in apartment buildings and address another major problem: bike theft. Los Deliveristas’ Facebook page is filled with photos of stolen electric bicycles and mopeds and pleas to help recover the missing property.
Ajche, the group’s founder, said the first charging hub is being developed now in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, and several more are slated for other heavily frequented areas. The initiative has the support of officials such as Democratic U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who told Curbed in January that he intends to explore “every area of funding” in government to establish “scores” of worker hubs across the city.
For his part, Ajche said he pays about $125 a month to store and charge his e-bike at a private parking space in Manhattan. That way, he doesn’t have to haul his bulky bike home to Brooklyn every evening.
Public e-bike racks would also allow battery-powered bicycles to top off on the go. Saris, which makes bike products in Madison, Wisconsin, has developed a beefed-up system for this purpose. Cyclists can plug their own chargers into the rack, then lock up both their bike and the charger itself. The outlet also has a temperature-activated cooling fan and a “ground-fault circuit interrupter” that prevents electrical shocks.
The company has piloted its e-bike rack in a handful of locations, including near mountain-biking destinations in California, Canada, and Australia, said Chris Bauch, general manager of Saris’ infrastructure division. College campuses have also expressed interest in installing the public e-bike racks to keep batteries out of dorm rooms.
A potentially major funding source for such infrastructure projects is the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes billions of dollars for electric-vehicle charging stations.
Uber, which operates the delivery subsidiary Uber Eats, is pushing the U.S. Department of Transportation to prioritize e-bikes as it develops guidance for spending those funds. Uber declined to comment for this article, but a spokesperson shared a letter that Uber sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last May. The letter urges the department to fund innovative solutions that “also expand access to safe, affordable e-bike charging solutions.”
Yet experts say that delivery companies are in an awkward position when it comes to calling for safer micromobility. Because their business models depend on contracting independent workers — rather than hiring employees — investing in fleetwide solutions risks entering messy territory in terms of labor laws. At the same time, delivery apps contribute to the need for battery-powered transportation, with algorithms that reward workers based on how many orders they accept and how wide of an area they’re willing to cover.
A 2021 survey of New York City delivery workers found that most couriers work six or seven days per week and more than six hours on any given day of the week. Their hourly net pay, with tips included, is around $12.21 — less than New York’s $15 minimum wage, according to the report by Los Deliveristas Unidos, Workers Justice Project and Cornell University’s Worker Institute.
As delivery workers and transportation advocates contemplate both quick fixes and big-picture solutions around electric micromobility, the New York City Housing Authority continues to move closer to potentially banning e-bikes in hundreds of thousands of public-housing apartments. The agency’s public comment period ends next week, with the rule change potentially set to take effect in mid-October. In the meantime, officials like Brooklyn council member Alexa Avilés say they’ll continue pushing the New York City Housing Authority to take a more comprehensive look.
“How do we approach this in a more nuanced way that maintains safety in residences but that also offers people [transportation] options?” she said. “There’s a lot of great work to do, despite its complexity, but it’s important for our city and our country. Because, as we’ve seen, [e-mobility] is only going to continue to grow.”