New York City’s public housing authority is mulling a ban on e-bikes and e-bike batteries in apartments and common areas — a change that’s being met with pushback and criticism from advocates and elected officials.
If the rule change goes through, people found to have e-bikes or batteries anywhere on NYCHA property could be subject to eviction starting on October 15th, according to the proposed rule. But for delivery workers who rely on the bikes for their livelihoods, the ban represents a significant hurdle to making ends meet.
“You're putting people to choose between their home and their equipment,” said Hildalyn Colon-Hernandez, policy director with Los Deliverisatas Unidos and the Workers Justice Project, which has helped organize e-bike delivery workers across the city. “We have an agency making a regulation, not understanding how the industry works or how this impacts workers.”
Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a spokesperson for NYCHA said the proposed policy change is in response to a spate of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, some of which have been fatal. Earlier this month, a fire started by a lithium-ion battery from a motorized scooter left two dead including a five-year-old girl at the Jackie Robinson Houses in East Harlem, after which the New York Post editorial board prodded Mayor Eric Adams to act. A deadly blaze in the East Village Jacob Riis Houses last winter was also traced back to a lithium-ion battery.
The City, which reported on the proposed rule change last month, said NYCHA had counted 25 fires on its properties started by lithium-ion batteries, though Goldblatt declined to confirm that.
"To prevent fires and preserve the health and safety of residents, NYCHA is considering the adoption of a new policy that would prohibit e-bikes and e-bike batteries in its public housing buildings, including apartments and common areas,” Goldblatt said.
FDNY data shows fires from lithium-ion batteries have surged over the past two years. After years of advocacy, most e-bikes and mopeds were legalized for use in New York in 2020, amid the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their popularity has since soared. Through early August, an FDNY spokesperson said lithium-ion batteries caused 121 fires, 66 injuries and 5 deaths, across the five boroughs, surpassing totals of 104 fires and four deaths from all of 2021. Both years represented a dramatic increase over prior years.
But advocates like Colon-Hernandez and others argue that outlawing e-bikes — rather than providing safer options for workers to store them, charge them and dispose of their batteries — isn’t the right path.
“The safety issues are certainly real and they must be addressed,” said City Councilmember Alexa Aviles, who chairs the public housing committee. “[E-bikes are] a greener form of transportation that we want to encourage. They're here to stay and I think it's a growing market and it would just behoove us to really think about the issue comprehensively.”
She pointed to groups like the Workers Justice Project and Los Deliveristas Unidos that are planning to open a charging hub for delivery workers in Williamsburg this fall and cities like Denver that are actively incentivizing residents to adopt them.
Colon-Hernandez said she was worried not just about e-bike workers who live in NYCHA complexes, but also those who use the public greenspaces around public housing complexes, and might be subject to further hassle by authorities if the rule is changed. And while delivery workers would stand to be economically hurt by the change, other transportation advocates point out many New Yorkers rely on motorized scooters for routine transportation.
“They're enormously popular because of how useful they are in a city that doesn't have great transportation options for certain segments of the community,” said Baruch Herzfeld, with the group PopWheels, which is piloting charging stations for scooters.
Herzfeld said the same type of battery is used in electric wheelchairs and scooters used by people with mobility impairments. He worried the vague language in the rule change could affect people with disabilities as well.
“That’s criminalizing poverty,” he said. “You make eight people homeless because one person needs a mobility scooter?”
Members of the public have until September 6th to weigh on the proposed ban of e-bikes and batteries either by email or by traditional mail.