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Officials search for solutions to exploding electric bike batteries

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Electric bikes are everywhere in big cities these days, bringing people to and from work, carrying food from restaurants to their customers. NPR's Matthew Schuerman reports the number of fires caused by faulty or mishandled batteries is also on the rise.

MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: Carmen Tiburcio was already at work when she heard there was a fire at her building in the Bronx one August morning. When she got back, the fire was out, but the smell was overwhelming.

CARMEN TIBURCIO: Oh, my God. It was awful because it's not something that you're cooking, and it burned down. No.

SCHUERMAN: It was the smell of toxic chemicals from an e-bike battery fire officials said exploded while being charged. A 27-year-old delivery worker died in the blaze from smoke inhalation.

TIBURCIO: He did not make it. He - you know, his lungs were very bad.

SCHUERMAN: It was a familiar scenario for Dan Flynn, the New York Fire Department's chief fire marshal.

DANIEL FLYNN: These bikes, when they fail, they fail like a blowtorch. We've seen incidents where they actually have so much power, they're actually blowing walls down in between rooms in apartments.

SCHUERMAN: So far this year, six people have died in such incidents in New York. The total number of fires is expected to top 200 by the end of December. That'd be twice as many as last year's total.

FLYNN: It's increasing exponentially.

SCHUERMAN: E-bike fires have been reported in other cities across the country and the world. Many, if not most, involve batteries used for food delivery that are either damaged or improperly charged. E-bike owners NPR interviewed in New York City say they do take precautions. Rafael Cardanales, who lives on the Lower East Side, makes sure he always uses the right charger.

RAFAEL CARDANALES: A lot of guys have four, five, six bikes in their apartment. They swap out chargers for different bikes when it doesn't belong to that bike. These bikes, they have specific chargers for them. You can't just use any charger, you know?

SCHUERMAN: Musfiqur Rahman paid $1,100 for two brand-new batteries recently. Used, refurbished batteries are far cheaper but also riskier.

MUSFIQUR RAHMAN: As far as I know that this brand never get involved in this kind of incident.

SCHUERMAN: These days, instead of working for a single restaurant, most food couriers use apps like DoorDash or Uber Eats to connect with customers. And these workers often don't have any other place to store and recharge their e-bikes except in their apartments. City Council member Gale Brewer hears about that a lot.

GALE BREWER: The other residents call and say, oh, goodness, Gale, there's a delivery bike in the elevator. And they're older, lot of the people calling me, and they freak out because they've read about the fires.

SCHUERMAN: Brewer has proposed legislation that would ban the sale of used batteries within city limits, even though she knows the price of new batteries is a stretch for many delivery workers. According to one study, they make just $12 an hour.

BREWER: And they do, you know, God's work, so to speak, because New Yorkers like to have food delivered.

SCHUERMAN: Brewer says the city has to come up with a way to help delivery workers afford trustworthy batteries, so everyone stays safe. Matthew Schuerman, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.