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Investigators Advised NYCHA Three Years Ago to Ban E-bikes. 25 Related Fires Later, It’s Finally Taking Action.

NYCHA declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about why it took so long to respond to the Department of Investigation’s suggestion.

SHARE Investigators Advised NYCHA Three Years Ago to Ban E-bikes. 25 Related Fires Later, It’s Finally Taking Action.

An e-bike sparked a blaze in the Bushwick Houses in 2018.

Courtesy of the Department of Investigation

The city Department of Investigation (DOI) advised NYCHA more than three years ago to ban storage of e-bikes on public housing property after a bike parked in a hallway of a Brooklyn development burst into flames and caused extensive damage in November 2018, THE CITY has learned.

Since then, there have been at least 25 investigations of fires inside NYCHA properties that were caused by lithium-ion batteries found in e-bikes and e-scooters, including a fire at the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village that resulted in the death of one tenant and serious injury to another.

Three and a half years after DOI advised the authority to enact a ban, NYCHA is only now beginning the process of potentially doing what DOI recommended.

Then-DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett and NYCHA Inspector General Ralph Iannuzzi made the recommendation to ban e-bikes, e-scooters and hoverboards — all powered by potentially volatile lithium-ion batteries — in a letter to NYCHA senior management dated Dec. 20, 2018. THE CITY obtained the letter via the Freedom of Information Law.

It’s not clear what caused NYCHA to delay taking their advice, but NYCHA did not formally accept DOI’s recommendation until April 2020, and then didn’t begin seeking public comments for its proposed ban until this May. 

The issue first came to the attention of NYCHA’s top management following a fire on Nov. 28, 2018, at the Bushwick Houses in East Williamsburg. The lithium-ion battery on a blue e-scooter parked in a hallway outside a 13th floor apartment popped out and burst into flame.

The fast-spreading blaze destroyed the scooter and severely damaged much of the hallway, the doorway to the apartment where the bike’s owner was staying, and doorways to two adjacent apartments, according to DOI’s closing memo. No one was hurt while the fire was raging, but tenants in the three units were blocked from escaping.

DOI also learned that although NYCHA had long ago banned the storage of gasoline-powered vehicles like dirt bikes and ATVs inside NYCHA properties, there was no such prohibition for devices powered by batteries, which are prone to catch fire if they overheat or are damaged.

In a letter to then-NYCHA Chair Stanley Brezenoff that was copied to several top NYCHA executives, DOI Commissioner Garnett and NYCHA IG Iannuzzi wrote, “Consider implementing a policy specifically regulating and/or prohibiting electricity/battery powered modes of transportation including, but not limited to, e-bikes, electric hoverboards and electric scooters in NYCHA apartments.”

NYCHA didn’t get around to proposing a ban until late May of this year, initially planning a public comment period that was set to expire Sunday. On Wednesday after THE CITY raised questions about the proposed ban, NYCHA Chairperson Gregory Russ extended the comment period to Sept. 2.

The ban, if approved, would go into effect sometime in October of this year. That would be almost four years after DOI’s recommendation following the Bushwick Houses fire.

On Monday, NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about why it took so long to respond to DOI’s suggestions.

The problem of e-bike fires is hardly exclusive to public housing. For the last two years, the city fire department has repeatedly warned about a spike in the number of e-bike-related fires that occur inside private homes, in bike shops and even with bikes that are being ridden.

During a 24-hour period in April, for example, firefighters responded to four e-bike fires: one inside a row house in Sunset Park Brooklyn, one in a three-story single family in Kensington, Brooklyn, one in an apartment in a 66-unit building in Washington Heights, and one in a luxury condo in Chelsea.

In all, 12 people were injured in those incidents. Since Jan. 1, the fire department has opened 99 fire investigations related to e-bikes that have triggered blazes. These incidents have resulted in two deaths and 37 injuries.

Most of those fires have occurred inside structures, including houses, apartment buildings and bike shops. While the fire department has repeatedly issued public warnings about this problem and recommended specific fire safety steps to prevent calamity, no New York lawmakers have proposed legislation or even regulation to ban e-bike storage inside residential buildings similar to the one NYCHA is considering.

NYCHA’s proposed ban has already run into opposition from food delivery workers under pressure to respond to orders on time who rely on the devices to get around quickly.

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