Real Estate

An e-bike is convenient. It can also catch fire and destroy buildings.

Storing and charging such bikes and scooters indoors can create a tinderbox.

A man wearing a helmet rides an e-bike.
A sign bans all e-bikes from the premises at a high-rise on East 52nd Street in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 2023, after a defective lithium-ion battery caused a fire at the building in November. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Just before midnight on a Friday in January, a fire tore through a three-story house in East Elmhurst, Queens, injuring 10 people inside and killing a 63-year-old man who was trapped on the second floor. Five days later, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, another fire broke out in the basement of a house in Forest Hills, Queens, where an unauthorized day care center was housed. Eighteen children were injured, one seriously.

The cause of both fires was rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which power the e-bikes and e-scooters that have become ubiquitous on city streets, according to the New York Fire Department.


Jose Corona, whose e-scooter sparked the deadly fire in East Elmhurst, told reporters that he heard an explosion shortly after parking the scooter on the first floor of the house. “Once I opened the door, on the second floor the stairs was already on fire in seconds,” Corona said.

The use of micro-mobility vehicles surged during the pandemic as New Yorkers shunned public transportation and ordered food from delivery apps rather than crowd into restaurants. Delivery workers are increasingly reliant on e-bikes, which allow them to go farther and faster to meet the demand.

But a deadly, unintended consequence has emerged: Storing and charging such bikes and scooters indoors can create a tinderbox. Last year, the batteries caused 216 fires, with 147 injuries and six deaths. As of Feb. 27 this year, they were responsible for 30 fires, 40 injuries, and two deaths, according to the Fire Department.

Nearly three years after New York City legalized the use of micro-mobility vehicles, building managers and lawmakers are grappling with how to prevent battery fires, with some calling for prohibitions on e-bikes and e-scooters, at least until ways to minimize the risks have been established.

Last week, the City Council took what it called “a first step in mitigating the fire risk posed by lithium-ion batteries,” approving a spate of bills that would include new safety and certification standards, education campaigns on how to prevent fires, and restrictions on the use and sale of used or reassembled batteries.


That, experts say, is where much of the danger lies — from off-market, refurbished, damaged, or improperly charged batteries. A chemical reaction inside the self-fueling battery can spark a “thermal runaway,” which occurs when the lithium-ion cell enters a volatile, self-heating state. The fires are also difficult to extinguish (the Fire Department warns against using fire extinguishers or water), often spreading to nearby batteries, and can even reignite hours later.

“All it takes is for one small battery cell to be defective, overcharged, or damaged, and a tremendous amount of energy is released in the form of heat and toxic flammable gases all at once,” said Daniel Murray, the Fire Department’s chief of hazmat operations.

The Fire Department started tracking fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in 2019, “when we recognized we had a problem,” Murray said. That year, the department recorded 28 fires resulting in 16 injuries — a number that has skyrocketed with the proliferation of the bikes and scooters.

Lithium-ion batteries can be found in computers, cellphones, and some household devices, but micro-mobility vehicle batteries are bigger and “are subject to a lot of wear and tear and weather, which tends to damage them,” Murray said. “So that’s why we are seeing a lot of fires specifically in the bikes and scooters.”


Battery fires have broken out in a range of buildings around New York, from public housing complexes to luxury towers.

‘All it takes is for one small battery cell to be defective, overcharged, or damaged, and a tremendous amount of energy is released in the form of heat and toxic flammable gases all at once.’

DANIEL MURRAY, New York City Fire Department

“I didn’t even know I was supposed to be afraid of the e-bike battery-charging station on the ground floor,” said Gail Ingram, who until last June lived above a pedicab and bike-rental business in a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. One morning, she “heard a woman screaming” outside. Then she saw smoke rising from the floorboards.

The stairwell was quickly consumed by smoke that scorched her eyeballs. “I’ve never felt such a terrifying feeling, not being able to breathe,” said Ingram, 51, a nurse practitioner.

No one was seriously injured, though Ingram lost almost everything. Unlike most of her neighbors, she had renter’s insurance, which is now paying for her to live in a tiny hotel room with her two cats. “I’m still going through boxes of non-salvageable keepsakes and water-soaked paperwork,” she said.

Ingram’s upstairs neighbor, Madison Coller, 26, who works in risk management for a payment-processing company, was on the third floor when the fire broke out. She recalled a harrowing day, awakening from a nap and fleeing after she smelled smoke and heard a voice yelling, “Fire!” Displaced by the fire and having no insurance, she stayed with her brother in Bushwick and moved back to Rochester for a short while. Battery-powered vehicles “should be banned until there is a safer solution in place, because too many people have lost their lives,” said Coller, who now lives in Bushwick.


Some buildings have already taken that action. In November, dozens of people were injured in a luxury high-rise rental building on East 52nd Street when a battery exploded in an apartment doubling as an unauthorized bike-repair shop. The incident spurred Glenwood Management, which operates more than two dozen luxury rental buildings in the city (though not that one), to ban e-bikes and e-scooters in all its buildings. “If you have one,” the company wrote in a notice to tenants, “we ask that you remove it at once from your apartment.”

A few months earlier, the New York City Housing Authority had proposed a ban on storing and charging e-vehicles in all 335 of its building developments, to prevent fires and preserve the health and safety of residents.” After an outcry by residents opposing the ban, the agency decided to pause and revisit the issue.

Proposals include requiring residents to register their e-bikes. Others call for fire-safe bike rooms in apartment buildings and more education about battery safety.

“It’s a conversation buildings need to have: How do we limit the risk?” said Eric Wohl, a lawyer representing condo and co-op boards at the firm Armstrong Teasdale. “Unit owners are allowed to have candles, and that’s a fire risk, too.”


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