As the number of fires sparked by e-bike and e-scooter batteries surges citywide, the MTA is exploring new guidelines for riders that could limit the number of electric vehicles on trains and in stations.
The transit agency last year lifted permit requirements and a $5 fee for bicycles on Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad trains in an effort to better incorporate cycling into the regional transportation network. But several MTA board members now say regulations on battery-powered vehicles should be considered as commuters share space with a growing number of e-bikes and e-scooters.
“You’re seeing more and more people taking them on the trains and some are like small motorcycles,” MTA board member Gerard Bringmann told THE CITY. “We want a policy in place before one of these things goes on fire on a train.”
Vincent Tessitore, Jr., an MTA board member whose union represents Long Island Rail Road train crews, said conductors on trains are left in a gray area when it comes to personal electric vehicles.
“Our crews can’t question any of these bikes or scooters now because there is no requirement for a permit,” Tessitore said. “The agency has not been clear on what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
The MTA expects to update its policy on personal electric vehicles by the end of the year, though Bringmann said he will press for an accelerated decision at next month’s committee meetings.
“The MTA is moving too slow on this,” he said.
FDNY data shows a dramatic increase citywide in the number of e-bike fire investigations, with 121 so far this year — up from 104 for all of 2021. A department spokesperson confirmed five deaths and 66 injuries from lithium-ion battery fires so far in 2022, compared with four deaths and 79 injuries last year.
There have been no fires in the transit system related to lithium ion batteries, the added spokesperson.
THE CITY reported last month that the Department of Investigation had urged public housing officials in 2018 to ban battery-driven devices from their properties after a bike burst into flames in the corridor of a Brooklyn complex.
But the New York City Housing Authority is only now starting the process of a potential ban years after the recommendation — and after two more deaths Wednesday in a Harlem apartment fire that officials believe was caused by an electric scooter’s exploding battery.
MTA officials acknowledged at the agency’s July board meeting that they are on “e-hazard study” e-bikes and e-scooters for the entire system, including the commuter railroads. In 2016, the agency batteries banned hoverboards because of fears over the potential for exploding.
“Given the inherent risks of personal electric vehicles, the MTA is developing a policy regarding their use on our services,” Patrick Warren, chief safety and security officer for the MTA, said in a statement to THE CITY.
A spokesperson for the transit agency said a policy update is expected by the end of the year, adding that personal electric vehicles currently cannot be operated in the transit system or block entrances or exits.
“The real risk of fire is when these vehicles are charging,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Our members have seen people charging their vehicles on the commuter railroads and that is just asking for disaster.”
Daglian said that any new standards for e-bikes and e-scooters in the transit system “need to be clear and they need to be enforceable.”
“That’s what lacking now and it’s led to a bit of a free-for-all for those who don’t have guidance,” she added.
Kicked Off the Tube
London’s public transit agency, which is led by former New York City Transit head Andy Byford, last year banned personal electric vehicles after two fires occurred within days of each other.
Neither was being recharged at the time: One ignited in a storage room after being sent there as lost property, and the other sparked on a train and was thrown out the window, according to reports.
A Transport for London spokesperson said 1,415 people have been spoken to by officers, with 55 reported to TFL’s Investigation, Appeals and Prosecutions Team for breaching the ban.
Locally, electric bicycles, scooters and skateboards are not allowed on the PATH trains that run between New Jersey and Manhattan. Folded bikes of all kinds are permitted on PATH at all times, a spokesperson said, but non-folded bikes cannot be on trains on weekdays between 6:30 and 9:30 am or 3:30 to 6:30 pm
New Jersey Transit last year allowed e-bikes, e-scooters, Segways and hoverboards on its commuter trains at no extra charge and without permits after undoing a 2018 ban on e-scooters and electric skateboards that had been driven by concerns over lithium batteries.
Daglian acknowledged the issue is a complicated one because the vehicles are essential to so many riders’ livelihoods.
“It’s tricky,” she said. “They need them for work and there are very limited first- and last-mile options” for getting to and from stations.
Wheels on Wheels
At Penn Station, several people who had e-scooters with them told THE CITY they have not been questioned by police or train crew members while carrying the vehicles on LIRR or subway trains.
“I need it for commuting from where I am to my house and from Penn Station to my workplace on 52nd Street,” said Javier Carrillo, 52.
“I’ve never been told that I’m taking up space or something like that,” said a 29-year-old home health aid who asked to be identified only by his first name, Anthony. “I use it for work, because it saves me a lot on taxis.”
Jason Eshaghian, who was rolling an e-scooter through Penn Station after coming off an LIRR train, said he’s not sure how any rules would be implemented in the transit system.
“You don’t even need a permit to drive it on the road,” said Eshaghian, 37. “Seems silly to me.”
But Bringmann, the LIRR Commuter Council representative on the MTA board, said the number of fires involving e-bikes and e-scooters cannot be overlooked.
“We’ve seen it in various places,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before it happens in the transit system.”