By Jack Witthaus, CoStar News
April 27, 2023 | 5:25 p.m.
Apartments Face Growing Fire Threat From Electric Scooters, Bikes
Lithium-Ion Batteries Spark Flames in Multifamily Properties From London to Los Angeles
Earlier this month, Los Angeles firefighters rolled an electric scooter out of a Hollywood apartment complex near the charred remains of a lithium-ion battery. The incident shows one of the newest dangers facing multifamily property owners and tenants.
The battery had exploded at 1710 N. Fuller Ave. before being extinguished by fire sprinklers, according to a statement by the Los Angeles Fire Department. Apartment units beneath the sprinklers were damaged and one person was evaluated for burn injuries.
The electric scooter fire was the latest apartment blaze caused by lithium-ion batteries as sales of these scooters and bikes grow in the United States. Apartment owners and government officials are taking note, with some instituting bans and others pursuing policies to make these scooters and bikes safer.
Cities such as New York are increasingly calling for safety around e-bikes and e-scooters to reduce lithium-ion fires, particularly those in multifamily buildings.
“Fires caused by e-bikes and the lithium-ion batteries they rely on have increased dramatically in our city, with deadly consequences for citizens and first responders,” FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said in statement last month.
Apartment fires in general are costly to apartment owners. Between 2017-2019, more than 100,000 multifamily fires were reported on average annually in the United States, causing more than 400 deaths and over $1.7 billion in property loss, according to the National Fire Data Center based in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Roughly three-quarters of all apartment fires are related to cooking, but in nearly all of these instances the fires cause limited damage, according to the National Fire Data Center. However, lithium-ion related battery fires are “particularly severe and difficult to extinguish, spreading quickly and producing noxious fumes,” according to the New York mayor’s office.
Responding To Fires
Electric-powered scooters and bikes have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, with the U.S. importing roughly 790,000 electric two-wheelers in 2021, according to Bloomberg, up from 463,000 in 2020.
“The electric scooter has been recognized as one of the most popular urban transport micromobility options due to its affordability, convenience, and environmentally friendly features, and was particularly favoured by many to help alleviate the ‘first-mile/last-mile’ mobility issue,” according to an International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study.
However, the risk of fire damage to apartments is happening alongside the rise of in popularity of electric scooters and bikes. The Fire Department of the City of New York reported 220 lithium-ion fires in 2022. These fires killed 10 people and injured 226 between 2021-2022 and a fire in Queens in April killed two young people at an apartment building.
In London, the fire department said it has seen a 60% rise in e-bike and e-scooter fires this year through April 9 compared with 2022.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received reports of at least 208 micromobility fire or overheating incidents between Jan. 1, 2021, through Nov. 28, 2022, according to a statement.
Some apartment owners are banning electronic bikes and scooters. New York City landlord Glenwood told residents in 2022 to permanently remove any e-bikes, according to Axios. The landlord said e-bikes are banned in its entire buildings, including inside apartments.
Fordham University, also in New York City, banned e-bikes in late December 2022 along with Boston College. Both schools cited the risk of fire as part of the ban. In 2021, Columbia University in New York banned e-scooters due to lithium-ion battery concerns.
Globally, cities have pursued bans of e-scooters and e-bikes due to safety concerns. In 2021, London banned e-scooters from its public transportation due to fire risk, according to The Guardian. Meanwhile, Parisians voted in April to ban the renting of electric scooters.
Banning e-scooters and e-bikes, though, can have traffic consequences. A Georgia Tech study found that after Atlanta banned e-scooter and e-bikes its average commute times increased by about 10% with more people in cars. That meant an extra 784,000 hours of sitting in traffic annually.
Kitty Wallace, a senior executive vice president of Colliers in Los Angeles who has expertise in apartment properties, said insurance companies may take note of lithium-ion batteries before landlords.
Apartment insurance costs have been on the rise nationwide and in Los Angeles for various reasons, including mounting losses from flooding, tornadoes and wildfires. Wallace said insurance costs used to be roughly 35 cents per square foot but have increased to roughly 55 cents.
“The insurance companies are going to ban them before the landlord,” Wallace said.
But Wallace said electric scooters and bikes are important modes of transportation for residents, particularly residents who can’t afford cars.
These scooters can make it easy to get around traffic-clogged cities, too, such as in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, work continues to repair the 1710 N. Fuller Ave. apartments in Hollywood after the lithium-ion battery fire. The building owner did not respond to a request to comment from CoStar News.