First photo: A Lyft e-bike caught fire in San Francisco Wednesday. Courtesy Photo. Second photo: Another Lyft e-bike caught fire Saturday, photo courtesy Zach Rutta.

Lyft halts e-bike program after bicycle batteries catch fire in SF

The flames appear to have originated from the battery

The battery of an electric Lyft bicycle appeared to catch fire Wednesday in the Lower Haight.

Additionally, a second San Francisco Lyft e-bike — including its battery —seems to have caught fire for an unknown reason on Saturday.

In response, Lyft began making its thousand e-bikes San Francisco “unavailable to riders” Wednesday afternoon. Riders won’t be able to rent one of these e-bikes via cellphone app until Lyft deems them safe to ride.

Shortly after the incident was reported, San Francisco lawmakers called on Lyft to be transparent about the incident and to take them off the road until they’re proven safe.

“Biking alone can be hard and unsafe, the last thing you need is a flaming bike as you’re riding down the street,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown, who represents the neighborhood where an e-bike caught fire Wednesday. Brown found the incident “really disturbing” because she has publicly supported the Lyft e-bikes as an alternative to driving.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the South of Market neighborhood where another e-bike caught fire, said the incident is “Really bad, and scary. These definitely should be taken offline until they figure out what went wrong.”

The e-bike that caught fire Wednesday was docked near Page and Scott streets at around noon when a witness who asked to remain anonymous saw flames coming from the battery.

And another e-bike, also operated by Lyft, apparently caught fire Saturday at Folsom and Second Streets. Zach Rutta, of San Francisco, tweeted a photo of the charred Lyft e-bike and wrote “Don’t think I’ll be going on a @lyft @baywheels any time soon. Yikes.”

Those e-bikes are operated by Lyft under the name Bay Wheels, and had only returned to San Francisco streets two weeks ago following a legal battle between Lyft and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

SFMTA wished to permit other bikeshare operators to rent bikes in San Francisco, but Lyft sued The City, claiming its exclusivity contract to operate in San Francisco precluded competitors from entering the market. Lyft’s e-bikes were also pulled off San Francisco streets in April this year, after an issue with its brakes sent some people careening over their handlebars.

Following that legal tussle, Lyft has seemingly maintained its near-monopoly on the San Francisco bikeshare market, for now.

Lyft’s San Francisco e-bikes are only the latest electric mobility device to go up in smoke, raising questions about whether the batteries on the vehicles are safe.

In March, Lyft’s New York City bikeshare operation, called Citi Bike, experienced its own fire reportedly caused by e-bike lithium-ion batteries that were connected to a charging station in Brooklyn, according to the New York Daily News.

Earlier this month, the battery on an electric Lime bike reportedly caught fire in New York, which Lime attributed to vandalism.

Skip temporarily pulled its electric scooter fleet off of the streets of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. in response to a fire in May.

The San Francisco Examiner also reported on a scooter fire at a Skip warehouse in the Bayview last December.

Firefighters responded to the Lyft e-bike incident Wednesday, but a bystander had already extinguished the flames, according to the witness and a fire official.

Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Fire Department, said the department classified the incident as a “battery pack issue” and a “fire from battery pack.”

The fire was deemed not suspicious.

The witness told the Examiner green fluid had dripped from the battery to the concrete below.

“Because the safety of our riders is our number one concern, we are temporarily making the e-bike fleet unavailable to riders while we investigate and update our battery technology,” a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner.

SFMTA, which regulates the bikeshare industry in San Francisco, called on Lyft to prioritize rider safety.

“It is unfortunate that this incident occurred and we are currently monitoring the situation,” wrote SFMTA spokesperson Ben Barnett, in a statement. “We have an inquiry into Lyft as to the circumstances surrounding this incident as well as to how they intend to prevent any future fires and ensure the safety of customers and the ongoing operability of the bike-sharing system.”

A Lyft spokesperson added, in a statement, “Thanks to our riders for their patience and we look forward to making e-bikes available again soon.”

Lyft has nearly a thousand e-bikes under the service Bay Wheels in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area. It also operates similar bikeshare services in areas nationwide including New York City.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board, which funds transportation projects citywide, hotly critiqued Lyft’s e-bikes following the fires.

“At this point, this seems to be an unperfected technology that is not ready for prime time,” he said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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