Baruch Herzfeld: I used to follow the battery fires in New York City. I had on alert, you know, and it was just too much. You know, there’s a fire every day that—in a building. There’s also fires on the street that nobody talks about. You know, assume there’s going to—assume there’s gonna be multiple fires in New York City today. Assume that one of them is gonna be inside of a building. And the one that happened last night in the Bronx, 50 people became homeless. They blame the landlord. The landlord has some violations, but the city is not built for this. The city—people are dying. People are becoming homeless.
Aaron Naparstek: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek. E-bikes and micro mobility have been one of the real bright spots in the war on cars over the last few years. Suddenly, we have this whole new class of vehicles that are lighter, cleaner and cheaper than cars and trucks. And for the most part, they’re much safer too. But we’re learning that there’s one big problem with a city full of barely-regulated, battery-powered personal transportation: e-bike battery fires.
Aaron: 2023 was a record-setting year for fire fatalities in New York City. Over 100 people were killed in building fires, more than double the number of fire deaths from just a few years ago. Baruch Herzfeld is the CEO and co-founder of PopWheels, and he believes that he and his company have the solution to the e-bike battery fire problem—and so much more.
Aaron: PopWheels is developing New York City’s first e-mobility battery-swapping network. Just as gas stations were key to making cars and trucks the dominant transportation mode of the 20th century, Baruch believes that battery swapping is the key to making e-mobility the dominant mode of this century. But Baruch Herzfeld’s really big idea is this: he’s betting that the light, clean electric transportation fleet of the future is already up and running on the streets of New York City. And it isn’t being brought to us by Big Tech, Big Auto or Elon Musk. Rather, the future of urban transportation is being brought to us by tens of thousands of immigrant delivery workers. What if there is a high tech urban mobility revolution happening right under our noses, but we can’t see it because the people who are delivering it to our city are mostly invisible to us?
Aaron: I first visited Baruch at PopWheel’s headquarters last May. At the time, he was working out of a graffiti encrusted one-story space in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, subway trains rumbling overhead every few minutes.
Baruch Herzfeld: So it’s like—and it’s a really good space because that’s Shawon. Shawon is our liaison to the delivery community.
Aaron: Hey, Shawon. I’m Aaron. Nice to meet you.
Aaron: I turned on my tape recorder, all set to geek out on electric bikes and battery technology in the delivery app business. Instead, I got a crash course on Bangladeshi politics and the US immigration system.
Baruch Herzfeld: Shawon is from Bangladesh. He’s from Noakhali. He’s from the city called Chatkhil, where many of the delivery riders in Brooklyn come from. If you start speaking to delivery riders, you see a pattern, you know that they all come from one or two or three feeder cities in their country, you know, and they’re here on refugee visas. They—they’re refugees because they support the political party of BNP and LDP, and they don’t like the Awami League.
Baruch Herzfeld: So the delivery riders that come to New York were oftentimes tortured in Bangladesh. In addition to being climate refugees because they’re losing their farmland, et cetera, they’re also political refugees. They—everybody comes over the southern border with Mexico. Even if you come from Bangladesh, you don’t come through JFK, you come through the Mexican border. But you—in order to fly there, you can’t fly directly from Bangladesh to Mexico because the Mexicans have a deal with the Americans not to let people come through their country. So they fly to Brazil, and then they take the bus or a boat up to Colombia, then they—from Colombia to Panama, they walk through the—through the Darién Gap. You may have seen articles on that. And then they get to Guatemala, et cetera, and then they go to Mexico. And then in Mexico, he—some of our delivery riders or our customers, our friends, they get stuck in Mexican prison because the Mexicans have mandate to pick them up. So Shawon spent—how many months did you spend in Mexican prison?
Shawon: Four months. In total, eight month.
Aaron: So where did you travel from all in all?
Shawon: I’m going Dubai. Dubai to Africa. Africa to Brazil. Brazil to Colom—Peru to Colombia, Panama.
Aaron: Shawon is 27 years old. In the fall of 2020, he began a harrowing eight-month journey from Bangladesh to the United States. After handing over all of his family’s savings to an agent who specializes in such trips, Shawon bounced from Bangladesh to India to Dubai, and then on to Africa. From there, he flew to Brazil, and from Brazil, Shawon slowly worked his way up through South and Central America on foot, by bus, and in one terrifying boat ride, drifting in circles with a broken engine.
Shawon: I just remember when people in ocean with the small boat, one engine not working, two engine. At that time, every people crying, praying. I’m just crying too much. One—one engine not working. That’s why my boat go all over. U-turn. Like, just u-turn in ocean. So too much crying at that time. At that time, I see death too much near.
Aaron: At times, Shawon went hungry. He got robbed. And as he says, he saw death too much near. After about three months, Shawon was finally within striking distance of the US border. But before he could attempt to cross, he was captured by Mexican authorities. They put him on a bus and sent him on an 80-hour ride all the way back down to the Guatemalan border. Shawon spent four months in a Mexican prison. After getting out, he made another run at the US border. This time, he made it across the Colorado River on foot near Yuma, Arizona, got caught by US authorities and declared himself an asylum seeker.
Aaron: Why did you want to come to the United States?
Shawon: For torture. Bangladesh [inaudible] He’s a government party. They torture us because we are opposition party. That’s why.
Aaron: The Awami League has been the ruling party of Bangladesh since 1996.
Shawon: Our government tortured us people. Every people, all—all Bangladeshi people don’t talk about our government. You talk about this, they kill you. That’s why everybody come here. We get—I get a lot of torture.
Aaron: Bangladeshi elections have regularly been marred by fraud, violence and voter intimidation, according to Human Rights Watch. It has essentially become a one-party rule state.
Shawon: No more opposition party in Bangladesh. Like, no more legal election in Bangladesh.
Baruch Herzfeld: Everybody who comes to this country, all the delivery riders are escaping their home country. And they’re not coming to America and delivering food for $7 or $8 an hour because it’s great in their country. They’re going because they have to for economic reasons and for—and for political reasons. And many of them are traveling—are here on refugee status.
Baruch Herzfeld: We’re interacting with them all day. You know, they’re bringing food to you. They’re—all you have to do is start reaching out and you realize they’re part of our community. It’s not a separate community, we’re all one people. We’re slightly different in our origins, but it’s still really, really interesting to start getting into it. And if you—once you learn a few words, it becomes even more fun, you know? So I always tell them I’m from their city. It’s just I have the same joke wherever I go. I can tell you the joke. Like, I’ll tell it to Shawon right now. Shawon, where you from?
Baruch Herzfeld: Where in Noakhali?
Baruch Herzfeld: Where in Chatkhil?
Baruch Herzfeld: Khilpara? Get outta here! Khilpara? Where in Khilpara? Where in Khilpara?
Baruch Herzfeld: And I say—and I say “Pratibēśī. He’s my Pratibēśī. My neighbor. And it’s like in Yiddish, they say “He’s my landsman.” But it’s the same thing. It’s just so—it’s just so fun. You know, I make the same joke maybe 10 times a day.
Aaron: Baruch and Shawon met at a Bangladeshi barber shop in Brooklyn. At the time Shawon was riding for the food delivery apps. Baruch was looking for someone to work for PopWheels as a liaison to the Bangladeshi delivery community.
Baruch Herzfeld: I go to the Bangladeshi barbershop because at the Bangladeshi barbershop, they speak Portuguese because they spent a lot of time in Brazil. So I can speak Spanish, so I communicate with them. So I had—I put a battery swap location over there, but I needed somebody who could deal with the people, you know, who can speak Bangla. My Bangla is weak, you know? I only know a few words. So I start speaking to Shawon. Shawon said that he needed work. I said I can—let’s work together, and then he started helping us reach out to the community. He’s been very, very helpful for us because we keep on—our waiting list keeps on growing, where we’ve reached our capacity on batteries and cabinets. But at this point, people call him every single day to join our service. Our service is battery swapping at the beginning focused on delivery riders from Bangladesh.
Aaron: And explain this system to me. What—what are we talking about here?
Baruch Herzfeld: Our goal as a company is to stop charging inside people’s houses. We don’t think it’s safe. We don’t think it’s safe for somebody that’s off the boat or off the plane for two weeks, you know, to start charging a battery of unknown provenance in their house. It’s just a recipe for disaster. Now our batteries have intelligence and networking inside of them, so our cabinets know which—which customer has the battery. And as soon as they—when they get to the locker, they can open it up with their phone and then the door will open. They’ll put in their old battery. As soon as the cabinet recognizes it’s our battery, they open up the cabinet and give them a new battery that’s charged.
Aaron: PopWheels product is a six-foot-tall black steel cabinet with 16 little yellow doors. Delivery riders pay $30 per month for membership. When a rider needs a fresh e-bike battery, he presses a button on an app on his phone, and one of the little yellow doors pops open on the cabinet. The delivery rider takes out a fully-charged battery and replaces it with his old battery.
Baruch Herzfeld: This is a system that works overseas in many, many places. It’s only in New York that nobody has done it yet.
Aaron: The benefits are pretty straightforward: PopWheels customers will no longer run out of battery power during work or on their long rides home at night. They don’t have to carry around an extra 30-pound battery all day. And they no longer need to worry about sparking a fire in a crowded apartment shared with other delivery workers, all of whom are often charging up their own batteries on the same power strip.
Baruch Herzfeld: We don’t want to be in the vehicle maintenance business, we just want to be in the battery business. So we’re just buying batteries, sourcing batteries, dealing with the fire department, making sure that our cabinets are safe, making sure that they’re approved and getting them to the customers.
Aaron: When I first met Baruch back in May, PopWheels had two battery-swapping cabinets on the street, and four more on the way. They had 30 customers with a hundred more on a waiting list. Baruch believes that battery swapping is going to be a big business.
Baruch Herzfeld: The delivery services are the largest private employer in New York City, the delivery riders, they—if you look at the latest report, the figure everybody uses is 65,000 riders, but that’s not true. There’s 65,000 riders a week that use the service. And that’s a data figure, but it’s in the 200,000s. And that’s not even counting—that’s just for the apps. That’s not counting a guy who works at a Chinese restaurant, a guy who works at a pizza store.
Baruch Herzfeld: So I mean, you look on the—you look on every street in Manhattan, there’s five or six delivery guys. You look in front of the place, you see there’s 12 bikes parked in front. So these are the largest—this particular industry is one of the largest industries in New York City, and this—the delivery apps are—and they don’t call themselves employers because they don’t want to be, but they’re—they call them their riders “independent contractors.” But it dwarfs the amount of Uber drivers there are because the barrier to entry is minimal and your need for papers is also minimal.
Aaron: Beyond just being a useful service and a good business, Baruch sees battery swapping as an essential tool for transforming transportation in New York and other cities.
Baruch Herzfeld: It’s not just delivery riders who use e-bikes. They’re just the biggest population. But in the future, we’re hopeful that the whole city moves away from cars—which I hate and I know you hate, and I think are unsafe and dirty and a poor use of public space. Anti-social. I mean, you don’t need me to sell you on how bad cars are. [laughs]
Aaron: It’s always good to hear it again.
Baruch Herzfeld: Like, I really, really—I’m a parent of small children, young children, and I’m not scared of gun violence, I’m only scared of cars. So that’s—that’s the most dangerous thing in the city to me. And if we can somehow do something about the cars, then the whole city becomes better, safer, cleaner, more social. If we can make it easier for businesses to shift to cargo on small electric vehicles, then it becomes a much more doable thing to get rid of these large vehicles.
Aaron: Baruch is importing most of the hardware from India and China, and then customizing it for use in New York.
Baruch Herzfeld: In India, unlike the United States, they’re encouraging light electric mobility. They have rickshaws that they want to move from—from diesel or gas to batteries, so they—they subsidize battery swapping. So this is a system that I bought from Punay, India. Show them on your phone.
Shawon: This is my cabinet, so I can open here. It’s a door. It’s a door open.
Aaron: As we sit in Baruch’s office, Shawon opens an app on his phone, presses a button, and outside, a door pops open on the battery cabinet.
Baruch Herzfeld: The customer comes, they pick up a battery, they ride around, and then when they need more charge, they come back here, or they go to our other location and they get a new one. And that’s all—and the charge is in place.
Shawon: This is my old battery, new battery.
Baruch Herzfeld: The finest technology of Pune, India. The biggest challenge was just redesign the cabinet to fit the New York battery form factor, you know? And then in order to get the batteries to work with the cabinets, I had to build out the added intelligence. You know, you have to add signaling. No—no batteries that are sold in New York right now are sold to be part of a network. They’re sold to be individually owned. So we had to add—and it’s not something that’s complicated, that—that doesn’t exist, it’s just a matter of retrofitting to New York City fleet.
Aaron: Got a subway. Got a subway coming. All right, a rider’s coming up? Let’s watch what he does.
Baruch Herzfeld: Antor. He was just—Antor was just hit by a car. He spent, like—how long were you in the hospital for? One day, two days?
Baruch Herzfeld: How long were you in the hospital for?
Antor: It was five hours.
Baruch Herzfeld: And your head was hurt and your back was hurt? And what happened, you were hit by a door?
Antor: Yeah, hit by door.
Aaron: Are you okay?
Baruch Herzfeld: Did you get a bad rating? Did somebody give you a bad rating because their food didn’t come?
Antor: No, no.
Baruch Herzfeld: Sometimes a guy is delivering food, and he gets hit by a car and he gets a bad rating. And then the apps, they screw him over for getting hit by a car. In addition to them not taking care of the people who are their employees.
Aaron: How long have you been in the United States?
Antor: It’s one year.
Aaron: Antor is 25 years old. Like Shawon, he left his family behind, escaped to India, flew to Brazil, and then slowly worked his way up to the US, also by bus, by boat, on foot, through the jungle. Antor’s journey took two months in all. He arrived in the United States in September of 2022.
Aaron: Why did you leave Bangladesh?
Antor: Because of the political problem. My families and whole families are affected by politics. There’s bad politics now in Bangladesh. Because Bangladesh government is so many things and so many problems. Nobody is safe here.
Aaron: Political problems. His whole family is affected. Nobody is safe there. In Bangladesh, Antor says that people affiliated with the Awami League burned down his family’s clothing shop and attacked his father, injured him because his family was part of the opposition political party.
Aaron: Did you also experience torture and these things?
Antor: Yes. Here? You see? Cutting my hand.
Aaron: So this scar between your fingers?
Antor: Yes. Here, do you see?
Baruch Herzfeld: There’s a reason why a man is taking a dangerous job. It’s because where he’s coming from is far more dangerous, you know?
Antor: I’m going to—but now I go.
Baruch Herzfeld: He has to work. He has to make a living.
Aaron: Okay. It was nice to chat with you. Thank you so much.
Antor: You’re welcome. Bye.
Baruch Herzfeld: That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like cars is because you can’t start talking to people. You know, in a car, you’re always—you have those walls and those windows and the tint. Once you start biking, you start talking to people, I encourage your listeners to talk to everybody. This is what the world is, this is who’s on the street. This is who our neighbors are. This is when you—when you buy stuff from restaurants, you’re supporting people who come from difficult economic situations.
Aaron: In 2009, there was a big political battle over a new bike lane on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The bike lane ran through the middle of a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. Prominent voices in the community didn’t like it. Some of the reasons were the usual: the bike lane took away parking spots. And some of the reasons were a little bit more culture specific: riding a bike was immodest. 2009 was a mayoral election year in New York City, and the tabloid press ate up the conflict. The fight was headlined ‘Hipsters versus Hasids.’ Baruch Herzfeld was raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish household. He went to school in yeshivas, and his two brothers are both rabbis. Baruch knew that there was nothing in Jewish law or tradition that forbids riding a bicycle.
Baruch Herzfeld: Why don’t Hasidim ride bikes in Brooklyn but they ride in Antwerp, Belgium, and they ride them in Israel? Because we’re in a different world and a different country. We’re both 100 years back, and this is just something that’s not logical, you know?
Aaron: Baruch also knew that many members of Williamsburg’s Hasidic community were curious about bicycles and wanted to ride, but just didn’t have access to bikes.
Baruch Herzfeld: You know, so I just figured instead of getting involved in this rhetoric where everybody’s yelling at each other on—I just give them bikes, and then at least you have Hasidim riding bikes, then we do it. So I just bought a couple hundred bikes from Japan.
Aaron: Baruch somehow came across somebody selling a few hundred good used bicycles in Japan for just $8 apiece. He bought the bikes and had them shipped to Brooklyn. On the front of his building, he posted a sign in Yiddish offering to lend a free bicycle to anyone who wanted to ride. He called his venture the Traif Bike Gesheft. In English, that’s the Unkosher Bike Shop.
Aaron: The Traif Bike Gesheft was a minor media sensation—and it also got a lot of Hasidic Jews on bicycles for the first time. A thing stops being immodest when you see more people doing it as part of their normal daily lives. In 2011, Baruch launched a business called Zeno Radio.
Aaron: Just give me—like, give me the facts.
Baruch Herzfeld: Okay, so if you—if you’re a New York City taxi driver or an Uber driver, there’s probably a 95 percent chance you’re not born in the United States of America. You’re probably born in one of 10 countries or one of 10 cities and countries. Bangladesh, Haiti, Ghana. You know, these are—my theory was is that they’re driving all day and they want to listen to some radio from their home country. And when I started the business, I set it up through a phone system. They would call a phone number and they would—and I set up that as they waited on hold, they could listen to different streaming radios.
Aaron: Baruch had been running a mobile phone business for years. He knew the industry inside and out.
Baruch Herzfeld: And then I—then because I was friendly with some—some Native Americans in—I guess in South Dakota, there’s these reservations. And I knew about the phone tariffs. I know that T-Mobile had to pay a penny a minute for each call that went into their country—into their reservation. I set up the phone numbers in their—in the reservation.
Aaron: It was a brilliant plan. Baruch would set up phone numbers with small independent phone companies on Native American reservations and other rural communities. Then he would make a deal with a foreign radio station. He’d pay them to stream their content 24/7 in the United States. Immigrant Uber drivers in New York City could call the phone number, and if they had a calling plan with unlimited minutes, as most did, they could listen to radio from their home country all day for free. Meanwhile, the big cell phone carriers, T-Mobile and AT&T, they had to pay a penny per minute tariff to the Native American reservation phone company for the many, many hours that the Uber drivers in New York City were listening to Zeno Radio. Baruch and the Native American phone company would then split the windfall.
Baruch Herzfeld: AT&T don’t like me, by the way. At a certain point, I had, like, 100,000 people end up calling. Some of them were on for, like, eight hours a day. AT&T, T-Mobile, they all sued to turn it off.
Aaron: It was too good to last. AT&T and T-Mobile complained to the Federal Communications Commission that Zeno Radio was generating more daily calling minutes out of New York City than all of their other outgoing calls combined.
Baruch Herzfeld: They had teams of people at AT&T and T-Mobile whose whole job was to shut me off.
Aaron: By this time, Baruch was a married man with four kids, the youngest of whom were a gang of rambunctious, blond-haired triplets.
Aaron: Okay, tell me your names one more time. One one at a time.
Shaya: Shaya. No, I’m not Shaya.
Aaron: I feel like you guys are tricking me now.
Aaron: Naturally, he turned his attention to figuring out the best way to transport four young kids around Brooklyn without a minivan.
Baruch Herzfeld: Any parent that has multiples, you know, which I happened to be the world’s leading expert on, can—can get around the city if you have a nice slow vehicle. And people will understand: you have multiples. You know, you’re basically mobility challenged.
Aaron: Baruch bought an inexpensive four-wheeled electric mobility scooter, the kind that you often see elderly or disabled people using. He bolted a big plastic bin to the back of it, and this became his urban triplet transporter.
Aaron: Do you wish you could ride your own bike? Or do you like the bucket?
Kids: We already know how to ride our own bikes.
Kid: They know. He know he does.
Aaron: I guess that’s true. Because how old are you guys?
Kids: Five. We know how to ride our bikes without training wheels.
Aaron: Do you guys feel like you’re getting too big for the—for the bucket here?
Kids: Yes. Yes, we’re squashed. No you’re not. Yes we are.
Aaron: Navigating New York City on an electric mobility scooter with a bucket full of triplets inspired Baruch’s next idea. Just as the Traif Bike Gesheft gave members of the Hasidic community the opportunity to try out bicycles, Baruch created PopWheels to provide free electric scooters to homebound and mobility-challenged seniors during the pandemic.
Baruch Herzfeld: I started the business with seniors because I was not necessarily—I didn’t start it as a business. I started as just a philanthropic venture during—during COVID. I wanted to get seniors out of their house. I felt bad that people couldn’t take [inaudible]. I felt bad that they had no way of getting out. So I started fixing up these—these mobility scooters.
Aaron: But then Baruch started noticing the e-bike battery fires. He realized that he couldn’t put used scooters with questionably sourced batteries in high-rise apartment buildings with mobility-impaired seniors. It was way too risky. A fire could be a huge disaster. PopWheels, Baruch realized, had a much bigger problem to solve.
Baruch Herzfeld: So, like, it can’t be just sell a safer battery, which is a good start, but it’s not the one that will solve the problem. The problem that we’re trying to tackle is twofold. One is we want to make sure people charge batteries safely or—and batteries inside houses. But also, we want e-bikes to grow. We want small—small electric vehicles, light electric vehicles to flourish because that’s how you stop cars. So we want light electric vehicles to grow. We want greater adoption. The only way to do that in our opinion is a battery swap network.
Aaron: When I visited PopWheels again in late June, their second-generation cabinet had just arrived from China. It carried more batteries and contained better communications and fire suppression technology. The new cabinet was only in Brooklyn for a short time before Baruch shipped it to Canada to get blown up by a fire-testing laboratory. It passed the test. E-bike battery fires were becoming an increasingly urgent issue. New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh was on the news talking about it constantly.
[NEWS CLIP: This universe, this sort of underground economy that’s been created, was not anticipated by anyone and is totally different than just taking a Citi Bike, you know, which is safe and is something we do all the time. We’re talking about thousands of bikes that are essentially ticking time bombs. We have to have the app companies work with us to make sure that we either know where those—who those bikes are registered to, or where they’re being made, or someone is safely storing them, manufacturing them, repairing them. It’s just, you know, an unbelievable danger, but also something that wasn’t anticipated. We’re not talking about someone who rides a bike once a week. We’re talking about somebody using a bike 20 hours a day to do their job, and that makes it much different.]
[NEWS CLIP: And those app companies are making billions of dollars off this.]
[NEWS CLIP: Exactly. Yes, they can definitely afford to replace those bikes right now.]
Aaron: In June, after a Chinatown e-bike shop burned down and killed four people, Senator Chuck Schumer directed a $25-million emergency grant to New York City to fund a pilot program for safe, outdoor e-bike charging around public housing. Baruch and his business partner, PopWheel’s co-founder David Hammer, were definitely interested, but a little bit wary of all the bureaucracy.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video conference: Okay, so we want to talk about project goals at a very high level.]
Aaron: I happened to be there during the video conference with officials from Con Edison and the New York City Housing Authority to kick off the project.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video conference: We’re gathering data to evaluate those hypotheses and support …]
Aaron: PopWheels was one of it looked like about a dozen companies interested in putting forward proposals for how to spend the $25 million grant.
Baruch Herzfeld: Anything—anytime you work with Con Ed it’s gonna take a year, you know? So this is—this is the result of a year’s worth of talking to Con Ed. That’s basically it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, video conference: … the grant funding to—to make micro mobility charging stations as …]
Aaron: Baruch muted himself, and as the video conference ran on his laptop, we chatted about how challenging he finds it to deal with slow-moving, button-down government bureaucracy.
Baruch Herzfeld: I had not been part—I don’t enjoy meeting with the government. It’s not my—I would rather hang out with delivery guys all day, you know? And it’s just—it’s just I like them. I just don’t converse with them in the right way, you know? I get too passionate.
Aaron: Baruch picked up a call on his phone.
Baruch Herzfeld: David, what’s up?
Aaron: And as if to demonstrate the point, Baruch’s mic was on—he wasn’t muted. Everyone on the call could hear him talking to me about how little he likes being on these kinds of calls. We’ve all been there.
Baruch Herzfeld: Okay. Oh, they can hear me? Okay. Fuck. Okay. Okay, one second. Okay, okay.
Aaron: David Hammer’s an experienced tech founder, CEO, product leader, worked for Google. Baruch really appreciates the way that they complement each other.
Baruch Herzfeld: He knows how to talk to people. You know, I can too. I could just talk to them.
Aaron: Yeah. He’s like a Harvard guy, right?
Baruch Herzfeld: Yeah, he went to Harvard, you know? That—those are people who care about KPIs and milestones, you know? That’s not my thing, you know? I’m a poet, you know? I like—I like—I’m a man of the people. [laughs] No, I just, I—I have to ride a bike. I have to ride a bike because if I walk down the street it’s gonna take me an hour to go two blocks. You know, I like talking to strangers with no goal in mind, you know?
Aaron: Baruch believes that much of the responsibility of the battery fire problem rests with the big delivery app companies themselves. He thinks Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub and the others can and should be doing a lot more to help make delivery riders’ transportation safer, cleaner and healthier for the city.
Baruch Herzfeld: If Uber would say or Grubhub would say, “In order for—you get priority on the—on the shipments if you prove that you have a safe battery, or you prove that you have a better—a certified or inspected bike. And that would also minimize the—the gas scooters because if somebody is using a gas scooter, they should not be prioritized for a job.
Baruch Herzfeld: So that’s the easy—the people who you should speak to, in my opinion, are the—the regulatory people at Uber and at Grubhub. You know, every time you hear a gas scooter that goes past your house at three o’clock in the morning—I sleep with my windows open—that’s a result of their policy of not being—of not filtering who’s using a safe or green bicycle. That’s their policy. Their policy is we don’t want that responsibility.
Aaron: But maybe it’s on government to go tell Uber and Grubhub that they have to.
Baruch Herzfeld: It’s obviously on—on both sides, but Uber and Grubhub, they want things both ways, right? They have—Uber put out a giant sustainability statement that “We want—by 2040, not only are we gonna be carbon neutral, but all of our—all of the restaurants we serve.” Yeah, dude, you want that to happen? Why don’t you start today in New York City, and stop telling people to drive around on gas scooters that—without license plates, you know?
Aaron: As the number of fires has increased, landlords have begun cracking down on e-bikes, not allowing them into buildings. This has led to a sudden influx of these cheap, dirty, illegal and obnoxiously loud gas mopeds on New York City streets. They’re everywhere.
Baruch Herzfeld: Now if you go into a lot of restaurants right now, there’s an overabundance of drivers. You see there’s, like, 40 people waiting outside Shake Shack or—now who is chosen for that ride? How does—what’s the system of choosing, of Uber choosing who can make a living and who can’t make a living? And in my opinion, part of that process should be that it should be—there should be a priority for somebody who’s using a safe—a bike that won’t blow up their house. I’m not kidding. And if they’re willing to spend extra money so that their—so that their neighbors don’t die at night in the middle of a fire, I think they should be chosen as a priority for a thing. Same thing with a gas scooter. I think that the people who should be given priority for that work are people who aren’t going to change the climate for my grandkids so my grandkids can live in New York.
Aaron: So you’re proposing the actual food delivery apps—like, the algorithm selects for drivers who are using more socially- and environmentally-responsible vehicles, and in that way, we incentivize the use of those vehicles.
Baruch Herzfeld: Yes!
Aaron: Wouldn’t the better solution then just be like, Uber and Grubhub go and buy a bunch of, like, safe, proper electric mobility vehicles and, like, hire these guys as full-time employees and be like, “Use our—use our safe, proper vehicle. Be an employee with benefits and safety, and—and …”
Baruch Herzfeld: That’s how—obviously, that’s like the—everybody should be given a living wage, you know? But there—right now as we talk there are 5,000, I don’t know, a thousand people that are walking through the jungle to get to New York to deliver food on our platform. There are people from Colombia that are trying to get tourist visas. There are guys—so it’s not like—there are people that want these jobs, even if it takes—even if they can only get $40 or $50 a day, that’s money that changes their life okay? So, like, their business is making sure there’s flex workers available. The delivery apps are not going anywhere. This flex labor force is not going anywhere. It provides a lot of money for a lot of people. And people are—I never really order from delivery, but that’s what people use them.
Aaron: PopWheels continues to make progress. In December, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced plans to launch a new battery-charging pilot program early in 2024, to give delivery workers the ability to charge their bikes in public. PopWheels was one of just three companies chosen to participate, and they’re the only company with an actual product and customers out on the street already. If Baruch is correct and battery swapping is the key to making e-mobility more mainstream, then serious competition is coming soon. He believes PopWheel’s competitive advantage is the fact that it’s being designed and built in close collaboration with the immigrant delivery rider communities themselves.
Baruch Herzfeld: Our realization that you can come and you can use the existing fleet of New York City—nobody ever thought of this as a fleet. All these individual delivery guys who are—who are scraping by and living in a basement, the guys you spoke to, they’re actually a fleet of vehicles that are on the street. There’s 100,000, and there’s 10 times the amount as there are—there’s probably more than there are Teslas. You know, they’re putting $40 million into putting out chargers for a—for a fraction of that we can run a battery swap network. And I think that just I can have the idea, but people don’t understand, like, I’m coming at it from the perspective of having triplets, of helping seniors, of then interacting with delivery guys. It becomes so I come to that realization.
Aaron: I feel like your realization is that, like, these immigrant delivery guys, who are in many ways like the—one of the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in New York City, that in a way, like, they’re bringing in sort of the future of urban mobility. But, like, they need—you still need a little bit of infrastructure to make that true.
Baruch Herzfeld: Exactly. That’s—that’s what I’m hoping people understand, because something that I came to over, like, two years of having to take my kids on an e-bike back and forth to the beach and carrying an extra battery, leaving that battery in my friend’s house, worrying about my friend’s house now about the fire. You know, working building mobility scooters for seniors. You know, so all these things that other people that, like, I now realize as a fact, but it doesn’t—most people don’t even understand it. They think that the answer is, like, an electric Hummer, you know? And we don’t think that that’s the answer. We think the answer is just building a battery network centered around the cheapest form of e-bike.
Aaron: The answer is definitely not an electric Hummer. And thanks for listening to this episode of The War on Cars. We couldn’t produce this podcast without your help. If you like what we’re doing here, visit Patreon.com/TheWaronCarsPod or just go to our website, TheWaronCars.org, and click “Support Us.” Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get ad-free versions of regular episodes, exclusive bonus content, and we’ll send you stickers!
Aaron: Thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.
Aaron: We have two live shows coming up. The first one is happening on Wednesday, January 31 at 7:00 pm at Caveat in New York City. In person tickets are sold out, but you can still buy tickets for the live stream. We’ll put a link in the show notes. And we will be attending the Winter Cycling Congress in Edmonton, Alberta, from February 22 to the 24. We’ll put a link with registration information in the show notes.
Aaron: For 15 percent off on the best rain gear for walking and cycling, visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code CLEVERNEWYEAR when you check out. That’s good through the end of January.
Aaron: This episode was reported, produced and edited by me, Aaron Naparstek. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.
Baruch Herzfeld: She hates cars.
Baruch Herzfeld: We all hate cars.
Aaron: Oh yeah, what do you guys think? Do you ever drive in the car?
Aaron: What do you guys think of it?
Kid: I might throw up on my dress!
Kid: I feel like I’m gonna throw up.
Kid: Me too.