cityscape

Can I Interest You in a Fresh Charge?

Baruch Herzfeld wants to end the rash of e-bike-battery fires.

Baruch Herzfeld is the founder and owner of the startup, Popwheel - a network of kiosks that charge e-bike batteries allowing delivery drivers to swap depleted batteries for fully charged ones.
Photo: Alex Kent
Baruch Herzfeld is the founder and owner of the startup, Popwheel - a network of kiosks that charge e-bike batteries allowing delivery drivers to swap depleted batteries for fully charged ones.
Photo: Alex Kent

When we met, Baruch Herzfeld admitted to a degree of nerves about his newest brainchild, PopWheels. It wasn’t that the usually unflappable, relentlessly upbeat Herzfeld lacked confidence in the product. That product, an outdoor recharging cabinet that will enable the city’s estimated 75,000 or so e-bike-riding deliveristas to trade a spent lithium-ion battery safely for a freshly recharged replacement, was great. Rigorously tested and retested, it was totally solid. Rather, it was the transitory moment at hand that disquieted the Brooklyn entrepreneur, the passage from one stage of existence to another, like attending your bar mitzvah all over again at age 52.

For the past three decades, since his graduation from Yeshiva University in 1994, Herzfeld had been content to play the role of the winking gadfly, a yiddishe Merry Prankster. A compulsive impresario, he’d started several businesses, many operating in that gray area between the letter of The Law and the lightly litigated zone of anything goes. Mostly catering to recent immigrants and the otherwise migratory, some of these ventures, like a long-running international phone card used by lonely transplants to call home, made good money. Others, like his “indoor trailer park,” for which he placed a bevy of battered RVs purchased on Craigslist inside a cavernous Bushwick warehouse and rented them out to vagabond crust punks, were closer to performance art. Then there was Zeno Radio, perhaps his masterpiece. Upon finding out that what immigrant New York cabbies missed most about home, besides their families, was talk radio — people gossiping, arguing, shouting about day-to-day events — Herzfeld got in touch with some of the most popular talk hosts in places like Ghana, Guinea, Bangladesh, and Haiti: “I offered them a deal to distribute their shows in the U.S. That gave me the daily feeds that the cab drivers here could get on their cell phones. I needed a transfer point in the U.S., a number the drivers could call into for cheap. That’s how we got hooked up with Pine Ridge, this huge Lakota Indian reservation where the Battle of Wounded Knee took place.” For Herzfeld, the idea of a refugee Senegalese cabbie driving down Flatbush Avenue listening to people yelling at each other in Wolof by way of a South Dakota rez was a compelling, totally legal irony.

Now Herzfeld, his rubbery face still displaying the sort of cheeks his numerous relatives have always loved to pinch, was leaving the gray area for the stone-cold-serious light of the mainstream, a realm of life and death. The occasion in question was a press conference at Cooper Square, where Herzfeld’s black-and-yellow PopWheels recharging cabinet was being unveiled as one of three participants in a $950,000 pilot program, part of the Eric Adams administration’s “Charge Safe, Ride Safe” initiative to counter what Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh called “the most dangerous crisis we face.”

The stats back her up. Sometimes shoddily manufactured, improperly charged, and kept in overcrowded residences surrounded by clothing and other combustibles, lithium-ion batteries are now officially one of the biggest causes of fires in a city where the sirens rarely stop. In 2023, there were 268 fires attributable to the batteries, killing 18 New Yorkers and injuring another 150. In June, four people were killed in a Chinatown e-bike-repair shop. Photos made the place look like Dresden. Only a few days before the press conference, a battery fire ravaged an apartment house on St. Nicholas Avenue, injuring 17 and killing Fazil Khan, a 27-year-old from New Delhi who was pursuing his dream of becoming an investigative reporter. For the first time on record in the 159-year history of the department, firefighters had to perform three separate highly risky “rope rescues” to get people out. “These aren’t ordinary fires,” department spokesman Jim Long told me. “People don’t understand how powerful these batteries are. You’ve got all these cells packed there. When they go up, it’s like a chain reaction. By the time we can get there, the fire is fully developed. That’s too late.”

Herzfeld knew the urgency of the situation, how the fires had finally pushed the city to do something. All it would take was for a single firefighter to be killed (so far, none has been) or seriously hurt in a blaze attributed to an undocumented deliverista. That would incite tabloid hysteria, especially in this benighted election cycle.

But he’s been obsessed with lithium-ion batteries since 2018, when his wife, Miriam, gave birth to triplets. (“For years, I’m praying every night for us to get pregnant and then, like that, there were three of them all at the same time.”) One of the problems was how to move his expanded family around the neighborhood. Once, Herzfeld had been “a car guy,” tearing around in an old International Harvester Scout, but as a down payment on a tolerable future, he had long since turned his back on the internal-combustion engine. He’d become a bike guy, an early activist in the Critical Mass movement, achieving typically wiseass local heroism for opening the Traif Bike Gesheft — “Unkosher Bike Club” — which distributed used bicycles to Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasid community.

“When did you ever see a Satmar on a bike?” Herzfeld asked, barely pausing for breath while masticating through a fried pastrami sandwich at Gottlieb’s deli on Roebling Street, one of his ad hoc offices. “They study Torah 14 hours a day. I thought they needed to get out more. Get some exercise, fresh air, a little sun.”

A two-wheeler, though, was not going to solve his triplet-transport problem. What was needed was a retrofitted mobility scooter, a golf-cart kind of thing. “I bought a 48-volt battery on eBay and had the Bangladeshi guy around the corner hook it up,” Herzfeld recalled. “That was my introduction to the lithium-ion battery. Right away, I knew it was the future.”

The battery-swapping cabinets were no big deal conceptually, Herzfeld said. Outside the petrol-frenzied U.S., app-connected battery-swapping cabinets have been in use for years. They all work basically the same way, as a street-level swapping station. But they aren’t all the same. “You have to get the right-weight metal, the right electronics,” Herzfeld said. “For the coding, I had a friend in Brazil. His father used to be a TV repairman in Rio de Janeiro. I got funding from a Satmar I gave one of my Traif bikes for free to ten years before.”

The real trick was, Herzfeld said, “to make it work in New York.” Facing the city’s bureaucracy was like trying to beat endless levels of an infinite video game. “New York City has thousands of rules. Rules on top of rules, generations of rules. But that’s something you learn from studying Talmud — where the law is and where it isn’t. There are no rules and regulations concerning lithium-ion-battery-swapping cabinets in the City of New York. It is a totally new thing. So we operated accordingly. We did our own swapping with guys in bodegas, showing the deliveristas the product, convincing them to use it.”

He sees the battery’s 21st-century centrality through the eyes of the eternal immigrant. His maternal grandfather came to New York in the 1940s, opening a grocery at Third Avenue and 49th Street. Herzfeld himself grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Staten Island (two of his brothers are rabbis) where “everything was about the synagogue. All week long you went to yeshiva. Friday night was services. Saturday was services. Saturday night you played ball in synagogue gym. Later you became a dentist. That was your community. It isn’t a bad life — in many ways, it is a great life. But it wasn’t for me. I am not linear like that. I needed a more expansive way of thinking.”

This was the frame of mind Herzfeld brought to the deliverista problem. “I see these people, what they’ve been through. I met this guy who works with us in this Bangladeshi barbershop where I get my hair cut. He told me his story — how he was tortured back home for having the wrong politics and managed to get to Dubai, then to Benin and Brazil. He walked across Colombia through the Darién Gap to Mexico, where the immigration police put him in jail for months before he eventually got asylum here. A couple of days later, he was sitting on an e-bike in front of Shake Shack, hoping to make $25 a day.

“People say deliveristas are reckless, they go through red lights,” Herzfeld said. “Some of that is true. But their life is upside down. They’re desperate. Got PTSD. People like that aren’t going to be so careful; they need to know how things work. They need help!” Creating PopWheels was “the least he could do,” he said, to make life a bit easier for these largely despised, wholly anonymous, but suddenly essential New Yorkers.

“Nothing in New York is simply a hardware problem — it is a social problem,” Herzfeld continued. “Consulting groups from Boston aren’t going to solve anything. You have to get out into the street, talk to the people no one talks to.” To this end, Herzfeld started working on his language skills, learning how to converse with deliveristas. Many of the Brooklyn e-bike guys come from the Sololá department of Guatemala and speak Spanish secondarily if at all. Instead, they speak K’iche’, a Mayan language. So Herzfeld can often be seen on his e-bike, the one with the twin decals of Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of Mexican travelers (and narcos), and Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the front fender, approaching deliveristas on Court Street.

La utz awach?” he booms — “How you doing?” in K’iche’. It takes a moment for the driver, helmet on his head, hands shoved into plastic bags covering the handlebars, to realize that this grinning maniac is actually addressing him in such a familiar way. A smile spreads across the driver’s face. “Utz! Utz!” he replies with grateful amazement. As for Herzfeld, he’s thrilled. “Mayan Indians!” he shouts, marveling, yet again, at the city’s bountiful ethnic array. A half-hour later, it’s the same thing with the Bangladeshi deliveristas. Plenty of them are from Chatkhil, an area south of Dhaka where they speak Noakhailla, a regional dialect. Herzfeld knows how to say, “Hello, how you doing?” in that, too. “I can speak K’iche’; I can speak wonk. Maybe not much, but enough.”

Swobbee, a German company with a swapping cabinet not unlike PopWheels’, appears to be the main competition in the city’s pilot program. It’s big, with kiosks all over Germany. Its U.S. branch is headed by longtime New York power lawyer William Wachtel, currently the inspector general of the 28-acre Hudson Yards development, among other titles. That doesn’t bother Herzfeld. “We’ve got the better product, the better vibe,” he said, amused that the customer-service sticker on the Swobbee cabinet lists a Berlin phone number. His optimism seems to be warranted. The pilot program aims to monitor the efficiency, durability, and driver acceptance of the cabinets and has called for 100 drivers to sign up to participate. Of the volunteers, Herzfeld said he knows far more who have said they’re more comfortable with PopWheels. “They’re lining up,” Herzfeld said, “like at Studio 54.”

So yeah, Herzfeld thinks, this could work: He could do a good deed and make some money, not that he plans on sticking around to get rich. “I’m not into harvesting. I’d rather plant the seed and move on,” he said. However it turns out, “I can guarantee things won’t be worse than before I got here.”

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Can I Interest You in a Fresh Charge?