Sunday, 26 May 2013

The delivery cyclist: an appreciation of the under-appreciated

It was one evening a few months ago that I encountered the cyclist with the battered road bike and back pack. I was shuttling my bike-cleaning equipment up bit by bit from the yard of our building when I found him sharing the elevator with me. I launched into the kind of small talk I’m practised at using on cycling neighbours. “Do you ride far?” I asked.

It was only after I left the elevator that I realised he wasn’t a neighbour. He had come from a Mexican restaurant in Red Hook, he said. They had a huge delivery area - but used specially-designed insulated back packs to keep the food warm. I had, it dawned on me, just for the first time talked to a New York food-delivery cyclist about subjects beyond which bag held the plum sauces or whether I could pay by credit card.
 
Delivery cyclist, rain, Sixth Avenue.
Sure, you might sometimes choose to ride in such weather.
But would you want to ride in it or be fired?
It’s probably revealing that I got into the discussion having mistaken the delivery biker for a neighbour. I regularly engage other commuter cyclists in chat at traffic lights. I remark on their bikes (especially if they’re fellow Surly owners) the weather (alternately superb or not a great advert for cycle commuting) or the behaviour of New York City drivers (on whom I don’t generally heap praise). I don’t on the other hand tend to strike up conversation if I find myself next to a man with bags of lo mein dangling from his handlebars or carrying a basketful of tacos. I don’t seem to regard these cyclists – or, to some extent, working cyclists generally – as part of my cycling tribe.

City authorities worldwide tend to be still less warm-hearted. The couriers that played a vital role in ferrying documents around the City of London were a still bigger target for the City Police’s ire than cyclists in general. New York City Council has a history of regarding the working cyclist – the person who delivers the documents and food that keep the city’s financial services and media industries functioning and fuelled – as a problem on a par with the city’s rat or bedbug problem. It probably can’t be stamped out but needs controlling by whatever means possible.

New York's City Council also seems to listen to working cyclists – who work long hours in far-from-safe conditions for minimal wages – about as attentively as it listens to the vermin. I’ve never seen any sign that the city councillors most vocal about the delivery bikers’ perceived shortcomings are pressing their employers significantly to improve their conditions. Nor have I heard of any taking any interest in the welfare of the bikers who deliver their own pizza or noodle boxes.

Yet working cyclists are the only cyclists in most big cities whose numbers and cycling conditions non-cyclists can directly influence. Call out for lunch and you’re pitching some poor Vietnamese or Mexican delivery cyclist onto the streets, regardless of whether or not you think they’re safe. Tell your secretary in Mayfair to get a document to Canary Wharf within an hour and you’re ensuring that some young man on a fixed wheel bike has to fight his way through Piccadilly’s traffic in a hurry.
 
Snow in March: Thoughtful New Yorkers preferred letting
cyclists riding in this to messing up their shoes
The working cyclist’s plight came home to me particularly starkly in March, when a surprise late snowfall blew in, turning midtown Manhattan into a miserable, low-visibility mess of slush and dampness. It was one of a handful of days since I arrived in New York that I decided cycling wasn’t the best way to get to work. Other commuter cyclists, I knew, were forsaking their normal means of transport for the comforts – if that isn’t too strong a word – of the subway. But, as I walked, head down, towards my lunchtime kebab cart, I noticed there seemed to be more delivery bikers than normal out there, not fewer. In the skyscrapers around me, office workers were looking out their windows, shuddering at the idea of subjecting their fancy shoes to the soggy sidewalks and phoning for some poor immigrant to bring them lunch on his bike instead.

But, while the delivery cyclist bringing food or documents to one’s own desk is performing a vital service, those serving other people’s needs seem to be a confounded nuisance. Bike couriers tend to be firmly among the "cyclists who get cycling a bad name" for the kind of person who sucks his or her teeth over the behaviour of London cyclists. In New York, it's axiomatic to complain that food delivery bikers all constantly ride the wrong way down one-way streets, terrorise pedestrians at red lights and ride on the sidewalks. New York City Council’s transport committee, putting to one side the challenges of tackling the city's 250 to 300 annual deaths in motor vehicle crashes, has passed a bill in the past year demanding, among other things, that delivery cyclists display a personal identification number and the identification of their business. There’s also been an attempt to crack down harder on e-assist bikes – a fairly transparent effort to get at a means of transport popular with delivery cyclists.

The very name of one piece of city council legislation raises questions about how big a problem delivery bikers really are. The law is named after Stuart Gruskin, who died after being hit by a delivery cyclist going the wrong way on a street in March 2009. Tragic and painful though Mr Gruskin’s loss undoubtedly must remain for his family, no-one has died after colliding with a cyclist in New York City in the four years since.

I certainly wouldn't defend all working cyclists' standards. I had a nasty near-miss in Cobble Hill late one night with a delivery cyclist who ran a red light into my path. I’m frequently unimpressed with the way some riders squeeze past me in the evening on the W55 street bike lane. The only other cyclist I’ve ever knocked off was a courier who made a foolhardy, last-minute swing in front of me at a junction in London just as the lights turned green.

I do, however, recognise that even I find New York's grid system frustrating as a cyclist - and I have the luxury of never riding in city traffic more than a few times a day and not losing any pay if I'm late.  Would I follow all the street direction rules if the restaurant where I worked were on a one-way street and it would add five minutes to every trip to go the right way round the block to reach it? Would I wait at the lights every time if I knew that doing so would leave me scores of times a day jostling with several streams of fast-moving, inconsiderate taxis? Would I expect my bosses to back me if I explained that my productivity was lower than other delivery bikers’ because unlike them I assiduously followed the rules?
A courier on W55th street. It's the kind of day when
riding round the city must have its upsides.
But would you want to judge the traffic lights knowing
doing so all day could lob a fifth off your wages?


It would be easy to construct an alternative narrative about working cyclists. They are after all ready every day to take significant risks in traffic, get food and documents to people faster than a motor vehicle could and create virtually no carbon emissions or pollution in doing so. I admired how the delivery bikers in March's snow negotiated piles of slush that must be making conditions under their wheels treacherous. I tend to believe that a great deal of the anger directed at delivery cyclists reflects general prejudices against cyclists. In the case of food delivery bikers, there's the added element of the racism often directed at poor immigrants in unpopular, poorly-paid jobs.

There should certainly be some scope for cycling advocacy groups to stand alongside working cyclists on some issues. It's hard to imagine that a movement in the highly-fragmented, ultra-competitive New York catering industry will look quite the same but in New York in 1987 couriers and commuter cyclists stood together against efforts by Ed Koch, then mayor of New York, to ban day-time cycling in midtown Manhattan. The measure was intended mainly to make bike couriers' lives more difficult. The successful protest movement encouraged the development of some of the cycling advocacy groups still at work today in New York.

All delivery cyclists, meanwhile, can deploy the devastating argument that occurred to me when, one Saturday afternoon, my family and I were passed far too close in Brooklyn Heights by a poorly-driven car bearing the logo of a nearby pizza restaurant. The alternative to negligently, lawlessly handled delivery bicycles probably isn't polite, legal delivery bikes but negligently, lawlessly-driven motor vehicles. It may even - who knows? - have been that the restaurant turned to cars to avoid New York's new, strict delivery biker regulations.

Sure, it's annoying that the delivery guy from the local Mexican comes the wrong way down the bike lane at you. Sure, the pizza joint guy shouldn't have buzzed you in the crosswalk as you crossed. But thank goodness they didn't do it with a car.

7 comments:

  1. Aren't these the original invisible visible men and women? You and I are simply followers.

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    Replies
    1. Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. Actually, I think they follow precisely the precept that I set out for myself in the first ever post on this blog - they become invisible by putting on high-visibility clothing and remain so until someone regards them as being in the way. At that point, they take on the dimensions of an enormous, obstructive elephant.

      I was actually once in London mistaken, when arriving at a bank for a meeting with a senior investment banker, for a courier and told to go round to the side entrance. In New York, high-visibility clothing isn't particularly popular and I (out of choice) and the food delivery riders (out of regulation) are pretty much the only people wearing it. The latest rule chances, however, mean that, if I were a food delivery biker, my high-vi vest should identify me as an employee of Ken's Rice Bowl or the Acapulco Taco Company or whatever and it instead advertises a South London bike shop. If the delivery biker squad stops me for questioning, I'll be sure to let you know.

      Invisible.

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  2. Don't forget the absurd criticism one often hears about bike lanes: "they are only used by delivery cyclists"! Leaving aside the question of whether there is any truth to that statement, so what? Aren't they real people, real traffic with a real right to the road?

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I have even this morning (eastern time) complained about this very error in the latest anti-bike rant from the Daily News' Denis Hamill. Hamill says cycling is "mainly a seasonal activity" because no-one but a wacko or a delivery cyclist rides in New York between December and March. I complained both that I missed barely a day's cycling between December and March and that it was hardly fair to pretend delivery cyclists didn't count. It's nonsensical.

      Delivery cyclists are indeed real people - and far too many people seem to forget that.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. The nadir of the dehumanization of poor, often racialized cyclists who do the hard work of food and document delivery was reached in Toronto, where a cycle courier named Darcy Sheppard was killed by a privileged and well connected former attorney general. The reaction to that even left me with several kinds of mostly bitter reflection: however annoyed I get about the way motorists treat me, I don't suffer from most forms of prejudice; I hate to imagine having the stress of navigating a racist society added to the contempt some people here heap on cyclists. While polite society no longer allows the condemnation of abused and racialized people for behaving in an "uppity" manner, anger on the part of racialized people (and cyclists) still generates some sanctioned pearl-clutching.

      You'll find a summary of the case, for anyone with a strong stomach, at http://darcyallansheppard.wordpress.com/

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  3. I fantasize about a bicyclist strike where no food is delivered, nor documents, and everybody that normally commutes by bike drives a car (single occupancy). Or more appropriate, make certain addresses (of people that are vocal about hating delivery cyclists) "blackballed" for bicycle delivery of any kind, and make certain that the car delivery people charge extra for parking and gas. I know that when I was delivering pizza (by car) when we started to get harassed by the police we simply put every cop on a "do not deliver" list and in two weeks out problems were solved.

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    Replies
    1. Opus,

      That's a great comment. Thank you.

      I do wonder whether some of the most vocal members of the New York City transportation committee can still get food delivered. It would certainly be justice if they couldn't.

      I'm also in favour of cyclists' using their financial muscle to effect change. The bicycle strike idea would be tough for me (I don't own a car, plus I ride to work mainly because I just really like riding my bike). But I operate a similar policy with taxis. If a taxi driver carrying passengers noises me up, I tap on the passenger window and suggest that in the interests of safety they withhold a tip. I don't know how effective it is - but it certainly gets some stress hormones out of my body.

      Invisible.

      Delete