Delivery Cyclists in NYC

By : Lowrah · March 25, 2017

I was lucky enough to volunteer for a few hours with the Biking Public Project in New York when I was visiting recently.

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The Biking Public Project is a group of volunteer activists and organizers trying to make bike advocacy more inclusive and representative. BPP has been working on projects relating to women, people of color, and delivery cyclists for a few years. Their most recent project is focused on delivery cyclists in NYC.

From BPP:

We can choose to hear food delivery cyclist voices and experiences, yet often we do not. BPP has started a new participatory research project with food delivery workers called “Delivering Justice.” In this project, BPP seeks to support and empower food delivery cyclists by partnering with them to characterize abuses, create counter-narratives, and generate actions to improve labor and street conditions. We plan to do a lot of surveying of food delivery cyclists along with some focus groups and perhaps even some mapping and other data collection and analysis.

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Food Delivery Cyclists are Subject to Racist Enforcement

In New York, a city full of people who don't cook and rely on food delivery, it is abhorrent how food delivery cyclists are treated, looked down on, and discriminated against. (Always tip your delivery workers! They depend on it!)

I volunteered with BPP to hand out surveys to delivery cyclists in Manhattan. I handed out 60 surveys to the young brown and black men out delivering, or left them on bikes parked outside of restaurants, identifiable by their large baskets, e-bike batteries, placards showing which businesses own the bikes, and their large backpacks.

  • Delivery cyclists are low-paid, and are often subject to wage theft from shady employers who want to exploit their labor
  • Because of the low wage and high chance of exploitation, delivery cyclists are vulnerable and are often poor, and sometimes undocumented
  • Cracking down on delivery cyclists is inherently racist because the majority of them are poor, people of color
  • Citation data shows that enforcement is disproportionately affects minorities, and commercial districts where delivery cyclists work
  • Because of a weird legal gray area in NYC law, e-bikes are illegal and can be seized by law enforcement
  • Decision makers are not listening to the experiences of these workers

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Wage theft

BPP is working to collect this data to hopefully influence the system that makes being a food delivery cyclists a hard life. Wage theft is a huge part of the problem.

Workers of Indus Valley Restaurant came together to demand their bosses, Phuman and Lakhvir Singh, stop stealing their wages. They worked more than 60 hours per week, paid as little as $3/hour and never paid overtime. They won a court decision of $700,000.
Instead of paying the workers, the Singhs changed the name of the business from Indus Valley to Manhattan Valley and claim to have sold the business. These tactics are used by many unscrupulous employers—Nations Cafe, Mei Shi Lin, Grand Sichuan, to name a few–to ignore court judgments and continue to break the law.

The SWEAT bill (A628/S579) will make it harder for employers to do this and is on the cusp of becoming law. Let’s come together to pass SWEAT and help prevent wage theft!

Read here for more information about delivery cyclist abuse by employers.

Police enforcement

BPP released a report that shows how policing effects delivery cyclists.

From 2007 to 2015, 92 percent of commercial cycling tickets were issued in just four Manhattan precincts, covering the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and parts of Midtown — areas whose populations are 75 percent white. Meanwhile, non-commercial infractions were most heavily concentrated in precincts with high levels of poverty and majority-minority populations.

The severely disproportionate policing of commercial cyclists by those four Manhattan precincts — the 17th (Midtown East), 18th (Midtown North), 19th (Upper East Side), and 20th (Upper East Side) holds true when controlling for the large number of restaurants in those areas.

In Midtown East, for example, 291 commercial cycling summonses were issued annually for every 100 restaurants. In comparison, the 88th Precinct in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill issued just .37 tickets per year per 100 restaurants.

The top eight precincts for commercial cycling infractions per 100 restaurants are all in Manhattan. “The commercial cycling infractions are all happening in affluent, white neighborhoods,” Biking Public’s Do Lee told Streetsblog. “Most [commercial cyclists] tend to be Asian and Latino immigrant workers.”

At the same time, all but two of the top 10 police precincts for non-commercial cycling summonses are in majority-minority neighborhoods. You can toggle between the commercial and non-commercial bike enforcement datasets on this map:

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“Given that most working cyclists in NYC are food delivery workers who tend to be Latino and Asian immigrants,” concludes Lee in a recent summary of the research, “this map means that in NYC, people of color who bike have been policed both where they live and where they work.”

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Click here for the study maps.

Crackdowns on e-bikes disproportionately affect minority cyclists

Further, the NYPD proudly cracks down on e-bikes, primarily used by delivery cyclists.

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NYPD confiscated 247 e-bikes, which are about $1500 each, minimum. So NYPD has just dispossessed mostly workers of color of about $370,000. Is this how #VisionZero is supposed to work? Do we feel safer because of this?

Negative narratives are racist and unfounded

If you have to speed to your delivery or risk not getting a tip, how would you ride through traffic? Are delivery cyclists a danger to other road users? Much of the narrative around these delivery cyclists is made without speaking to the workers, and negative impressions are allowed to circulate unchecked by other perspectives.

That’s the conclusion of a report from the Biking Public Project [PDF]. The authors identified 74 stories about delivery cyclists published in NYC newspapers and online outlets (including Streetsblog) between 2004 and 2014, and found that only 27 percent included at least one quote from a food delivery person.

I volunteered for this project to help raise the voices of NYC delivery cyclists. I recently read this article about their situation, and was moved by Xiaodeng Chen's words.

“Doing this job, you’re constantly reminded that you are not part of the community. You’re reminded that you’re an outsider,” Chen says. “You see the city for what it is.”

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