Working cyclists in New York City deliver hot fresh food at all times of the day and night. But in news coverage, these cyclists are often vilified without ever being asked to comment. The Biking Public Project — which aims to expand cycling advocacy discussions by working with underrepresented bicyclists in New York City — conducted an analysis of media stories about delivery cyclists that found only 27% of these stories even quoted a delivery worker.
New York City working cyclists are often low-wage immigrants. However, privileged New Yorkers largely craft the narrative about delivery cyclists, depicting them as a threat to public safety. It is a form of white supremacy that silences important stories about unsafe working conditions and police harassment. These are some of those stories.
The Biking Public Project conducted a focus group with Chinese-fluent immigrants who work as food delivery cyclists. One described his daily wage before tips as $30. “My first six years working, I never had one day off. Every day, I worked 16 hours a day,” he said. “I basically woke up, went to work, went home, and went to sleep.” Dumpster diving is a necessity, he explains. “The shoes that people throw out and secondhand on the streets, we pick up those clothes to wear because it’s too expensive to buy them.”
With such a low daily wage, delivery cyclists rely on tips, putting them at the mercy of customers. “Customers have slammed the door in my face when I asked for tips,” explained Lui, a Chinese-fluent immigrant in his 50s.
Ray, a white male fluent in English in his 20s, was shown a delivery receipt by a fellow delivery cyclist where a customer wrote, “I don’t give tips. Get a real job.”
Dangerous conditions are clear and present. “A taxi hit me. My bike was broken, and the taxi window was cracked,” said Chang, a Chinese-fluent immigrant in his 50s. “An ambulance came for me, as I was hurt badly, but I had to get up and finish my delivery.” According to the majority of working cyclists interviewed, employers illegally deny workers’ compensation for their delivery cyclists in almost every instance.
Juan, a Latino immigrant in his 20s fluent in Spanish, told us that he was on a delivery when a man punched him. “I fell down and he grabbed my food and ran off,” Juan explained, “When I went back to the restaurant, I got mad because the manager was upset about the stolen food, but not about me.”
Wong, a Chinese-fluent immigrant in his 60s, said the danger of robbery is common. “Delivery men will be assaulted during the robbery, have our money taken, and also have our legs broken, our teeth broken. Even if we are injured, we still have to keep working,” he said. “Some attacks actually killed delivery workers. And we feel really helpless because once we have been killed, no one can take care of our families. It’s as if we just vanished. There are no people who can speak up for us.”
Clocking numerous hours and miles with the imperative of fast deliveries, food delivery workers often rely on electric bicycles, or e-bikes. Under the guise of Vision Zero, the New York Police Department has cracked down on the use of e-bikes, confiscating close to 800 in the first eight months of this year. This crackdown has saved zero lives, because e-bike riders have never killed anyone in New York City. With delivery workers’ reliance on e-bikes, and no discernable effect on Vision Zero, the crackdown reflects a racist enforcement of New York City laws.
In the focus group of Chinese-fluent immigrants, one participant explained the incongruity of the enforcement. “E-bikes’ speed is fast, but so are cars and airplanes,” he said. “It depends on how you regulate, we just need reasonable rules. Not like how police officers immediately choose to detain us upon sight, or give us a ticket, or confiscate our bike.”
The consequences of e-bike confiscations are severe. “We cannot make a living. Our income is not a lot, and the police give us $500 fines the moment they see us. We all have families to feed,” a focus group participant said. “All of our bosses hire us e-bikers. The problem is not going to be solved by policing.”
Another focus group participant explained the e-bike crackdown even more plainly. “I think there is racism involved,” he said. “They are intentionally targeting us.”
Chin, a Chinese-fluent immigrant in his 50s, said that once, he was stopped at a light when a police officer asked him for identification. “I was able to indicate that the ID was at the restaurant. We walked over to the restaurant, I showed him my ID, and he arrested me anyway and I spent half a day in jail,” he said. “All delivery workers are fined all the time and we just have to put up with $50 to $200 fines.”
The e-bikes situation particularly upsets Chin because enforcement is so unequal. “Everyone breaks the law, look at drivers and pedestrians,” he said. “Local people break laws, too, and police just ignore them.”
Working cyclists echoed stories of unfair policing beyond e-bikes. “Once, a police officer pulled me over for running a red light, but he didn’t stop the two other white cyclists who did the same thing,” said Juan, a Spanish-fluent Latino immigrant in his 40s. “When we get robbed, the police do nothing.”
Michael, an English-fluent Black Hispanic man in his 20s, told us about the police stopping him on the street after a delivery. The police falsely arrested and accused Michael of a nearby burglary, despite his restaurant vouching for his whereabouts. “Not a single officer believed that I was a food delivery guy. I’m freaking out, I’m crying. Dude, it’s demeaning,” he said. The charges were dismissed in court, but only after Michael had spent a night in jail.
Food delivery cyclists spend countless hours on unsafe New York City streets. They intimately know a multitude of injustices. To hear their voices, we have to build relationships and engender trust. This cannot occur within a system of white supremacy that dehumanizes, exploits, silences, and demonizes them.
Lin, a Chinese immigrant in his 20s who is fluent in English and Chinese, told us an uncommon story that sheds light on how trust develops.
“On a rainy day, when I was stopped at a red light, a lady standing on the curbside asked me if I was all right. I felt happy because she cared, and she asked if I am all right,” he explained. “When people [see] you and communicate with you, try to understand you, it feels very good. It made me feel that I am an equal human being, I am a person they recognize. Because for various reasons, people prefer to avoid delivery people.”
Learn more about the Biking Public Project here.