New York’s ‘Deliveristas’ Are at the Forefront of Cities’ Sustainable Transportation Shake-up

As cities and companies push to move people and goods around with cleaner forms of transportation, food delivery workers on bicycles show what laws and infrastructure are needed.

A delivery driver rides a bicycle through the rain on March 24, 2021 in New York City. Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

A delivery driver rides a bicycle through the rain on March 24, 2021 in New York City. Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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In late September, Manny Ramírez, one of more than 65,000 food delivery workers who travel New York City by bicycle each day, went to meet a fellow courier whom he hoped to recruit into a workers’ advocacy group. But on the way, a car hit him—the second one to do so in just one year. The first crash happened while he was making deliveries, and left him out of work for four months. Ramírez escaped his latest crash with only an injured arm, but over the past two years, 16 other couriers have been killed on New York’s streets. And, as in many of these crashes, the driver who most recently hit Ramírez fled and has not been found.

During the coronavirus pandemic, app-based meal delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats overtook many cities. In New York, where bike-riding food couriers were already ubiquitous, Ramírez estimates that the number of people delivering for apps at least doubled. Uber Eats alone signed up 30,000 new couriers in March and April of 2020 in New York, and it’s likely that app-based workers now far outnumber delivery workers employed directly by restaurants. Many of the new recruits lost their previous jobs in construction and other hard-hit industries at the beginning of the pandemic.

Although some couriers in New York deliver by car, the vast majority use bikes and e-bikes, especially in Manhattan. These gig couriers organized last year into Los Deliveristas Unidos, which advocates for better working conditions for food delivery workers. Just before Ramírez suffered his second collision, the group won an important victory: the city council approved an unprecedented package of legislation to give app-based delivery workers’ more regular pay, access to restaurant bathrooms and the right to choose their own routes. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the measures into law soon.

Across the various apps in New York City, these workers make an average of just over $12 per hour, after accounting for tips and expenses, according to a recent report by Cornell University and Los Deliveristas Unidos. One smaller company called Relay does pay workers a fixed hourly wage, but the larger apps give workers a base pay that changes depending on the type of order, distance and estimated delivery time. Many couriers report that these payment systems are confusing and opaque, with tips and even base pay sometimes going missing. The new legislation mandates more transparency. One of the bills charges the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection with establishing a minimum payment that companies must give couriers for each delivery by 2023. Another requires companies to disclose to couriers how much of customers’ tips they will receive, which they currently don’t always know.

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But while these laws will offer important protections, they don’t address another hazard of delivery work—riding a bike in an environment designed for cars. New York is unusual in that the majority of its couriers have long traveled on two wheels rather than four and have, more or less, learned how to share the road with cars. But as other cities shift to lower-emission modes of transportation to combat climate change, more goods and services are likely to be delivered by bicycle in cities around the world. 

“These workers are ahead of the game,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, the director of policy and strategic partnerships for Los Deliveristas Unidos and its parent group, the Workers Justice Project. New York’s delivery workers had been using pedal power to move goods for years before climate change became a topic of public concern, she pointed out.

“When we think about climate change, we don’t always think about immigrant delivery workers,” said Carlos Menchaca, a city council member representing Brooklyn’s District 38 who co-sponsored the recent legislation. “But they’re part of this next generation of a new economy.”

As the city prepares to release a new master plan for its streets at the end of 2021 and Congress debates its infrastructure and reconciliation bills, this increasingly visible workforce is highlighting the inequities and dangers cities need to address to lower the emissions from their streets. 

Essential and At-Risk Workers

“Those of us who do this work, we’re risking our lives in the street,” Ramírez said. 

In the recent Cornell/Los Deliveristas report, about half of the 500 couriers surveyed reported having been in an accident on the job. And crashes are not their only work-related hazard. The $1,000 to $3,000 e-bikes that many couriers use make them targets for robberies. Before the rise of delivery apps, restaurants usually limited how far they would deliver food, but the apps may send couriers across the city. Many have turned to e-bikes to travel farther and faster, but the longer trips can make them more vulnerable.

The survey and report was the “first x-ray of the industry,” said Colón Hernández. The researchers involved were able to show that the pay, health and safety issues workers face aren’t isolated incidents, but industry-wide problems.

Most of the people doing app-based delivery work in New York are immigrants, primarily from Mexico, Guatemala, South Asia, West Africa and China. Many are undocumented. As independent contractors, they usually don’t receive benefits like health insurance, and rarely have other options to get it. So when they get into crashes or get beaten in robberies, they must pay for their healthcare out of pocket. 

And they rarely get paid if they stay home to recuperate from injuries. That’s what happened to Ramírez after his first crash in January. He was bedridden for three months, in physical therapy for one more and his bike was badly damaged. The driver who hit him had expired auto insurance, so Ramírez had to foot the bills himself. Then, in March, while he was recovering, his wife—one of the few female couriers in the city—had their fifth child.

While Ramírez’s family faced a particularly dramatic sequence of events, it’s been a dangerous time for all couriers. A “reckless driving culture” emerged on cities’ emptier roads when people first started sheltering at home from the coronavirus, said Menchaca.  

“With the pandemic, and with the attacks and crashes that delivery workers have, it’s become very difficult,” Ramírez said.

Some app companies do offer assistance to couriers who’ve been in crashes. As of June 2019, DoorDash couriers in the U.S. are eligible for occupational accident insurance, which pays for medical expenses and provides disability payments after the accidents it covers.

The company, along with Grubhub and Relay, supported legislative action to aid its delivery workers. “We recognize the unique challenges facing delivery workers in New York City and share the goal of identifying policies that will help Dashers and workers like them,” wrote a spokesperson for DoorDash in an emailed statement. “This is why last year, we announced an industry-leading set of initiatives to improve Dasher safety, strengthen earnings, and expand access to restrooms. We will continue to work with all stakeholders, including the City Council, to identify ways to support all delivery workers in New York City without unintended consequences.”

Nationwide, the number of cyclists who die each year is going up, even as overall traffic deaths go down. In New York in 2020, at least 24 cyclists died in traffic accidents and more than 5,000 more were injured. 

Pedestrians also risk being injured in traffic accidents, usually with cars but sometimes with bicycles as well. Since New York’s surge in e-bikes deliveries during the pandemic, many pedestrians have complained about couriers’ speed and habit of running red lights. 

“Of course, people need to feel safe,” said Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director of the New York-based nonprofit Transportation Alternatives. “The people who should be prioritized above anyone else on the street are pedestrians. They are the most vulnerable, they are the ones least likely to cause harm to anyone else.”

Some residents report being fearful of crossing bike lanes, and complaints to de Blasio and other city officials led to a police crackdown on e-bikes starting around 2017, according to DiAquoi, before they were fully legalized in New York in September 2020. 

In rare cases cyclists have hit and injured or even killed pedestrians. But e-bikes and bicycles have far less lethal mass and power than cars and trucks weighing thousands of pounds and driven at speeds much faster than cyclists can reach. In the first nine months of 2021, approximately 5,000 New York City pedestrians were injured in traffic crashes. E-bikes accounted for just 111 of these crashes, and regular bicycles for another 137, according to police reports. Cars, trucks and larger vehicles were responsible for the vast majority of the rest.

“We all have a responsibility to interact safely and with respect for everyone else in the street,” said DiAquoi. “But there’s a different level of responsibility when you’re operating a small device versus a large heavy car or truck.” 

Couriers Can Help Envision Safer infrastructure

With e-bikes legalized on New York’s streets and the food delivery business showing no signs of slowing, the number of two-wheeled couriers navigating the city’s traffic is likely to continue growing. Some of the challenges that delivery workers face in their changing industry can be addressed with laws, as New York’s city council did last week. But the broader safety problems that these workers face, which all cyclists and pedestrians face to some extent, can’t be legislated away. 

The upcoming laws are “very basic,” Ramírez said, explaining that this packet of legislation is only a start to regulating the industry. Next, he said Los Deliveristas Unidos intend to push for the police to more thoroughly investigate crashes and robberies, and for more serious consequences for drivers like the one who hit him and fled.

But transforming and improving the city’s physical infrastructure is the key to protecting couriers’ safety, said Transportation Alternatives’ DiAquoi. “The streets are the workplace of delivery workers,” he said. “They need, they deserve, they must have safe work conditions.”

The “NYC Streets Plan,” scheduled to take effect in January 2022, is a response to legislation requiring the city to issue a transportation master plan every five years, build 250 miles of protected bike lanes and take other measures to promote safer and more accessible transportation options with less greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for an interview.

The city is also on the cusp of starting congestion pricing, a program that would charge cars a toll to enter the southern half of Manhattan and invest that money in public transportation. Simply discouraging car use like this should help delivery workers, Menchaca said. The council member, who does not have a driver’s license and commutes everywhere by bike, would like to convert whole roads into “bike superhighways” the same way New York and other cities are reserving some roads for public buses.

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But not all improvements need to be so drastic. Because delivery workers often start and end their days in the dark, just repairing street lights in places where they’ve been neglected would help ensure safer rides. Identifying these immediate fixes is a matter of listening to workers and reframing the way society thinks about biking, Colón Hernández said. 

“For a long time, the idea of bikes in New York City has always been from the point of view of leisure,” she said. “I think we need to change that culture—bikes aren’t only for leisure but they can also be for work.”

Recognizing this reality can help direct the billions of dollars the federal government could soon invest in clean infrastructure, she added. “There is a lot of talk about infrastructure for the people that are going to build it, but not for the people that are using it,” she said. “I think delivery workers have to be at the forefront of that conversation, because they’re the ones that spend 10 to 12 hours with this equipment, back and forth. They can tell you what works, what doesn’t.”

Sometimes the need for better infrastructure extends beyond the streets and into couriers’ homes. The city’s tens of thousands of e-bikes need to be charged somewhere. Some workers use commercial garages but others will charge their bikes’ batteries at home, in apartments and houses that may not be wired to do so safely, especially if multiple delivery workers are living together, Colón Hernández said. And of course, the more New York gets its electricity from renewable sources, the cleaner e-bikes and other electric vehicles will be.

As the Biden administration and local officials plan out the country’s future infrastructure, Colón Hernández said, they can look to people like delivery workers to see what’s missing. In fact, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with Los Deliveristas Unidos on Wednesday. He told The City that he would bring the deliveristas’ concerns to his fellow lawmakers, and even suggested using federal infrastructure money to fund rest stations for the workers. 

Couriers recognize that their intimacy with the city’s infrastructure has equipped them to advocate for change that can help others, as well. As a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos, Ramírez said he’s ultimately fighting not just for delivery workers, but for the future of his children and the safety of all New Yorkers. 

He moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 19 years old. In the years since, New York City has “embraced me,” he said. “It’s given me a family. And I want to give something back to this beautiful city.”