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An up-close look at NYC’s e-bike delivery culture.

Hunting for the end of the long tail • September 14, 2022

Today in Tedium: Writing a certain type of nonfiction means spending a lot of time thinking about the systems that surround us. But when you live in New York City, you have to confront the fact these systems are niche to a unique city. From the water to the mass transit, the cultural diversity to the sports teams, New York City is its own place that, despite being massively influential, doesn’t really impact how the rest of America plans its cities. Americans, by and large, seem happy with their sprawling suburbs and hours commuting in their cars. There does seem to be a slight push for denser urban housing, especially in growing city centers popular with a younger, upwardly mobile demographic. And in these spaces, you’ll likely find a fairly new trend that may not have started in NYC but has been elevated to a higher art form by its practitioners: delivery bikes and the messengers/drivers that ride them. Today’s Tedium is talking specifically about the e-bike trend that has become the gold standard for how New Yorkers get their food delivered. — Andrew @ Tedium

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40,000

The number of e-bike delivery people in NYC, according to an Observer article from 2018. This number is actually based on NYC Department of Transportation figures from 2012 that claimed 80 percent of city delivery drivers used e-bikes. A 2021 article from The Verge claimed there were 65,000 delivery workers but this seems to be based on a short New York documentary available on YouTube that doesn’t offer any source for the figure, and it seems to be their estimate. The point is, no one really knows how many delivery bikes there are in the city, but the share of electric bikes is almost certainly higher in 2022 than in 2012.

The secret infrastructure that makes NYC deliveries possible

When it comes to the infrastructure that powers modern life, cities tend to keep it out of sight. This usually means putting it far away but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes you have to put a power station on 15th St. in lower Manhattan. Sometimes, officials make an effort to hide public infrastructure, like this Brooklyn brownstone:

https://images.tedium.co/uploads/Hidden-Building.jpg

(Andrew Egan)

What might look like an example of urban blight is actually a facade hiding vents for the subway system, along with an emergency exit.

But when it comes to the city’s biking infrastructure, visibility is key. From the Citi Bike docks in high traffic areas to the bright white fluorescent paint on the green bike lanes, it’s important to be clearly visible when riding a bike in NYC. Legally, all riders are supposed to be wearing helmets with hi-viz paints highly recommended.

Hiding in plain sight, however, is the staggering number of e-bike repair shops that dot the city. Like this one on 53rd St. on the east side of Manhattan:

E Bike Store

(Andrew Egan)

Despite the fact their sign claims they sell e-bikes, this store doesn’t actually have any currently for sale. A customer sometimes might sell a broken or old e-bike to the store, who fixes it up for resale. The vast majority of income to these places comes from charging e-bike batteries, while the employees spend the majority of their time on various repairs. The most common e-bikes used for delivery are Chinese-made and often use interchangeable parts regardless of brands though Arrow bikes are “by far the largest,” according to The Verge. Anecdotally, I can back this up, at least among independent operators. This is a pretty typical, NYC delivery e-bike:

E Bike

(Andrew Egan)

Though they are often covered in a protective rubber wrapping, this is an Arrow, whose parts can be swapped between a nearly endless number of other brands. Notice the seat is flipped up. This is how the battery is accessed and removed from most delivery e-bikes. This makes charging easier but also theft less likely. The battery packs are, by far, the most expensive component of an e-bike. Most professional delivery drivers have at least two batteries, each costing $1500, with one charging while the other is in use. The driver in the picture above had come by to swap out his battery. Charging their batteries at this store costs $40 per month. While reports on income from delivery apps like DoorDash claim their workers earn $33 an hour, the drivers I spoke with (in admittedly terrible Spanish and with the assistance of Google Translate) say they make $15 an hour, the minimum wage in New York City.

Designated as independent contractors by the delivery apps, drivers are left to shoulder the initial cost and continued maintenance for their bikes. The lucky ones have the resources to set themselves up as independent contractors with little or no debt. The rest might find themselves among a bevy of new delivery start-ups catering to large clients in need to a certain degree of control. Ready for yet another subscription-based business?

$105.6M

The total amount of funding raised by Zoomo, an Australian startup that builds e-bikes specifically for delivery workers to either rent, buy, or rent to own. According to a salesperson at their 1st Ave. location, the subscription option is the most popular by far with the weekly cost starting at $35 depending on the model. In the five years since the company’s founding, Zoomo bikes have become common in many cities as delivery apps seek drivers with lower performance bikes.

The tech startups looking to profit from delivery drivers

The competition to be the King of Subscription Delivery Bikes is pretty fierce, with the occasional unwitting competitor tossed into the fray.

Take the example of Joco, named after the co-founders, who share a name. (As an aside, in an article on the company, TechCrunch made one of their funnier style choices when they decided, “Both co-founders are named Jonathan Cohen, but one is from New York and the other from London, so we’ll distinguish them by their geographies henceforth.”) Joco started as a competitor to established bike-share service Citi Bike. NYC’s Department of Transportation denied Joco regulatory approval as the city “firmly backs Lyft-owned Citi Bike as the exclusive vendor of bike-share services in NYC.” So the company had to pivot.

Offering subscription bikes to NYC’s delivery drivers has become a big business. Joco pivoted to the space out of desperation and found it was incredibly lucrative, with one of the Joco’s telling TechCrunch their growth was “20x up ‘from the point where things got pretty challenging with the city.’” The company has since expanded its adapted model to Chicago with plans for additional cities.

While Joco is an interesting player in the industry, Zoomo has been pulling in nine-figure sums of investor cash trying to gain an edge in the subscription delivery bike space. Started by a trio from Melbourne in 2017, Zoomo quickly understood the value in leasing bikes to gig economy workers. The Zoomo site markets a subscription bike with free maintenance available to everyone. In reality, the bike has become a go-to for delivery drivers without the means to buy and/or maintain their own bikes. The company has also partnered with major food and grocery apps, like Uber, DoorDash, and InstaCart to provide lower subscription fees for bikes. Interestingly, these partnerships seem to be partly about limiting liability for delivery apps as Zoomo bikes are limited in their speed to a little more than 15 miles per hour. (Slower than many professional athletes.) Some of the e-bikes owned by independent operators can get up to 40 miles per hour. Some can get to highway speeds.

Other smaller startups are also getting involved, like The Hub, an outfit based in Long Island City, Queens that bills itself as “a one-stop-shop” for e-bikes for delivery drivers and the general public. They offer their own e-bikes for rent or purchase as well as parking, charging, and maintenance services, regardless of e-bike model.

NYC Bike Graphic

(Handout photos/Tedium graphic)

The design overlaps are pretty obvious, with each bike intended to endure harsh conditions and even rougher roads. Citi Bike debuted in 2013 with some 6,000 bikes but has grown to 24,000 bikes scattered across all the city’s boroughs, with the exception of Staten Island. While Zoomo gets credit for being the most original of the new e-bike subscription competitors, the designs from Joco and the Hub are clearly inspired by the success of Citi Bikes.

Will these startups partner with delivery apps to eventually end the days of the completely independent contractor? Maybe. The shortage of willing drivers is a serious concern for pretty much every delivery service, though in most cities this is due to rising fuel costs making car delivery less appealing, which obviously isn’t a concern for e-bikes. For the time being, delivery services are content to take anyone with a bike, electric, fixed gear, Citi, or otherwise.

It should be pretty obvious the subscription model for delivery e-bikes, especially when they partner with large, institutional clients like Amazon and DHL, maintains drivers’ status as independent contractors while dictating and controlling the equipment they use. Like when mine operators charged miners for using their picks and shovels. Some might scoff at the comparison between miners and e-bike delivery drivers but the exploitation is oddly similar. And the death rates for both professions are much higher than average.

Due to intense claustrophobia, I will never find myself in a mine willingly. But am I willing to spend six months delivering food around NYC to get a sense of what drivers deal with on a daily basis? Damnit, I do have an e-bike.

20

The number of delivery-driver deaths in NYC per 100,000 drivers. This number is an extrapolation from the estimate by New York, along with a reported 13 deaths among city delivery drivers in 2021. Nationally, there were 29 total deaths among miners in 2020 among roughly 230,000, according to the Department of Labor. This works out to about 13 deaths per 100,000 miners.

What’s it like to deliver food in NYC? It’s terrifying.

In August 2021, I got a RadMission 1. The bike is intended to be used as a pedal assist e-bike that amplifies the rider’s effort. However, it also has a throttle so it can move without pedaling, i.e. the preferred method of riding for delivery drivers. Though, this is decidedly not a delivery bike.

Radmission

Note: RadPower Bikes, maker of the RadMission 1, is not affiliated with or a sponsor of this article. (Andrew Egan)

Bombing around NYC, especially Manhattan, on an e-bike is a lot of fun. I wish I had gotten one sooner. When you get the rare combination of nice weather and light traffic on dedicated bike paths, biking around the city is quite a magical experience. And it makes running errands a breeze. I’m also fortunate enough to live on the ground floor of a five-story walkup, otherwise, I might have different feelings about an e-bike’s ease of use.

By early November 2021, as the weather cooled, I decided on a whim to sign up for one of the delivery apps. After a few days, they sent me a bag, along with a credit card that I was instructed to use only for certain orders. At this point, I was still uncertain if I really wanted to do this. I have a job that pays well enough that I don’t necessarily need the spare cash, but extra money is always nice. And who knows, maybe I’ll like the work?

A few days later, I turned on the special app for drivers and waited. With this app, workers are “on the clock” in one of two ways: they sign up for a scheduled block of time on a first come, first serve basis or they simply mark themselves as “Available” whenever they want. The former category gets preference for deliveries with the latter serving as overflow.

I didn’t really understand the importance of any of this my first night out. I just turned the thing on to see how it worked. There’s no orientation. There is some instruction on what you’re required to have with you while delivering for a particular service. But those items, like a reflective vest and helmet, you have to provide for yourself. Most drivers do. Many do not.

Armed with my safety equipment, I headed off into Midtown with my first order, which was pretty uneventful other than the ridiculous wait at the restaurant. I traveled some eight blocks for $6 but it took close to an hour. My second order was mercifully ready when I arrived at the restaurant, but the dropoff at the Algonquin Hotel was delayed … mostly by me. The bellhops offered to let me see the actual Algonquin round table while I waited for my customer to come to the lobby. Then I noticed I had missed a note on the app to just drop the food off at the front desk. I had wasted another 30 minutes but collected another $8. That’s a grand total of $14 for my first hour and a half as a NYC delivery driver. I decided to call it a night and spent the spoils on cheap beer.

Over the next few months, I’d turn on the app and ride my bike around. Most days I wasn’t actively seeking orders, and sometimes none would come in. But some days, running deliveries was almost like free money. I was going to take my bike out for an hour or two anyway. Eventually, I had done enough deliveries that the service started sending me branded merch, like a reflective vest and insulated backpack. When the weather got really snowy, and slushy, the service would offer cash incentives on top of tips and fees to deliver. Some of these were as good as an extra $30 for completing just two deliveries. These are pretty much all the nice things I can say about delivering food in NYC. Because the reality is, it’s a tough gig.

Let’s start with just the nature of riding a bike in one of the densest and heavily trafficked cities in North America. Nearly every type of wheeled vehicle is on the road at any given moment. Taxis and drive share services are aggressive and just as much on the clock as delivery drivers. Pedestrians will randomly walk into active bike paths, completely oblivious to the danger. Inconsiderate drivers often view bike lanes as available parking and the city does little by way of enforcement. And, of course, there’s the notoriously terrible state of NYC streets which are littered with potholes and debris while being in a constant state of disrepair and ongoing cycle of construction.

It should be no wonder then that New York bike riders were heavily featured in a recent Guardian article about U.S. cyclists giving up their bikes. One former cyclist from Brooklyn said, “The density of double-parked delivery vehicles in dedicated bike lanes and increased traffic on Brooklyn’s streets have made cycling dangerous. I used to enjoy going from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to Riis Park in Queens, but many drivers are distracted by their cell phones and frequently do not observe stop signs or engage in defensive driving. What used to be fun has become fearful.”

Beyond dangerous conditions, there is also the odd dynamic between delivery drivers and the restaurants they serve. Long prep times can lead to large groups of drivers crowding spaces with limited space, discouraging dine in guests. This also has the fun benefit of adding animosity to servers and bartenders who can lose tips in this scenario while being asked to perform additional, untipped (unpaid) labor, like helping package to-go orders. Sometimes drivers and/or restaurant workers lose their cool and shouting matches result. None of the ones I witnessed escalated to violence, thankfully.

Then there are the customers who, in general, just want their orders. Some can have unreasonable expectations, as in the person on the Upper East Side that pre-ordered their food on their way home and asked me to wait 20 minutes as they were still en route. They had tipped $4. I declined to wait. Still, unreasonable expectations are nothing compared to the danger customers can pose to delivery drivers. Earlier this summer, a Queens man stalked employees of a Chinese restaurant, and eventually killed one of their drivers, over a dispute involving duck sauce.

Personally, my experience was relatively tame. Other than a few close calls with distracted drivers and one very aggressive owner, I can say my time delivering was mostly touring the city’s restaurants, taking notes on what I wanted to try, exploring Manhattan’s streets and occasionally getting to wander around buildings I could never afford to live in. Within a couple of months, I had made enough money to cover the cost of my bike, which I estimate took around 70 hours, or about $15 per hour, like the other drivers told me. I figured that was probably good enough and I shouldn’t press my luck. With enough time, an accident of some type is all but inevitable. And I get to keep all that nifty delivery swag.

This wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had.

My experience is obviously not representative of the average NYC delivery driver. To explore a job, especially this one, out of curiosity is coming from a place of ridiculous privilege. Anyone with base empathy can realize how difficult food delivery would be as a primary source of income. The dangers and debt traps that drivers face are harrowing. But a certain mentality persists. Regardless of weather or personal obligations, drivers tend to work until they make what they need. If they can do that in three hours, great. If it takes twelve, that happens too. This is a job people do because they have to.

In cities as dense as NYC, food delivery has long been taken for granted, in no small part because of the people who do it. It’s a system born of convenience and exploitation that is now a requirement for restaurants that want to remain relevant with consumers. And for some people to make a living. It’s long been coming for the rest of America and the last few years just gave it a push. Whatever systems and solutions implemented to service the country are anyone’s guess. Maybe cars, maybe e-bikes. Almost certainly not drones. The one thing I can guarantee is the person knocking on your door will be an underpaid independent contractor.

--

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal, and thanks to Andrew for going to the trouble of delivering food in the name of content.

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