Increasingly, restaurants come to you. Digital platforms like DoorDash, Caviar, Grubhub, Postmates, and Uber Eats satisfy our collective desire to be served an eclectic array of meals where we want them, when we want them.
Yet incessant food delivery only adds to the crush of vehicles clogging our city streets, which in turn can make a long wait for these meals.
One answer is bicycle delivery, a clean solution that can dart past cars and avoid clogging city streets. For decades, bike couriers have been iconic in New York City, speeding important packages faster than the U.S. mail. In recent years, aided by technology, bike couriers have spread wildly across the country. UPS, for instance, is now delivering on e-bikes.
Bicycle delivery also provides low-cost, flexible employment, particularly for people seeking part-time and temporary work. Done right, customers, couriers, and cities all benefit.
In 2016 Uber, that icon of ride-hailing innovation—and disruption—added bicycles to its food-delivery ecosystem. Ellen Cohn, communications manager at Uber Eats, touted the congestion benefits of bicycle delivery, calling it “advantageous in dense urban areas where parking options are limited.” Since most deliveries are only a few miles or less, congestion is the real problem.
Cleaning up the city—and the planet
Bicycle delivery can be one part of evolving into a cleaner city with fewer greenhouse gases. “Bicycle messengers can help countries to meet the CO2 emission requirements” targeted in cities around the world, explains an article in Social and Behavioral Sciences. Indeed, a dramatic increase in urban cycling would “cut CO2 emissions from urban passenger transport by nearly 11 percent in 2050,” according to a recent Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) report.
Combining a leap in biking with better transit could plunge CO2 emissions from urban transport from a projected 4.3 gigatonnes globally in 2050 to only 2 gigatonnes, the report adds. This is the kind of progress needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Increased bicycling also lowers local pollution that exacerbates such problems as asthma. Biking means “higher rates of physical activity, reduced air pollution, lower traffic congestion,” as well as reduced traffic deaths, according to the ITS report. Bicycle delivery, then, could be one part of a solution that benefits everyone.
Cohn also cited the environmental benefits of bicycles. She pointed to some of Uber’s moves in the direction of cleaner transportation, such as its acquisition of Jump electric bicycles and scooters. “Any ride that can be served using a bike rather than a car is one less car on the road – something we’re eager to support,” she said.
One courier’s experiences
Bicycle delivery also means easy-access employment. Cohn said it provides “new earning opportunities for those without a car … allowing them to earn money whenever they choose, and around any other commitments.”
Tariq Daniels, a bicycle courier for two years in Washington, DC, currently with Caviar, loves delivering food via his favorite form of transportation. “Riding my bike is therapeutic, and it’s fun, and it’s exercise,” he said. “I get to work when I want, how I want.”
Daniels also sees bicycle delivery as a way to circumvent traffic. “I do get to jobs faster,” he said, which makes for happier customers. He also touts the environmental benefits, exclaiming, “I’m not into motors.” When he bikes, “I feel environmentally friendly.”
Still, there is the perception that reckless bicyclists ignore traffic rules and pose a danger. “I take a lot of risks,” Daniels admitted, such as speeding through intersections as the light is changing. While he doesn’t believe that Caviar’s policies encourage this, he does like to see “happy customers” when the food arrives quickly (and perhaps procure a bigger tip).
Every silver lining has a cloud
Bicycle delivery, then, has its benefits and its problems. Worries remain that it exploits, and even endangers, workers. How it’s done matters.
Insurance is one huge issue, as bicyclists put their bodies on the line to rush you your meal. Reports of accidents, from crashes into opening car doors to dislocated shoulders all the way to death disturb the glamorous image of the speeding bicyclist. Couriers may be left to fend for themselves in the event of a crash. Those who wish to try bicycle delivery should choose their employer with care.
Despite his love for the job, Daniels doesn’t consider bicycle food delivery a long-term profession. The money is decent—Daniels estimates the hourly wages at $15 to 18 per hour, not including tips, for Caviar. This is better than other services that he worked for, including Uber Eats, which “don’t pay for distance traveled.” I asked Uber about this, and they replied that they do now have a distance-traveled fare.
Daniels sees other drawbacks to the job. There is “no advancement,” he said, and it “takes a toll on my body if I do it consistently.” Furthermore, it’s difficult to keep up in winter or other bad weather. For him, it’s a temporary gig, and one that he’ll do less often as he ages.
Whatever Daniels’ future, bicycle delivery is pedaling forward fast. It will remain part of our urban landscape – one minute we may be cursing out the reckless bicyclist speeding past us and the next we’ll be the happy recipient of a person on a bike delivering us piping-hot tacos con queso or yummy California rolls.