When Media Outlets Cover Delivery Cyclists, They Rarely Talk to Them

Image: Biking Public Project
Image: Biking Public Project

NYC’s mostly-immigrant food delivery cyclists don’t have it easy, working on car-centric streets through all sorts of weather, all while under pressure to make their deliveries as quickly as possible.

But media coverage of delivery cyclists tends to dehumanize them, failing to convey their perspective or consider the difficult working conditions they contend with.

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.

The result is that media tend to portray delivery cyclists as “foreigners without documents” who bike unsafely and flout the law, the authors argue. Their analysis found that stories that failed to present the point of view of delivery cyclists were 68 percent more likely to portray delivery cyclists as “bad or deviant.”

Take, for example, a 2010 column from the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo about delivery cyclists on the Upper West Side:

Good luck to Community Board 7, which has the audacity to want bicycle deliverymen to wear proper ID and, God forbid, obey traffic laws. Upper West Side residents tired of the terror will likely have to live with it, even if it means limping from injuries caused by careless, sociopathic cyclists.

Words like “terror,” “careless,” and “sociopathic” serve to dehumanize delivery cyclists, minimizing their place in public discussions of bike safety, despite the fact that they spend day after day negotiating the dangers of NYC’s streets. Delivery cyclists are routinely targeted by NYPD ticket stings in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side where residents depend on their services but also castigate them at public meetings about cycling or bike infrastructure.

By listening to delivery cyclists “who ride up to 12 hours a day,” the authors write, everyone can benefit from their “expert, intimate knowledge of our inadequate and unjust streets.”

  • JamesR

    New York City society is essentially feudal when it comes to social class, and delivery cyclists are members a sort of permanent, revolving underclass of city residents – many of whom end up hot bunking in illegally subdivided apartments deep within the outer boroughs in order to survive. Of course the pigs at the Post are going to portray them in a dehumanized manner – they don’t see them as people, just a faceless brown mass.

  • Describing delivery cyclists as “terrorizing”, “careless”, and “sociopathic” is ironic given that car drivers often act in this way, and cause actual death and destruction, whereas cyclists are generally only “annoying” when they do so.

  • AnoNYC

    Food delivery workers are a scapegoat for a violent traffic culture.

  • Joe R.

    The food delivery workers need to organize. Go on strike for a week or two or three to protest the mass ticketing of delivery cyclists. When the 1%ers can’t get their moos shu pork delivered yesterday they might actually start to realize their own hypocrisy. They want their food fresh and fast, but at community board meetings they demonize the very delivery people who have to do what it takes to make it so.

    By its nature, in order to function a city like New York is going to have people operating on the margins. We either get used to low-level urban annoyances like bikes going through red lights, against traffic, and on sidewalks, or we accept that a lot of things will start taking much longer than we’re used to.

    The very people who are the most vocal complainers are the ones who created the problem in the first place by being too lazy to pick up their own food. Maybe when they have to do exactly that for a few weeks because the delivery cyclists are on strike they’ll realize how wrong they were. A $190 red light ticket can be two weeks or more wages for a delivery cyclist. If we want to keep ticketing these hard workers, perhaps we should instead force the restaurant and the person getting the delivery to split the cost of the tickets.

  • KeNYC2030

    Let’s not forget that these workers are forced economically to violate traffic laws. They often earn less than minimum wage and depend on tips for survival, and will quickly be replaced by another worker if they aren’t productive. They are an exploited underclass, and community board whiners should be focusing on the employers and on labor law enforcement.

  • Kevin Love

    “Generally”? As far as I am aware the number of people being killed by food delivery cyclists is hanging in there at a strong zero.

    Food delivery cyclists have achieved Vision Zero. Let’s get infrastructure to ensure car drivers also achieve Vision Zero.

  • Don’t create a false dichotomy. Things aren’t annoying right up to the point that they’re fatal. Just because there are no fatalities doesn’t mean there aren’t occasional injuries. And it also doesn’t mean there aren’t also negative aspects of bad behaviour.

  • Elizabeth F

    I read the PDF chapter, it was well worth the read. As a privileged white person on a bike, I conclude I’ve been too quick to play into the “good biker” vs. “bad biker” thing in the past when trying to defend bicycling in general. That’s no different from the “good black person” dynamic we’ve dealt with for so long in our nation.

    As an e-bike user, I have maybe more opportunity than most privileged white bikers to join in solidarity with bike delivery folks. For starters, I bought my (Chinese) e-bike at the same bike shop as the delivery workers. I made that choice, rather than NYC eWheels on the UES, because I felt the Chinese bikes provided better value for the money. I think I was right; my e-bike is extremely reliable, and provides ultra-low-cost transportation to most places I need to go. And nothing ever breaks.

    Once or twice a year, I bring the bike in to the shop to replace worn-out parts. Instead of selling a thousand different bikes to appeal to enthusiasts, this shop sells ONE MODEL; and they only fix their own bikes. For the most part, the mechanics speak only Chinese, and they know this bike down cold (we communicated well enough). I can go there, wait in line for my turn, and be out of there in a couple of hours; lines are shorter on rainy days. This shop has no fancy bike stands: they turn your bike upside down on plastic crates to access the wheels. And then they turn it rightside up to fix the brakes. And they have exactly the right tools to service their bike. Sometimes, two mechanics will be fixing your bike at once! They know how to turn you around and keep you out on the road. Contrast to the typical white-person bike shop:

    Me: “My shifter cable broke, can you replace it?
    Them: “Sure, come on down, leave your bike with us, and maybe we can get to it in a couple of days. If you’re lucky.”
    [Hey! How do they think I’m going to get around in the meantime??]

    I ended up riding to the shop without a shifter cable, paying them $6 for the cable and replacing it myself; I had to do something. If auto mechanics operated this way, they’d all go out of business. But turns out, the housing also needed replacing. The Chinese bike shop just replaced both for me in 10 minutes for $10.

    While I’m waiting my turn at the Chinese bike shop, I get to chat with their other customers; mostly Asian and Latino delivery workers (not sure if I’ve seen any white people there, I did see an African-American man once). In those exchanges, I learned just how difficult and low-paying the job really is; and how long each delivery typically takes.

    Like Uber, Seamless offers “low prices” by suggesting that the drivers/delivery folks work for even less in their “gig economy”. They suggest a $2 tip when you order lunch. Knowing what I now know about the delivery business, that is slave wages. I now routinely double it to $4. Hey, I can afford it. But I sometimes wonder if $4 is not enough either.

    I also tip the mechanic $10 every time I get my bike fixed. They work hard, they’re really good at what they do, and they keep me moving. And they’re clearly not getting rich either. Even with tip, I spend far less on my bike than I do on gasoline for my car (wish I didn’t have to have the car at all).

    I had a previous incarnation of the e-bike that was not so well-made: the rear spokes kept breaking. It was real lemon. When I advertised it on Craigslist, I got a lot of delivery guys looking to upgrade their ride on the cheap. I had to explain to them the downsides of this bike (it broke all the time), and suggest they would be better off saving up for a better bike. They always took my advice and stopped trying to buy my old lemon. It took me a while to sell that bike, but I didn’t want it to be a bad deal for the buyer; people who work hard enough already without getting ripped off.

    So back to solidarity… NYC laws requiring delivery workers to wear dorky orange vests are not so different from making Jews wear the Star of David in Nazi Germany. And it makes it easy for the cops to know who to harass. If we want to see positive change and take a stand against the arbitrary targeting of bikers by the police, we (bikers) will need to all get together and wear dorky orange vests in solidarity.

  • Kevin Love

    Sorry, I’m still seeing motor vehicle operators causing 99% of the injuries. Paying any attention at all to the “menace” of delivery cyclists isn’t just victim-blaming. It is blaming poor and minority victims who cannot fight back.

  • djx

    “Sorry, I’m still seeing motor vehicle operators causing 99% of the injuries.”

    I’m curious about the source of this info

  • Kevin Love

    Seriously? Sigh…

    OK, since you asked…

    “Overall, 7,904 pedestrians in New York State (including New York City) were treated in a hospital for injuries caused by a person on a bicycle between 2004 and 2011.”

    Note that this gives an annual rate of 988 people.

    Source:

    http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/10/the-rate-of-pedestrians-injured-by-bicyclists-is-going-down/381013/

    Between 2005 and 2007 in New York State,

    “There was a yearly average of 146,337 emergency department (ED) visits due to unintentional motor vehicle traffic-related injuries.”

    Source:

    https://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/prevention/injury_prevention/traffic/county_of_residence.htm

    So it looks like 99.3% of injuries are caused by motorists vs. cyclists. Anyone surprised?

    This number may be even higher, because the ny.gov statistics only looks at ED hospital visits and the Citylab number considers all hospital visits. And the years do not totally align. But does anyone seriously think that order of magnitude differences will be the result?

  • JamesR

    Props to you for a thoughtful post. Agree with all of it, especially re: the accepted bike shop business model of leaving your bike off for days at a time for repairs.

  • Regardless of whether your claimed stat is true or false, you’re being obtuse here, and probably intentionally. You’re also putting words in my mouth, which I did not say. Your extremism here, where you object to me saying that “cyclists are generally only “annoying””….really doesn’t help the cyclist argument, what it helps is portray cyclists as anti-car angry people who will accept any bad acts by cyclists just because they’re cyclists.

    Cyclists do act dangerously on the road, and it does negatively impact other people. But as I explicitly stated, such actions are minor and infrequent compared with the terror and destruction caused by car drivers acting in the same way. That you would object to this factual characterization helps nobody.