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Latest Cop Crackdown on Deliveristas Misses the Point: Advocates

The crackdown underscored how companies like DoorDash and UberEats earn millions while mostly immigrant "independent contractors" are subject to all of the legal punishment and road danger.

Half a dozen mopeds parked outside the Chick-fil-A on Flatbush Avenue, the site of a mass seizure by the NYPD on Wednesday (inset). Photo: Auden Oakes

Cops in Brooklyn seized about a dozen illegal mopeds from delivery workers on Wednesday, a crackdown that follows complaints about the speedy devices that have become an essential tool for the city's hard-working and low-paid deliveristas.

Police from Park Slope's 78th Precinct said their seizure of mopeds outside two popular fast-food chains on Flatbush Avenue was "making our street safer for our community," but it also underscored a problem of the largely unregulated food delivery industry, which earns millions for companies like DoorDash and UberEats, yet leaves the mostly immigrant "independent contractors" who make the deliveries subject to all of the legal punishment and road danger.

“Our salaries are quite low. Livelihoods will be ruined because of the seizure,” delivery worker Roziev Akmal, who was using a legal e-bike, told Streetsblog outside the Chick-fil-A and Shake Shack on Flatbush Avenue, where the crackdown occurred.

Delivery workers choose mopeds because they are faster than electric bikes, meaning that the workers can make more deliveries and therefore earn more pay. Also, a speedy delivery means a higher tip — which is vital for delivery workers in light of a lawsuit filed last week by four app delivery companies to halt the city’s plans for the first-in-the-nation minimum wage for delivery workers.

The app-based delivery companies do not provide transportation or health coverage for their gig workers, whose expenses cut into their take-home pay, which is estimated to average roughly $7 per hour.

“This [the crackdown] is another example where you see deliveristas being economically impacted," said Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which organized Los Deliveristas Unidos in 2020. "It's yet another way for the tech giants to bilk workers out of they pay they deserve. They’re earning pennies and now they have to confront additional operating costs in order to cover all the fines tickets, and have to buy another e-bike to do this work."

Guallpa added that more workers are in fact turning to mopeds as a result of the high demands of their jobs: "Delivery companies are squeezing every penny they can out of delivery workers without paying them a living wage.” 

The 78th Precinct declined to comment, as did both of the fast-food chains.

In 2021, the NYPD said it would target the sellers of illegal mopeds, but it's unclear if the agency has really done so; in May, Streetsblog reached out to the NYPD, which said it had done "outreach" to just 38 e-bike and moped businesses, and only one store "was found to be selling non-street legal [mopeds]."

It is well known that there are many shops selling the devices, so for now, the crackdown on the illegal mopeds is being shouldered by delivery workers.

It's always been thus. Crackdowns against deliveristas began more than a decade ago, when then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg signed a bill making e-bikes illegal in the city.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio ramped up the enforcement against delivery workers — also on the grounds that e-bikes were dangerous.

But the city’s own data refuted that claim — less than 1 percent of motor vehicle collisions that resulted in injuries in 2018 were caused by the riders of e-bikes. Advocates used those stats to blast the city’s crackdowns as unfair, regressive, and anti-immigrant policy.  

"The data don't show that e-bikes are especially dangerous, and that the enforcement against the predominantly immigrant food delivery workers seem intended to placate some community residents who are frightened or annoyed by e-bikes,” Steve Wasserman, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, told Streetsblog at the time. 

Nonetheless, cops continued to seize workers’ wheels, and riders were still given $500 tickets by the NYPD, until March 2020, when de Blasio suspended the crackdown as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the city. A month later, as part of the convoluted budget process, the state finally legalized e-bikes. But mopeds remained illegal.

David Hammer, the president and co-founder of Popwheels Inc., a Brooklyn-based startup that hopes to build a safe, citywide e-battery swapping network, said the latest NYPD crackdown does nothing to solve the problem of recklessly driven mopeds.

“The city needs to address the root of these causes rather than punishing some of the hardest working people in the city for being victims of it," he said.

That said, the NYPD is under increasing pressure to "do something" amid complaints of seniors about near misses with delivery workers racing to deliver burgers to their neighbors. Even supporters of delivery workers, such as state Sen. Brad Hoylman and Council Member Gale Brewer, have recently been bemoaning the mopeds — though also conflating them with legal e-bikes.

“The issue of e-bikes is the number one constituent complaint that we get in my Senate office," he recently told an anti-e-bike group. "Your voices are being heard and I share your concern. ... It’s going to require a campaign from all of us. Council Member [Gale] Brewer told me, ‘You guys have to do something about this in Albany. This is out of control.’ We agree.”

In fact, mopeds and e-bikes are not nearly as dangerous to the public as opponents argue.

According to the NYPD's crash statistics, there were 44,754 reported crashes between Jan. 1 and June 23. Of those, 43,188 — or 96 percent — were caused by drivers of cars, SUVs, trucks, ambulances, vans and other heavy motorized vehicles. Just 826 crashes — or 1.8 percent — were caused by the operators of e-bikes, e-scooters, mopeds or motorbikes, according to the police. Another 740 crashes — or 1.6 percent — were caused by regular bike riders, the cops said.

Drilling down further, there have been 3,952 crashes that caused injuries to at least one pedestrian. Of those crashes, 3,784 — or 96 percent again — were caused by car and truck drivers. Only 168 — or 4.2 percent — were caused by the operators of e-bikes, e-scooters, mopeds or motorbikes, according to the police.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment but a spokesperson for DoorDash told Streetsblog that all of its "dashers" — who are considered independent contractors — are "required to follow local vehicle regulations."

Which is easy for them to say.

— With Auden Oakes and Gersh Kuntzman

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