Ride Like Hell
New York magazine|September 13 - 26, 2021
Exploited by apps. Attacked by thieves. Unprotected by police. The city’s 65,000 bikers have only themselves to count on.
Josh Dzieza
The Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,000-foot stretch of asphalt and beige painted steel connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, is the perfect place for an ambush. The narrow bike path along its west side is poorly lit; darkened trash-strewn alcoves on either end are useful for lying in wait. All summer, food-delivery workers returning home after their shifts have been violently attacked there for their bikes: by gunmen pulling up on motorcycles, by knife-wielding thieves leaping from the recesses, by muggers blocking the path with Citi Bikes and brandishing broken bottles.

“Once you go onto that bridge, it’s another world,” one frequent crosser said. “You ever see wildlife with the wildebeest trying to cross with the crocodiles? That’s the crocodiles over there. We’re the wildebeests just trying to get by.”

Lately, delivery workers have found safety in numbers. On a humid July night, his last dinner orders complete, Cesar Solano, a lanky and serious 19-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico, rode his heavy electric bike onto the sidewalk at 125th Street and First Avenue and dismounted beneath an overpass. Across the street, through a lattice of onramps and off-ramps, was the entrance to the Willis, which threads under the exit of the RFK Bridge and over the Harlem River Drive before shooting out across the Harlem River. Whatever happens on the bridge is blocked from view by the highway.

Several other workers had already arrived. The headlights of their parked bikes provided the only illumination. Cesar watched, his arms crossed, as his older cousin Sergio Solano and another worker strung a banner between the traffic light and a signpost on the corner. It read WE ARE ON GUARD TO PROTECT OUR DELIVERY WORKERS.

Sergio walked back beneath the overpass, took up his megaphone, and whooped the siren, signaling to workers riding up First Avenue to wait and form a group before crossing. When five assembled, he announced the next departure for the Bronx.

Cesar, Sergio, and three other members of their family, all of whom work delivering food, had been standing watch each night for nearly a month. They live together nearby and heard about the attacks through the Facebook page they co-founded called El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, or “The Deliveryboys in the Big Apple Daily.” They started it in part to chronicle the bike thefts that have been plaguing workers on the bridge and elsewhere across the city. Sergio himself lost two bikes in two months. He reported both to the police, but the cases went nowhere, an experience common enough that many workers have concluded calling 911 is a waste of time.

Losing a bike is devastating for a delivery worker, obliterating several weeks’ worth of wages as well as the tool they need to earn those wages. “It’s my colleague,” Cesar said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s what takes me to work; it’s who I work with and what takes me home.” He’s customized his with dark-blue tape covering its frame, blue spokes, and color-changing LED light strips on its rear rack. Two Mexican flags fly from his front fork. He also attached a second battery since the main one lasts only seven hours, and he rides fast and for every app he can, typically working from breakfast to dinner. He maintains his bike with the help of a traveling mechanic known only as Su, who broadcasts his GPS location as he roams upper Manhattan. Recently, Cesar added a holster to his top bar for his five-pound steel U-lock so he can quickly draw it to defend himself in case of attack.

Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the fluctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave—all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact. Cesar recently biked from 77th on the Upper East Side 18 blocks south and over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, then up through Long Island City and over another bridge to Roosevelt Island, all to deliver a single slice of cake for no tip at all. And now he had to worry about losing his bike, purchased with savings on his birthday.

For Cesar and many other delivery workers, the thefts broke something loose. Some started protesting and lobbying, partnering with nonprofits and city officials to propose legislation. Cesar and the Deliveryboys took another tack, forming a civil guard reminiscent of the one that patrolled San Juan Puerto Montaña, the small, mostly Indigenous Me’phaa village where they are from.

That night, the space under the RFK overpass was a makeshift but welcoming way station. Aluminum catering trays of tacos and beans were arrayed beneath the trusses of the bridge. Arrivals never went long before being offered a plate and a Fanta. The parked bikes flashed festively. Some workers lingered only long enough for a quick fist bump before forming a convoy and departing. But a rotating crew of around a dozen stayed and chatted—sharing stories about who got in an accident and how they’re doing, how orders had slowed lately. Cesar, who hopes to be a video editor, livestreamed his nightly broadcast to the Deliveryboys page. It was something between a news bulletin and a pledge drive, with Cesar interviewing workers, thanking people for donating food, and shouting out to his viewers, who number in the thousands and tune in from Staten Island to their hometown in Mexico.

Just before 1 a.m., a delivery worker rode up, his right arm bleeding. People rushed to him. The worker had been waiting, he explained, at a red light on 110th when someone leaped in front of him with a knife and demanded his bike. The worker accelerated but was slashed on the arm as he fled. Soon, a police cruiser arrived and later an ambulance.

The worker, his blood pooling on the street, at first refused to be taken to the hospital. But the Deliveryboys convinced him to go. Sergio and Cesar shared their phone numbers and took his bike home when they left around 2 a.m. He retrieved it the next day before the Deliveryboys began their watch again.

FOR YEARS, delivery workers in New York have improvised solutions like the bridge patrol to make their jobs feasible. These methods have been remarkably successful, undergirding the illusion of limitless and frictionless delivery. But every hack that made their working conditions tolerable only encouraged the apps and restaurants to ask more of them, until the job evolved into something uniquely intense, dangerous, and precarious.

Take the electric bike. When e-bikes first arrived in the city in the late 2000s, they were ridden mostly by older Chinese immigrants who used them to stay in the job as they aged, according to Do Lee, a Queens College professor who wrote his dissertation on delivery workers. But once restaurant owners and executives at companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub-Seamless figured out it was possible to do more and faster deliveries, they adjusted their expectations, and e-bikes became a de facto job requirement.

Today, delivery workers have an overwhelmingly preferred brand: the Arrow, essentially a rugged battery-powered mountain bike that tops out at around 28 miles per hour. A new Arrow runs $1,800 and can easily exceed $2,500 once it’s equipped with phone-charging mounts, lights, second batteries, air horns, racks, mud flaps, and other essential upgrades. What began as a technological assist has become a major start-up investment.

Delivery workers now move faster than just about anything else in the city. They keep pace with cars and weave between them when traffic slows, ever vigilant for opening taxi doors and merging trucks. They know they go too fast, any worker will say, but it’s a calculated risk. Slowing down means being punished by the apps.

A few days after the Deliveryboys began their Willis guard, I met Anthony Chavez in front of a sleek glass apartment building near Lincoln Center. Chavez is something of an influencer among delivery workers, though his fame was inadvertent and the 26-year-old is too reserved to fully embrace the role. Wanting to share the tricks and texture of New York delivery, he started filming his work in late 2019 and posting the videos to a Facebook page he started called Chapín en Dos Ruedas, meaning “Guatemalan on Two Wheels.” Later, his posts about bike thefts would expand his audience to more than 12,000, but at first it was mostly just the six other Guatemalan delivery workers he lives with in the Bronx. Long stretches of his videos pass with little dialogue, just the background whine of his bike and the Dopplering traffic punctuated occasionally by his advice: Always wear a helmet, only listen to music with one earbud, avoid running red lights, and, if you must, really look both ways.

For about half his week, Chavez works at a rotisserie-chicken spot in midtown. He likes it there; the delivery radius is a bit over a mile, and the kitchen is good at batching orders. The restaurant pays him even when an accident takes him out of commission. He doesn’t even need his Arrow. Instead, he rides his pedal-powered Cannondale. An enthusiastic cyclist who rode BMXs back home and wears a small gold bike on his necklace, he likes cycling best about the job.

This used to be how delivery worked across the city. A restaurant that made delivery-friendly food like pizza or Chinese employed people to take it to customers in the neighborhood. Managers could be cruel, and owners frequently exploited a worker’s immigration status with illegally low wages, but the restaurant also provided shelter, restrooms, and often free meals and a place to eat them alongside co-workers. Unfortunately for Chavez, the chicken spot never has enough hours, so the rest of the time, he works for the apps.

Before the apps, sites like Seamless and Grubhub simply listed restaurants that already offered delivery. But DoorDash, Postmates, and the other apps that arrived in the mid-2010s had their own delivery workers, armies of contractors directed by software on their phones. If a restaurant didn’t offer delivery or was too far away, the app just sent a gig worker to order takeout and bring it to you.

The main reason restaurants weren’t already letting you order a single bacon, egg, and cheese from 50 blocks away for almost no charge is that it’s a terrible business model. Expensive, wasteful, labor intensive—you would lose money on every order. The apps promised to solve this problem through algorithmic optimization and scale. This has yet to happen—none of the companies are consistently profitable—but for a while they solved the problem with money. Armed with billions in venture capital, the apps subsidized what had been a low-margin side gig of the restaurant industry until it resembled any other Silicon Valley consumer-gratification machine. Seamless, which merged with Grubhub and added its own gig platform to compete, was particularly direct in its pitch, running cutesy subway ads about ordering delivery with zero human contact and requesting miniature entrées for your hamster.

The apps failed and bought each other, and now three giants remain: DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub-Seamless. Each divides the New York market more or less equally, and each uses the piecework model pioneered by Uber itself. Workers get paid when they accept and complete a delivery, and a gamelike system of rewards and penalties keeps them moving: high scores for being on time, low scores and fewer orders for tardiness, and so on. Chavez and others call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss— always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to fix your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.

Then there is a fourth app, which Chavez and thousands of others work for but few customers have heard of, called Relay Delivery. It’s a privately held company founded in 2014 and mostly limited to New York. The best way to understand Relay is to think of most delivery apps as two different businesses: the lucrative digital one that customers order from and that charges restaurants commission and advertising fees, and the labor-intensive, logistically complicated—“crummy,” in the words of Grubhub’s founder—business of getting the food to the customer. Relay handles just the second one.

Restaurants can outsource all their delivery to Relay, no matter if the customer ordered on Seamless or DoorDash or called direct. When the food is ready, the restaurant uses the Relay app to summon a worker who is supposed to appear in under five minutes. It’s often cheaper for restaurants than the other apps, and it’s extremely reliable.

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