NYC’s War On E-Bikes Takes Toll On Immigrant Delivery Workers
Li Guoan was delivering food on his electric bicycle in Midtown Manhattan on a frigid January afternoon this year when an NYPD officer pulled him over. E-bikes are illegal to ride in New York City, and Li had been stopped by the police before. But this time the officer decided to seize his bike. Li was charged with misdemeanor reckless driving, no different than if he had been behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound SUV.
Li had been unable to understand why the officer pulled him over because his English is poor. Walking out of the police precinct, his hands shook uncontrollably as he described his dilemma. “I have two children, I have a wife, I’m the only one working now,” Li said in Mandarin. “What am I supposed to do now for work? How am I supposed to survive? How am I supposed to take care of my family?” Two hours later, Li was on a mountain bike given to him by a friend who worked at 55th and Lexington. Both brakes were shot. “I’m moving slowly,” he assured us, as he carried the plastic bags of food through dense Midtown traffic.
New York City law classifies e-bikes—bicycles which let riders exceed 20 miles per hour through the use of a rechargeable electric battery—as “motorized scooters” that cannot be registered by the DMV as street-legal vehicles. In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio, citing “a huge growth of complaints from neighborhood residents,” announced that his administration would begin severely cracking down on the people who use them.
“I’ve seen these bikes going the wrong way. I’ve seen how fast they can go. I’ve seen how reckless they can be. I don’t like it,” de Blasio said. He noted that more than nine hundred of the bikes had been seized by the NYPD in 2017 alone, a surge of one hundred and seventy percent over the previous year.
In dozens of interviews, delivery cyclists told Gothamist that e-bikes were essential to their jobs—to deliver food quickly to avoid complaints from hungry customers and earn more tips—and three of them allowed us to track one of their typical shifts using a GPS watch.
“I would never use a regular bike, there’s no way to ride a regular bike,” Zhu Xian, 31, said in Mandarin, adding that he does his best to obey traffic laws. Zhu is one of four delivery cyclists who ferry between 100 to 150 orders to customers every day out of a Chinese restaurant on 14th Street.
Over roughly ten hours on a Saturday in January, Zhu biked nearly 60 miles to make 34 deliveries; he said he earned a little more than $80.
“Being a delivery worker is the lowest rung of work in society,” Zhu said.
The increasing popularity of e-bikes has paralleled the rise of online takeout delivery services like Seamless, which merged with Grub Hub in 2013. The two companies control 85 percent of the food delivery market in New York City, and nationwide accounted for more than $1 billion in food sales during the last quarter of 2017—300 orders every minute of every day. Seamless is “how New York eats,” according to their ads plastered throughout the subway. The company’s TV commercial features a delivery cyclist who arrives on an e-bike and speaks in heavily accented English.
(In an email, Brendan Lewis, the vice president for communications at Grubhub, said that he “wouldn’t recommend reading too much into all the visuals included” in the ad.)
Do Lee, a CUNY Graduate Center student who is writing his PhD dissertation in environmental psychology on delivery cyclists, said the controversy over e-bikes could be seen as the “nexus” of policing, class, and immigration.
“It’s almost like they’re the canary in the mine for all these issues,” Lee said. “They’re not quite bike, they’re not quite car, and the early adopters are immigrants. I think this is a lot of anxiety about who has the right to determine how the city is shaped going into the future.”
While other states like California and Washington have embraced the use of e-bikes and have taken clear steps to regulate them, de Blasio has admitted that New York’s e-bike prohibition was a “strange law.” E-bikes that have throttles, the less expensive models favored by delivery cyclists, are illegal to ride or sell, but not possess. On the other hand, “pedal-assist” electric bikes, which tend to be more expensive and require the rider to pedal to some degree in order to accelerate, are technically legal because, per the text of the law, they are not “capable of propelling the device without human power.”
The mayor also insisted that businesses, not workers, would bear the brunt of the stepped-up enforcement. Restaurants that employ delivery cyclists who use e-bikes would begin to receive $100 fines. “We didn’t want a situation where the business thought, ‘The poor schmuck delivery guy will have to pay for it,'” de Blasio said in October.
But according to Lee and the e-bike delivery cyclists interviewed for this story, they are all essentially independent contractors: they own their e-bikes and pay their own fines.
“There’s this weird plausible deniability,” Lee says of the mayor’s position. “‘Oh, I’m this Sanctuary City mayor, I’m not going after immigrants.’ But the actual implementation absolutely is.”
Yudi Burnama, a manager at the Japanese restaurant where Li Guoan worked, said he would accompany Li to the police precinct, but that the restaurant wouldn’t help pay his fine. “They make money, then they pay for it,” he said. “That’s the rules from the beginning here.”
Burnama added that while his restaurant has not been fined for employing workers who use e-bikes, he has observed the police cracking down on delivery cyclists.
“You know, they work hard, they make like, one hundred dollars a day, maybe less sometimes,” he said. “And then you know, sometimes you get two tickets at the same time. Sometimes three tickets. That’s like, two hundred fifty dollars, three hundred dollars. It’s just crazy.”
Language barriers, immigration status, and the long hours his subjects work make Lee’s research difficult, but he recently compiled the results of a survey of one hundred and forty delivery cyclists. The vast majority are immigrants who speak Chinese or Spanish. Most of the eighty Chinese-speaking cyclists said they depend on e-bikes, compared to less than half of the Spanish-speaking cyclists; only a handful of English-speaking riders used them. The average age for Chinese delivery cyclists is also much higher, 46 compared to 32 and 27, and they also earn less money than their English-speaking counterparts, an average of $10 an hour, compared to $15.
The minimum wage for delivery cyclists in the city is $10, while the average hourly wage for Spanish speaking workers surveyed was $9.38. Lee said that labor laws tend to be “almost completely a fiction with immigrant workers.”
In 2016, Lee found that nearly all of the summonses given by police to commercial cyclists over the previous eight years were issued on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and Midtown, neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white.
“We’re talking about mostly immigrant men of color, but mostly Asian and Latino men, who are riding electric bikes in very wealthy neighborhoods,” Lee said. “And who order a lot of delivery too.”
Removing #EBikes on #UES is #VisionZero when operators disregard laws. Riding 20MPH on sidewalks & the wrong way on streets is dangerous! pic.twitter.com/WQJmJ1OeGp
— NYPD 19th Precinct (@NYPD19Pct) January 12, 2017
The civil fine for retrieving an e-bike confiscated by the NYPD is $500.
“For us delivery guys, we don’t make that much money,” Chen Qixiong, a 56-year-old delivery worker who works in Midtown East, said in Mandarin. “To fine us $500, that’s a whole week’s worth of money gone.”
Zhang Yucai, another 50-year-old delivery cyclist who works in Midtown, estimated that he has paid $4,000 in various fines over the course of a year, without the help of his boss. “I pay by myself,” he said in Mandarin.
“Customers often complain if orders don’t get to them in time,” Zhang explained. “At least with e-bikes you can save a bit of energy. Saving energy is important because a day could go as long as eleven hours. If you use a regular bike there’s just simply no way.”
To justify the increased enforcement, the mayor portrayed e-bike riders as a menace to public safety. “You shouldn’t feel unsafe crossing streets in your own neighborhood,” de Blasio said. “We have to go after anyone who creates a threat to neighborhood residents.”
Yet there is no hard evidence to suggest that e-bikes are more of a “threat” than traditional bicycles. The mayor has not cited any numbers to support his assertions. An NYPD spokesperson did not say whether the department keeps track of crashes that involve e-bikes.
At a transportation committee meeting for Manhattan’s Community Board 7 in January, NYPD Sergeant Felicia Montgomery said that last year, 86 pedestrians were hit by vehicles in the 20th Precinct, which stretches from West 59th Street up to West 86th. Just five of those crashes involved bikes. And of 58 crashes just involving bicycles, only one involved an e-bike.
Captain Leedroige Manuel, of the neighboring 24th Precinct, added, “We’re not seeing a lot of collisions with e-bikes.”
The officers’ testimony, and their assurances that they would do their best to stop law-breaking cyclists, did not placate several members of the audience, who said they were fed up with delivery cyclists riding on sidewalks and speeding down bike lanes.
“They’re going really fast, much faster than a biker. They’re silent so you can’t hear them coming,” Dawn Moore, an attorney who has lived on the Upper West Side for more than a decade, said of e-bike delivery cyclists.
“Yeah, and plus they don’t speak English,” added Judy Goldberg, a longtime Upper West Side resident.
Goldberg insisted she was a “pro-immigrant person” and an avid cyclist. “I have friends who wanna get e-bikes because they’re getting old and they need e-bikes and I think that’s great,” she said. “However, delivery men don’t pay any attention to rules anywhere.”Earlier this month, the de Blasio administration said they would begin “clarifying” the gray area that currently allows pedal-assisted e-bikes to be used on city streets, but did not change their position on the throttle-assisted models.
As WNYC’s Stephen Nessen reports this morning, as of April 1st, the NYPD has this year issued 459 moving violations to e-bike riders, and seized 320 of the bikes; only 48 restaurants have been cited for employing delivery cyclists with e-bikes.
“The City is constantly trying to strike the right balance when it comes to enforcement on e-bikes,” a spokesperson for the mayor told Nessen.
Asked if Grubhub would seek a change in the e-bike law, Lewis, the Grubhub spokesperson, replied, “We’re keeping a close eye on regulation changes in NYC.”
He added, “Every delivery partner contracted with Grubhub or Seamless signs a contract requiring they shall abide by all local laws and regulations. Additionally, our restaurant partners—many of whom have their own delivery personnel—are also contractually obligated to comply with all local laws and regulations.”
Yang Hai is a 52-year-old delivery cyclist on the Upper East Side, and one of three workers who allowed us to shadow him during his shift. “The bikes are a tool for us to make our deliveries, to serve the people, to serve everyone in the community,” he said in Mandarin.
Yang has worked for two or three restaurants in Manhattan, and the police have confiscated his bike twice. “I didn’t have a single day off for seven months,” he said of one of his previous jobs.
“Are e-bikes faster than cars? Isn’t the threat of a car much more dangerous than that of a bicycle?” he wondered. “So why is there a difference in the law, between an e-bike and an automobile? Is this because the delivery workers at the lowest level can’t express themselves with their own voices?”
All photos by Scott Heins. Maps by Sanders DeNardi and Lylla Younes.
Co-published with gothamist.