How Delivery Apps Exploit Bike Messengers
Video killed the radio star. Fax machine killed the bike messenger. Then Internet killed the fax machine and smartphones brought the messengers back. We still work on bikes, and we still do delivery, but it’s more general these days. Less paper, more sandwich. The need for delivery didn’t go away, it’s just that the market changed.
Messenger work used to be – and for some cyclists still is – business to business legal document delivery. As the need for that service diminished, messenger companies and coops had to find other goods to deliver and other customers to serve. Instead of serving businesses, they now serve individuals. And instead of information, they now deliver food. Or electronics. Or flowers. Or lawn furniture. Or any other product they can strap to a rack or stuff in a pack. But really, even more than demand, it’s apps that have brought couriers back, and there are more bikes on the streets now than there ever were in the days of Kevin Bacon.
A critique of delivery apps is that they’ll hire anyone, and Offie Clark is certainly an anyone. He’s been working as an app courier for about 2 years now, and done more than a thousand deliveries each for both Caviar and Postmates, and all of it on a fixed gear bike. I first met Offie at the one and only happy hour I had gone to when I was an app courier for Postmates, and we had kept in touch in the way most couriers do: nod and wave when you pass in the street, conversations shouted over cars when you happen to be going the same way on deliveries.
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I’d been doing a lot of thinking lately on the difference between bike courier employees and 1099 contractors and reaching out to people on both sides. Offie was the first to get back to me, not least of which was probably because he’d recently gotten shortchanged by Caviar. Here’s the story cut short: a delivery was running long, and the weather wasn’t good. Since Caviar runs drivers as well as cyclists, he requested the job get reassigned to a driver. The customer was fine with it, but dispatch wasn’t, and they dropped him from the platform that night for ‘abandoning a job’.
“There’s no oversight with these services,” he said. “Some guy at the same level as I am suspends me for one flubbed job. That’s not how it works anyplace else. Someplace else, your manager calls you in, you have a conversation, they explain it’s not OK to abandon a job, put your balls on someone’s face during work hours, or whatever, and then you work it out or they fire you. But here there’s no oversight. One dispatch member doesn’t like my work and I get suspended.”
He did eventually convince Caviar to let him back on the platform, but it took ten days. While he could go and work for Postmates during that time instead, that service had restructured their app so that cyclists were now riding blind, with no idea of a delivery address until the item is paid for. As a courier myself I could understand the reluctance to pick up a job without knowing where it’s going to send you.
The story struck me with two points. The first was how ready the system was to dispose of a courier with a good work record without any sort of due process. The second was how ready couriers have to be to abandon ship. Delivery apps like Caviar, Postmates, Munchery, Doordash, et al expect their cyclists to represent the brand, but how loyal can a courier be when there’s no guaranteed minimum wage, no form of compensation in the event of on-the-job injury, and cyclists can be suspended for a single bad performance?
It goes without saying that couriers are physically agile, but the way the work is structured they have to be financially agile and highly numerate as well, submitting every action to spur of the moment cost-benefit analysis.
“You have to defend your time,” Offie said. “All that time you got to poke and prod them for, that five minutes for this, five minutes for that, standing in line, waiting on the customer, thinking: What’s the next job? How many miles am I going? How much is this paying? How many calories did I have for breakfast?”
“Now this is hypothetical,” he continued, “something out of Offie’s wild ramblings, but if I were to make a delivery app it would all be human-based and there’d be more human support. ”
I asked what he meant by ‘human support.’ He described his general vision:
If you were a customer and you called, you’d talk to a human. All delivery would be human-powered, (bicycles mainly). A human, and not an algorithm, would get in touch with an route the individual courier. And if the weather turned bad, there would be a place for cyclists to get warm. In short, what he described was a company. A company that took care of its employees and didn’t just treat them like a paper sack.
There was additionally, a crucial point. As couriers, we’re always thinking of efficiency. My biggest gripe on the job is coffee delivery, his is burritos. In Offie’s hypothetical rambling, on the customer end if you typed in ‘Chipotle burrito’ it would show you the address you wanted, but also a more local suggestion. In this way the customer can support a small business, experience something new, get their order faster, and couriers can stack more jobs per hour. Everyone wins, and it brought up a point that I hadn’t thought about: that delivery apps, sprawling as they can be, can also benefit small businesses, especially the mom & pops that wouldn’t otherwise have means to deliver.
Or, as Offie put it,
“Does Chipotle really need more call in orders?”