The city of New York runs on delivery food. It’s one of the town’s great levelers, this dependence on cold sesame noodles or hot pepperoni pizza, summoned to the doorstep with a simple phone call. New Yorkers of all income levels – financial analysts and nurses, architects and postal workers – depend on the ability to dial up dinner after a hard day at work. In many of the city’s homes, the pile of grease-stained takeout menus is a more important kitchen appliance than the oven.
New Yorkers also love to complain about the guys (they are pretty much all guys) who deliver that food, usually by bicycle. Gripes about the wild-riding delivery cyclist — the one who pedals on the sidewalk, or goes the wrong way on a one-way street, increasingly on an illegal and stealthily speedy electric bike — are almost as universal as those takeout menus.
And so it’s no surprise that the City Council last week approved yet another round of measures designed to improve the behavior of these rogue riders, or "psycho-lists," as the Daily News likes to call them. The businesses that employ them, which already have to furnish the riders with helmets, will now have to pay to send them to safety education classes. The delivery guys will also have to wear reflective vests with the name and number of the business that employs them, to facilitate complaints from the public.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with safety training for people who ride bikes for their jobs. Three years ago, a man named Stuart Gruskin was killed in Manhattan by a wrong-way delivery cyclist, and his widow, Nancy, has been a major force behind the new regulations. Who can blame her for wanting some kind of meaning to come out of her husband’s death?
But the reason the delivery guys ride the way they do isn’t that they have a death wish, or that they want to end up killing someone else. And we all know it, every one of us who has ever eaten dinner from a cardboard container with a picture of a pagoda on it and the words, "Thank You." The reason delivery guys ride the way they do is the simple economics of a job that is based on tips. Because all of the restaurants that deliver love to tout their "free delivery" service, and we all love to believe that there is such a thing as "free delivery."
As much as people in New York love to complain about the bad behavior of delivery cyclists, they also are plenty happy to complain about their General Tso’s chicken being cold when it shows up, or a more than 10-minute wait for a burrito grande from the local Mexican place. And what do people do when they are mad about slow delivery? They stiff the cyclist, giving him a pathetic tip or no tip at all.
Even when delivery people show up on time with piping hot food, many New Yorkers think a dollar or two is more than enough to compensate them for the trouble of riding through life-threatening traffic in all kinds of hideous weather, even if the order is for $50 worth of food. It’s unthinkable for most people who order in to pony up the 15 or 20 percent that a waiter gets in a restaurant, or even a relatively modest 10 percent.
After all, it’s so easy not to think about the service provided by the person delivering food to your door when you get to close that door in his face after a 30-second transaction.
But those gratuities are what these workers rely on to get by. A revealing article in the New York Times last spring followed one worker for a Chinese restaurant on the well-to-do Upper East Side who counted himself lucky to make $500 in a six-day week of 10-hour days. His base pay is $30 a day, and he has to split tips with the guy who dispatches the deliveries.
We all know this on some level, the same way we know how hard and stressful the job of riding around in the rain delivering food to people in their cozy apartments must be. But we don’t want to think about it.
For the hundreds of delivery cyclists around the city, getting the food there as quickly as possible is the only way to even begin to make a living. That’s why they are willing to run the risk of getting tickets, or getting killed, by riding illegally. That’s why they invest hundreds of dollars in the electric bikes that are banned, but that everyone in town seems to tacitly accept.
We want restaurant owners and delivery riders to pay the price for safe behavior on the streets of New York. But we should really be asking why we aren’t willing to help pay that price ourselves. We say we are worried about getting killed by delivery cyclists. But would it kill us to recognize that there’s no such thing as "free delivery," and start paying accordingly?