“I’m just too tired,” a Chinese deliveryman told Xiaodeng.
Xiaodeng and I were in Chinatown recently trying to recruit Chinese food delivery cyclists to participate in an upcoming focus group about their opinions on street and bike safety. Xiaodeng went to talk to this Chinese deliveryman as he glided up to his restaurant on an e-bike. Since I don’t speak Chinese Mandarin, I relied on Xiaodeng to tell me what happened after a ten minute conversation, an eternity for a delivery cyclist during the dinner rush.
Afterward, Xiaodeng told me that the delivery guy was interested and had a lot to share, but that he was simply to exhausted from his delivery work to take any time to participate in our focus group. However, at the moment we stopped him to talk, the deliveryman had a lot to say to Xiaodeng about street safety. He told us about the prevalence of street danger for him, both from cars and from other people. The deliveryman had been robbed and assaulted multiple times on deliveries, customers occasionally gave him counterfeit money, and the police once confiscated his e-bike and gave him a $500 ticket for it. He thought the focus group that we’re trying to do is important, but that he is just too tired from work to participate. He recommended we try to find younger deliverymen with more energy. He looked about 50 years old to me, but Xiaodeng thought he looked more like 60 years old. Mostly, we caught a glimpse of pain.
This deliveryman’s stories are not usual for NYC’s many delivery cyclists who are often Chinese and Latino immigrants. I get the exhaustion he talks about; we have heard from deliverymen who work 10-12 hour days with a day off once a week or less. I wonder if these food delivery cyclists are being chewed up in a sort of embodied parasitic consumption. As we the privileged customers consume our delicious, hot delivered food, the bodies and lives of the deliverymen are being consumed in the delivery process itself. Specifically, delivery bodies are consumed by the harm of car violence, robberies and assaults (and even murder), and exhaustion and breakdown of the body from the long hours of repetitive pedaling on delivery after delivery. This doesn’t even account for the wage exploitation that happens and the problematic dynamics of tip-based livelihoods.
This story of the Chinese deliveryman interested but too damn tired to participate in a focus group for food delivery cyclists highlights a difficult tension and contradiction of public participation and engagement. Namely, as many have already spoken about, our system of public participation and civic engagement advantages the already privileged with additional resources and easier access. Similarly, food delivery may exacerbate the inequality of public participation. When we order delivered food, we outsource to restaurant workers the time and work involved to prepare and get the food to our plates. The reason we do this is often out of convenience and to save us time and effort. By gaining time and energy, our more privileged bodies become more able to voluntarily engage in public meetings about street safety and bike infrastructure (or many other political and public issues) at the price of the bodies that deliver the food to us. Because immigrant food delivery cyclists (or other low wage workers) are often not provided with decent living wages and humane working conditions, these delivery cyclists are less able to engage in formal mechanisms of how we shape our city.
On the flip side, what happens when NYC engages immigrant food delivery cyclists at a public meeting?
Last week, I went to a Delivery Cyclists Forum for Business Owners sponsored by NYC Council Member Ben Kallos who represents the Upper East Side. From the event title, I expected it to be populated with restaurant owners, so I was surprised when I showed up and there were dozens of Latino and Chinese delivery cyclists and maybe just a handful of business owners. When I expressed my surprise to the DOT (Department of Transportation) officials at meeting, they told me that they wanted and recruited the delivery cyclists there so that they can educate the delivery cyclists about NYC’s commercial cycling laws.
The meeting mostly involved Council Member Kallos and the DOT officials lecturing (with powerpoint no less!) the delivery cyclists in English, Spanish and Chinese Mandarin in the commercial cycling rules (e.g. wearing a reflective vest with a unique identifier, helmet, etc.). The officials communicated in a one-way street with no efforts to elicit the opinions or ideas of the delivery cyclists. The most common refrain from the officials in the meeting was that “these rules are for your safety.” Now, I get really suspicious when someone says that they’re doing something for my own good or for my safety without my consent or input. Basically, this is what happened; the officials told the delivery cyclists what would make them safe without hearing their opinions on street safety. Why wouldn’t food delivery cyclists who spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day navigating hostile and unsafe streets in all sorts of weather conditions have something important and useful to say about street safety? I will explore this topic in more detail in a future post, but I think that this inequality of voice results in a distortion of public safety that disguises racial discrimination.
But the stunning moment of the meeting occurred in the opening remarks by Council Member Kallos. He began with a few comments welcoming everyone and thanking the delivery cyclists for all the delicious food that he and his constituents enjoy. This made me wonder about how these marginalized workers are only somewhat humanized publicly by the ways in which they provide service to the privileged. But before I talk further about Kallos’ comments, I need to explain a NYC commercial cycling law to give context to his remarks. NYC delivery cyclists are required to wear a reflective vest with a unique identifier. Other cyclists are not required to wear reflective vests so if you see a cyclist with a reflective vest in NYC, odds are that this cyclist is a delivery cyclist. The unique identifier has the restaurant name and a specific 3-digit ID for the specific delivery cyclist. This way, if a random citizen sees the delivery cyclist doing something the citizen doesn’t like, they can call 311 and make a specific complaint against this cyclist and restaurant. Afterwards, depending on the complaint, the NYC DOT may send a Commercial Bicycle Unit official to the restaurant to fine the restaurant for an infraction. To me, this is an extremely discomforting method of mobilizing citizenry to participate in the surveillance and policing of mostly low wage Chinese and Latino workers. Also, it’s not as if we haven’t seen examples how citizen surveillance is often used as disturbing forms of racial profiling.
Okay, back to the meeting. I was flabbergasted when Kallos said, “It’s also important for deliverymen to wear their reflective vests with IDs because soon buildings will not let them in without vests on.” I am paraphrasing his quote a little bit because I wasn’t audiorecording so I don’t have the exact words, but the intent was clear and I had not heard anything like this before in past or proposed legislation. Basically Kallos was intimating that doormen would be mobilized to enforce commercial cycling laws! As Kallos’ words were translated, I could hear a low rumble of confusion and discontent by the delivery cyclists.
At the meeting conclusion, I went up to the DOT officials (Kallos left immediately after his opening remarks) and asked about Kallos’ comment regarding buildings barring delivery cyclists without their vests. All three of DOT officials there said that this was the first they had heard of this idea and that they were unaware of any current or future legislation to this end. They suggested that it’s possible that Kallos said this comment specifically for this audience only. Afterward, I asked bike activists I knew and no one has heard anything like this in NYC. Nothing like this is in the currently proposed bill, Int 1117, that will amend the law regarding commercial cycling in NYC. This leaves me with three very discomforting possibilities:
1) Kallos is planning to introduce a new law that will be highly punitive for immigrant delivery workers while using doormen to enforce the reflective vest rule.
2) Perhaps no formal legislation will happen, but doormen will be informally required/incentivized by their buildings and block associations to not let in delivery workers without vests.
- Both the first and second possibilities would result in the expansion of the job responsibilities of doormen to include a symbolic sort of border control against immigrant delivery cyclists.
3) Kallos said a blatant falsehood to scare the crap out of the workers to wear the identifying vests.
Thinking about these possibilities makes my heart ache and head hurt. As I watched the DOT hand out reflective vests to the delivery cyclists after the meeting, I wonder why so many New Yorkers view the immigrant delivery cyclists as such a threat to warrant all this surveillance and enforcement. Many cyclists view reflective vests as a way to improve visibility and personal safety. But I cannot help but think that the identifying reflective vests are being forced upon the delivery cyclists less out of public concern for their safety and rather as a public policy driven by xenophobic fears of the “dangerous” immigrants.
This all makes me wonder if the tiredness of the Chinese deliveryman we spoke with is not just physical. But perhaps he is also exhausted from carrying the emotional anchor of pain in a system designed to keep him unheard. How revolutionary could it be if we transformed our systems and processes so that we could hear him and others like him?