People, Mobility, Place & Social Justice

Impossible Compliance & Vision Zero

mr liu

Mr. Liu at a Biking Public Project focus group of Chinese food delivery cyclists. Photo: Argenis Apolinario (

“We feel as if the police are picking on us,” said Mr. Liu, the President of the Chinese Delivery Workers Union. Mr. Liu was telling Xiaodeng, Dustin, and I about the challenges encountered by many Chinese and other delivery cyclists who use electric bikes in NYC.

A NYC ordinance prohibits electric bikes (or motorized scooters) as seen below in an excerpt from NYC Administrative Code 19-176.2:

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However, upon closely reading this code, this definition of illegal “motorized scooters” does not appear to include pedal-assist electric bikes because these kind of e-bikes require the human power of pedaling.  There are essentially two types of electric bikes: 1) throttle e-bikes that has a throttle function like motorcycles or scooters and do not require pedaling; and 2) pedal-assist e-bikes that require the riders to pedal in order for the motor to give the riders a boost. But the 2004 law has many New Yorkers believing that all electric bikes are illegal.  Thus many New Yorkers and police officers perceive that many delivery workers are also breaking the law even when they use pedal-assist e-bikes. In fact, the NYPD appears to have a far different interpretation of the law as seen in this NY Daily News article:

“Technically [electric bikes] can’t be registered and they can’t be considered bicycles because they are not solely powered by human power (emphasis mine),” said a high-ranking NYPD source. “It’s a problem that we get a lot of complaints about. We try to confiscate them as soon as we see them.”

In essence, in the implementation of the law, the NYPD has willfully changed “without human power” to “not solely powered by human power.”  This is a subtle but meaningful difference to the many delivery workers who use pedal-assist e-bikes. At our meeting with Mr. Liu, he spoke of the frustration of the Chinese workers who get their bikes confiscated and fined $500 during the NYPD crackdowns. The fine withstanding, losing an e-bike for anyone let alone a low-wage worker is an enormous financial penalty as many pedal-assist motors cost about $1000-$2000.

Furthermore, Vicky Gan in Citylab writes that the police often have trouble differentiating between fully motorized and pedal-assist electric bikes.  Gan also highlights the double standards of e-bikes, which are legal in many states and popular in many countries, and suggests that this e-bike law is based upon a racialized logic of targeting the many low-wage Chinese and Latino workers in NYC who use e-bikes.

This e-bike law and enforcement along with the surveillance of food delivery cyclists reflects the problematic dynamics of impossible compliance and policing.  I’m borrowing “impossible compliance” from Michelle Billies who writes about the “impossibility of compliance with police authority for those already made criminal by race, disability, class, gender, and sexuality.”

Extending Billies’ idea, we can unpack the multitude and intersection of ways in which immigrant food delivery cyclists are deemed to be impossibly compliant by the police and many New Yorkers:

  1. Foreignness and immigration status: Since many of the immigrant food delivery workers are undocumented, these workers literally embody illegality in the eyes of the NYPD and many New Yorkers. Thus their mobility in the street even when harmless is viewed as threatening  social order even as they serve food to the privileged. Thus, any behavior by undocumented workers that deviates from established social norms is blown out of proportion as a public safety hazard.
  2. Bicycling: Because streets have been largely designed for and has been dominated by cars, bicyclists are often considered to be intruders who do not belong in the street who do not deserve safety because of their noncompliance with car culture. In addition, riding on the sidewalk in NYC is no escape as it is considered to be pedestrian space. Counting bike lanes, bicyclists have few spaces in which they are treated as compliant with the law.
  3. E-bikes: E-bikes are not yet common in the United States and because they are primarily ridden in NYC by the food delivery workers, therefore many New Yorkers perceive e-bikes as  dangerous and criminal. E-bikes also might carry some of the baggage of fear of motor vehicular violence without the privileges or class status of cars.
  4. Breaking traffic laws: Many New Yorkers often depict food delivery workers as “bad” cyclists who are in a rush while going the wrong way on the street, running red lights, and riding on sidewalks. New Yorkers will often however admit that the cyclists are in a rush to deliver their food. But focusing primarily only on the illegal behavior is to ascribe only personal irresponsibility upon undocumented workers, which is an all too easy American pastime. This conveniently ignores how food delivery cycling behavior is framed and facilitated by the workers’ context and environment. Yes, they are pressured by customers and restaurants to deliver as fast as possible. In addition, the precariousness of tip-based livelihoods incentivizes speed. Finally, they are trying to achieve speed in a streetscape and traffic rules designed for car privilege.  The bike infrastructure in addition is designed foremost to facilitate white-collar bike commuters, not working cyclists who go to every destination in every which way. Simply put, the street infrastructure and rules are a complete mismatch for food delivery cycling needs. As such, the intersection of customer/restaurant demand for speed, low-wage tip-based livelihoods, and car-based streets is setting up food delivery cyclists to break traffic laws.
  5. Language: Many immigrant delivery cyclists speak little English. By not speaking English fluently, they cannot contest injustice readily and they are seen as failing to assimilate with English as the language of compliance.
  6. Low-wage, Asian or Latino, and male:  Delivery workers being mostly of yellow and brown skin do not have the protections and privileges of white skin. While Asian Americans often have greater privileges than other minorities, this does not apply to low-income Asians. When combined with the food delivery workers being almost completely male, there is an widespread fear of predatory immigrants. On this national stage, Trump’s defamation of Mexican immigrants as sexual predators is one such example, and in NYC, there are descriptions of marauding immigrant food delivery cyclists such as this one in the NY Post:

[su_quote]Szechuan Psychos. Working for tips and of questionable immigration status, they serve in the mechanized infantry of General Tso’s army. Rusted rides and dumpling physiques generally prevent these wonton warriors from building up much speed – but they prowl residential neighborhoods at night. You’ll never see the one that gets you. Nor will you be able to sue him for all he’s worth, unless you don’t mind being paid in moo shu pork.[/su_quote]

If this horrendously racist and xenophobic screed can be published in a popular newspaper (even if a reactionary and conservative one), then we might imagine what is being said behind closed doors and in public complaints to elected officials and the NYPD about immigrant working cyclists.

In sum, immigrant food delivery cyclists are in impossible compliance in the view of the police and many New Yorkers.  In our conversation with Mr. Liu of the Chinese Delivery Workers Union, he expressed frustration in that “we just don’t understand the rules because we seem to be unfairly policed.”  What I think he is getting at is that it’s not simple ignorance of the traffic rules, which is an easy stereotype of immigrants, but that the police use a shifting ground of law enforcement in which the undocumented delivery workers can never be in compliance and thus always subject to policing at any given moment no matter what they are doing in our current system.

So what does this long preamble have to do with Vision Zero? Well as Adonia Lugo noted in her critical post about Vision Zero, she has deep concerns about Vision Zero because of its emphasis on policing of traffic rules and the very real risk of racial profiling.  As a scholar of mobility and justice, I generally agree with the goals of Vision Zero, which is primarily centered on ending the prevalence of motor vehicular violence in our streets, which is incredibly important.  But how we get to Vision Zero matters. Without a consideration of equity in how we implement Vision Zero, we risk simply treating street justice and safety as a zero sum game in which the privileged enjoy the benefits of safe streets while marginalized bodies pay the cost because they are deemed impossibly compliant.

We set up all sorts of systems of impossible compliance in our everyday systems of movement.  This NY Times article caught my attention last week about policing of people who ask for subways swipes.  This is an example of impossible compliance when you dig into it.  We have steadily defunded public transit so that fares including that of the NYC subway keep rising so that the poor often cannot afford it any longer. Thus many are left with an impossible choice in which they can try to jump the turnstile and be possibly arrested for fare evasion, or be arrested (now issued a criminal court summons) for asking for help in the form of a free swipe from another traveler.  This is impossible compliance – we set up conditions by which marginalized bodies cannot possibly comply or be perceived as complying with the law. Thus the proof of criminality of marginalized bodies is manufactured by the arrests, summonses and fines accrued within impossible conditions.  This is the risk that Adonia and many equity advocates are urging us to think about and act upon as we implement Vision Zero.

To ignore equity is to ignore how transportation has been used to punish and destroy marginalized bodies.  Only through a holistic, equitable focus on processes and outcomes can Vision Zero live up to its name without furthering inequalities and constructing segregated forms of street safety.

1 Comment

  1. Walter

    I found this useful <3

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