February 28, 2024

A proposed agency to regulate new forms of ebikes and mopeds commonly used by delivery drivers could lead to increased surveillance and harassment of couriers, according to labor and transit advocates.

Last week, Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, announced plans for a first-in-the-nation department of sustainable delivery that would aim to regulate the tens of thousands of ebikes, mopeds, cargo bikes and other two- and three-wheeled vehicles that deliver food and parcels across the city.

These forms of micromobility play an important role in addressing the climate crisis, as they release fewer emissions than their car counterparts. But the wide adoption of these vehicles by the e-commerce delivery industry has brought safety concerns: between 2020 and 2022, an estimated 33 delivery workers died on the job in New York, making it one of the deadliest jobs in the city. Ebikes, popular with couriers, carry their own risks: in 2023, about 17 people died from fires caused by illegal or faulty lithium-ion batteries.

“We deeply care about street safety because it is us who are dying and getting injured,” said Gustavo Ajche, 40, a delivery worker and activist. “But more regulations on delivery workers will lead to more policing and criminalization of essential workers.”

Ajche, founder of Los Deliveristas Unidos, which advocates for higher wages and protections for the largely immigrant workforce, said he worried the proposed department would target the wrong actors: “Deliveristas are not the problem,” he said. “Regulation is needed on the corporations that continue to penalize workers for respecting the traffic signals.”

Delivery workers say app algorithms create incentives to deliver faster without regard for traffic rules.

Some 65,000 couriers deliver goods for apps like DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats. Around 56% of them rely on ebikes and other non-car modes of transportation.

“New Yorkers welcome the future of transit and new electronic technologies – but we cannot have mopeds speeding down our sidewalks and forcing people to jump out of the way,” Adams said during his State of the City address last week. Ebikes, mopeds and e-scooters have been involved in about 2% of pedestrian fatalities in the city since 2021, according to department of transportation figures, with 98% of fatalities involved motor vehicles.

“If the city wants to regulate and create more safety, the focus should be about creating more infrastructure for delivery workers,” said Antonio Martinez Solis, 37, a delivery worker and member of Los Deliveristas Unidos. Delivery workers have demanded rest and charging stops along with safer biking infrastructure.

The mayor’s office is currently in talks with the city council about the proposed department, Meera Joshi, the deputy mayor of operations, said.

“It’s an industry where workers are really incentivized to move quickly and that’s often in direct conflict with road safety and is in direct conflict with their wellbeing,” said Joshi. “We’re keenly conscious that this has to be done at a corporate level and the full burden of safety cannot fall on workers.”

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A spokesperson for DoorDash said the company is “committed to helping ensure that streets remain safe, vibrant and active in New York City” and that all delivery workers are required to follow local vehicle regulations. A representative from Grubhub said that “delivery partners have agreed to comply with all state and local laws while performing delivery services with Grubhub, but if they feel they cannot safely complete a delivery, they can always decline an offer without penalty.” Uber Eats did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Danny Harris, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said in a best-case scenario, the city agency could help enforce standards for equipment and batteries and provide training and worker protections. “We have to ensure protections for the most vulnerable,” he said. “Whether you’re walking with a stroller or you have a cane or a walker or on a wheelchair.”

Like Ajche, he put the onus on delivery apps to improve safety: “You shouldn’t have apps that promise to deliver in 15 minutes, that’s just reckless and it puts everybody in danger.”

Jessie Singer, journalist and author of the book There Are No Accidents, echoed Ajche’s concerns about the department leading to over-policing. “It remains to be seen if the proposed department of sustainable delivery will be another tool to police and harass delivery workers,” she said. “Or be what New York City really needs – an aggressive regulator for delivery app companies that profit off putting delivery workers at risk and making chaos on our streets.”

Adams’ announcement comes just months after a win for the city’s delivery workers over minimum wage. Last September, the Manhattan supreme court ruled that Uber, Grubhub and DoorDash have to pay delivery workers at least $17.96 an hour.

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