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New York City’s bicycle delivery men

Posted by on October 28th, 2012 at 10:20 pm

NYC Delivery man
Hard-working, ubiquitous, and usually in complete disregard for traffic laws, the bike delivery men help make New York City tick.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

New Yorkers would starve if it wasn’t for bicycles. Let me explain…

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From Park Slope in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the streets are teeming with bicycle delivery guys. When New Yorkers need a bite to eat, or something from the pharmacy, or whatever, and they don’t feel like getting it themselves, they call the store or restaurant and have it delivered. The store then bags up the order, hands it to their delivery guy, and he gets on a bike and sets off.

Before I came here, I didn’t know these guys existed. I thought the only professionals making deliveries on bicycles in New York City were the stereotypical, daredevil messengers on fixed gears (just like I’d seen in the movies and in all those ads!). But I haven’t seen many of those at all. What I have seen are two distinct groups of delivery riders. Most of them appear to be of Asian or Latino descent and they’re almost always on one of two types of bikes: pedal-assisted e-bikes or mountain bikes with large baskets.

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I’ve tried to chat with a few of them; but each time I tried, they didn’t speak English.


The other noticeable thing about them is how they ride. In a nutshell, they do whatever the heck they want. They go the wrong way in bike lanes, red lights mean nothing to them, and they don’t have much regard for traffic law in general. But unlike the trendy fixie/messenger culture, these delivery men (95% of which are delivering food it seems) don’t break laws to seem cool or to upload a YouTube video of themselves swerving through heavy traffic; they are just doing their jobs.

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Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-1
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NYC Delivery men
Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-4

Even with their lack of egos, however, these delivery men are still reviled by some New Yorkers. They’re also, according to Doug Gordon who runs the Brooklyn Spoke blog, a common punching bag for the tabloids. Doug says the media “dehumanizes” the riders and because they are ethnic minorities who don’t have a voice in local politics or in advocacy circles, he calls them the “invisible cyclists”. Doug acknowledges the safety issues (both to the riders themselves and people sharing the streets with them) are significant; but dealing with the problem is tricky.

The Bloomberg administration has heard the concerns and has begun tightening regulations.

Doug’s friend, Park Slope neighborhood activist Eric McClure, feels they get a bad rap. “If you read the press, the worst problem on the Upper East Side are the delivery guys… Which tells you how few problems they really have.”

While riding through the Borough Park neighborhood, I met a different type of bike delivery crew. In one of the largest Hasidic neighborhoods outside of Jerusalem, I saw several guys on fixed gears hanging out in front of a grocery store. Scrawled on the wall next to them was, “Mexican Fixed.”

Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-3
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I got to know a few of the guys and found out that they’ve got a thriving business serving the Hasidic community (one of the largest outside Jerusalem). Ralph Mag (I think that’s a nickname, but I didn’t ask) is sort of the manager. He said his crew stays busy delivering groceries and doing all types of odd jobs. “If they need a light bulb switched, plumbing… they call us, and we bike over and get it done,” he said.

Ralph said there can be as many as 16 riders on hand during the summer, and their fleet has everything from cruisers to race-ready, carbon-wheeled road bikes, tadpole cargo bikes, and more. I even came across one guy pulling several large boxes on a hand-truck behind a small BMX bike.

Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-8
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Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-14

Mexican Fixed seems to have a bright business future. The neighborhood is extremely dense and car parking is at a premium. Not only that, but “A bike is the best way to get around,” said Ralph, “and Jewish people don’t bike.”

Mexican Fixed delivery guys in NYC-7

— This post is part of my ongoing New York City coverage. I’m here for a week to cover the NACTO Designing Cities conference and the city’s bike culture in general. This special reporting trip was made possible by Planet Bike, Lancaster Engineering, and by readers like you. Thank you! You can find all my New York City coverage here.

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Comments
  • Rick October 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    My impression is that people in the US generally don’t realize the impact e-bikes are going to have. Gonna be huge!

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  • pixelgate October 28, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Damn this is truly amazing stuff. NYC seems poised to be the US bike capitol. I love that you see plenty of folks of other races on bikes there too. I so rarely see that here in Portland.

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  • 9watts October 28, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    “and Jewish people don’t bike.”

    Curious. This reminds me of the explanation in a report discussed here recently* of why black folks in Portland are (apparently) loath to bike: ‘bikes came into our neighborhoods with drug dealers in the ’90s’

    How much more easily bikes are (apparently) seen as tainted by certain groups, but not cars. Or?

    * http://bikeportland.org/2012/08/01/community-cycling-center-set-to-build-bike-repair-hub-at-new-columbia-75326

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    • B October 29, 2012 at 10:46 am

      It’s more likely related to cultural proscriptions for those in the Orthodox Jewish community:

      http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/the-bike-project-why-do-haredim-put-the-brakes-on-pedaling-1.466754

      I don’t think the attitude described is one where bicycles are ‘tainted’ and cars aren’t – but there are differences in the public presentation of a person riding a bicycle and one hidden inside a vehicle. Which, for religious or cultural groups with very strict rules on public presentation and presentation in the presence of people not-of-one’s-own-gender (e.g. Ulra-Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, etc.) can present a barrier to acceptance.

      Also, the interviewee mistakenly generalized from the fact that Orthodox Jews refrain from riding bicycles that all Jewish people refrain, which is an unfortunate but common fallacy.

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      • 9watts October 29, 2012 at 11:08 am

        Thanks, B. Very helpful elaboration.

        Though the article did not explain how these proscriptions worked before (or will conceivably after) cars. Perhaps walking is just preferred.

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      • Jeremy Cohen October 29, 2012 at 3:56 pm

        I think there is another layer. In the context of Jonathan’s article the owner mentions other tasks his crew is called on to do (change a lightbulb!) which sounds ridiculous UNLESS this service is used by the Orthodox to complete tasks they are not allowed to on Shabbat (the sabbath). My Brooklyn cousin is Modern Orthodox and she has someone come over to do things she “can’t” do on the sabbath–since they can’t accept or give money they just wait until Sunday to complete the financial end of the deal. Maybe the same thing here. I have been told that riding a bike is prohibited on the sabbath because, while riding the bike is not “work” and thus prohibited, in the event you flatted or otherwise broke down, you would be compelled to fix the bike–and that would count as work. So maybe he meant “Jewish people don’t bike (on the sabbath)”???

        Either way, I’m Jewish and I bike.

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        • turkey November 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm

          I am a mechanic at a bike shop in brooklyn. On several occasions jewish costumers have rented bikes on friday afternoon and made a point to return them before sundown, saying they “can’t ride on the sabbath.”

          Great post. Delivery men are certainly underrepresented, and though their unlawful behavior is often dangerous and annoying, it is because their job requires them to do so. I used to deliver pizzas on the Lower East Side, so I know that stopping for red lights and sticking to one ways is necessary if you want to stay afloat. Minimum wage is $4.65/hr (it could be lower for undocumented workers) and a cold, slow pizza makes no tips.

          As for the “Mexican Fixed” segment, I’ve rode with the gentleman on the Specialized w/ White Deep-V’s. He is the nicest guy and one of the fastest riders in the city.

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          • turkey November 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

            * I meant to say that running red lights and “salmoning” is necessary if you want to stay afloat.

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  • wsbob October 29, 2012 at 12:30 am

    My cousin liveing in NYC, has to drive for work, also relates how the delivery guys are mostly indifferent to many basic rules of the road; stop signals, lights, direction of travel, etc, but apparently, they manage to survive.

    I haven’t much heard in general, the feelings of people driving in Manhattan, towards these guys. I suppose in that part of town, with the congestion it has, having to deal with a certain level of that type of riding may be inevitable and unavoidable. That Manhattan is a comparatively stressful place to live is the stuff of legend. I suppose New Yorkers have a certain resistance to that stress that residents of slower paced cities don’t have, and don’t care to have to acquire.

    The close calls guys like these on bikes contribute to with their erratic riding, stress my cousin some, and have him worried for their lives, but in balance, word is, people’s driving in Manhattan is extreme, also; standard practice is to gun it on caution lights.

    As for ethnic diversity on bikes; interesting if Portland doesn’t have much of it. The Beav has a good bit of it, which I see first hand. So too, I’ve heard, does Hillsboro.

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  • Keith October 29, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Thanks, great pictures of some real solid hauling rigs.

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  • flatbushflipper October 29, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Wow. Amazing that the author managed to overlook the many bicycles locked up in front of any one of the Yeshivas on Ocean Parkway. There’s also this video on you tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yzq5Dauc0OE&feature=plcp

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  • Scott October 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Fakengers uploading videos of themselves is less than a decade old and started with a wealthy thrill seeker named Lucas Brunelle who sought to make himself famous off of a community. That is a drop in the bucket when you consider messengering is the oldest profession.

    I do like how you still managed to take a dig at messengers via hipsters in your getting down with ethnicity’s puff piece. Kudos for not letting that go.

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  • Lance P October 29, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Small typo (i hope) “Asian or Mexican descent” should be “Asian or Latino descent “.

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  • Juan Carlos October 29, 2012 at 10:35 am

    As a Mexican myself, I understand these messengers’ disregard for traffic laws. It’s just how we Mexicans ride in this country. They’re maybe just doing their job, but I also think it’s a cultural thing.

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    • Scott October 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      I’m white and I ride like that when I am getting paid to. It has nothing to do with ethnicity. I has to do with money.

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      • Juan Carlos October 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm

        We Mexicans ride like that whether we’re paid to or not. It’s cultural, “Culture” and “ethnicity”, though related, are two completely different things.

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        • Scott October 29, 2012 at 4:40 pm

          I understood what you wrote. I tried to let it slip past, but now I can’t. Are you saying that it is cultural for Mexicans to break laws for no reason, or that culturally speaking Mexicans do not acknowledge traffic law when on a bike?

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          • Ding Ling October 29, 2012 at 7:30 pm

            Hey, don’t forget us Asians! We culturally ignore traffic laws too!

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          • Rol October 29, 2012 at 7:40 pm

            I thought you said you understood what he wrote.

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            • Scott October 30, 2012 at 9:19 am

              I do. Now I am asking for clarification of the point. See the difference?

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              • Juan Carlos October 30, 2012 at 11:39 am

                Actually, it’s both, weird as it may seem. 1) “cultural for Mexicans to break laws for no reason”; no reason other than traffic laws (I’m focusing on traffic laws only) are seldom enforced, so why abide by them? In MX it’s like this: No helmet? No problem!; Stop signs? Blow through ‘em!; Hand signals? Uh? No one knows what that is!; Traffic lights? I’m on a BIKE!; Riding on sidewalks? Check!; Riding against traffic? Sure, it’s safer!

                2) “culturally speaking Mexicans do not acknowledge traffic law when on a bike” Yes. This is the typical Mexican biker mentality: “traffic laws don’t apply to me. I’ll ride however I want to ’cause I’ve never been punished/ticketed for doing so”. What the article describes re: how they ride is something I see fellow Mexican bikers do all the time as part of their normal, everyday life, without giving it a second thought. I’m no sociologist, but I think that qualifies as cultural

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              • Rol October 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

                When you see “ride like that” you don’t need to clarify whether that means “break all laws for no reason.” You added that part. No wonder you lack clarity.

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                • Scott October 31, 2012 at 9:45 am

                  I like sociology and was trying to understand what he meant. What is your issue here @Rol?

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  • Esther October 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    NYT had a pretty good profile on these delivery people a few months back.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/nyregion/for-food-delivery-workers-speed-tips-and-fear-on-wheels.html?pagewanted=all

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  • scaryseth October 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the piece. Interesting read.

    Hope the storm does not kill off more interesting pieces while you are there.

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  • CaptainKarma October 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Everybody seems to use those case-hardened monster chains to lock up, they must work pretty well…

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  • Todd Boulanger October 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Yes the big recent change in NYC (lower Manhattan) is the use of e-bikes by a nexus of food delivery riders from what I saw on this week’s trip. All the bikes look similar in make so it may be one firm or a network.

    The issue of safe operation in traffic is a long time problem that dates from before 1990 (my memory of TA reporting on it) and back when they were most of the weekday bike traffic other than bike messengers. And the one thing that really surprised me was how few bike riders (all classes and incomes) used front headlights…even those riding against traffic.

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  • Nola Wilken October 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Um…delivery “men”? Thanks for the update, Mitt.

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    • Paul in the 'couve October 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm

      Nola

      Spent much time in NYC? I’m sure there are a few, especially among the messengers, but when it comes to the food delivery and other local business delivery business, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female rider. This is a sector that is indeed 95% or more male dominated and also nearly as dominated by immigrants and non-english speakers. This is the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

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      • Nola Wilken October 31, 2012 at 7:09 pm

        You can find the women in those binders…too bad you can’t read.

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        • Paul in the 'couve October 31, 2012 at 8:26 pm

          Sorry Nola, the axe you are grinding just doesn’t fit in this case. Take it somewhere else.

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        • Robert Burchett November 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

          I was in NYC–watched them for days–I am willing to believe that some are women, but I didn’t see one. Use of language is important but in this case ‘men’ is an accurate description. I support the right of anyone to go there and try for this job! Most of the riders use electric bikes (hardly pedaling at all) so it’s a level playing field in terms of speed and range.

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  • cw October 31, 2012 at 10:13 am

    i think it’s important to mention that generally NO ONE follows the rules of the road in NYC — 10 years of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I’ve been hit by a taxi (while walking) twice, as has almost every other NY’er I know. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common for drivers to run red lights, turn on red (illegal in NYC), and switch lanes haphazardly. Jaywalking is a national sport for NY’ers and don’t even get me started on tourists who don’t understand the “flow”. And cyclists? I think this story pretty much covers it!

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    • Paul in the 'couve October 31, 2012 at 11:03 am

      As a regular visitor to NYC, I can say that it is changing for the better, at least as far as cyclists go. When I first started riding in Manhattan it seemed like nobody obeyed any rules. It felt like a total free for all. Now at least I find myself stopping with other people at lights and there are more riders who aren’t doing crazy stuff. I still like taking 6th avenue and riding in the traffic and splitting lanes. Its faster than the cycle track on 8th… but I don’t run the lights.

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      • cw November 1, 2012 at 11:27 am

        yes — i’d agree that most bike commuters have gotten better, but the deliverypeople are still pretty much scofflaws! Bloomberg has been cracking down a bit, but generally, rules of the road are viewed as optional for every class of road-user … from drivers to pedestrians to cyclists. Just wanted to point out that the rule-flouting bike delivery people in this article are not a unique breed.

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  • deez October 31, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Hispanic guys riding taped up frames, ‘the’ fenders and seats too high and Chinese guys riding illegal electric bikes: aka The Modern Day Bike Messenger.

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  • TJ October 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    “But unlike the trendy fixie/messenger culture, these delivery men (95% of which are delivering food it seems) don’t break laws to seem cool or to upload a YouTube video of themselves swerving through heavy traffic; they are just doing their jobs.”

    Stay classy, Jonathan.

    I was a courier in Manhattan from 2004-2007 and we didn’t break laws to seem cool – we did it because we had a dispatcher screaming over the radio that we needed that package delivered from Chelsea to the Upper East Side in under 15 minutes and if you wanted to continue to be able to pull a paycheck that paid rent, you stayed in your dispatchers good graces. You are talking about a minority of couriers that are barely present in NYC. Moving to the west coast and working in San Francisco for a few years there seemed to be slightly more of those guys but they still are a very small percentage of actual working couriers.

    Doesn’t the saying go “5% of drivers are jerks and 5% of cyclists are jerks, so don’t judge based on the minority”? Maybe you should apply that to other aspects of your worldview.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      TJ (and others),

      I think my words are being misunderstood. If you knew me personally, or a little better than a few sentences on one blog post, you would know that I have a deep respect for professional bicycle delivery people. I was only trying to draw a comparison between the guys in this story and the messenger image many see in popular culture and that is popular with fixie kids. Perhaps I could have/should have said it better in the story. Did not mean to offend messengers… that’s not how I roll.

      cheers.

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  • Dan majewski November 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    The “Jews don’t bike” part of the story was very interesting to me. When I was recently in Jerusalem, I saw orthodox Jews biking all over the city. They were mostly younger people but still, there was a lot of it. Maybe what the Mexican fixed people were referring to is the fact that the orthodox don’t bike on Shabbat. Maybe they just don’t bike much in NYC at all, I’m not sure. That entire business situation sure is interesting though! Keep up the great reporting.

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