(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
New Yorkers would starve if it wasn’t for bicycles. Let me explain…
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
— 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.