This essay, written by a New York City public school teacher, was originally published by The Billfold. It is reproduced here with permission.
It’s 11:38am and I’m barreling over the Manhattan Bridge on my Free Spirit bike, a relic from the ’80s-era Sears sales floor that has held up like a gem over the past quarter-century (aside from the occasional popped tire). One earbud in, I hear the familiar sonar-style blip of an UberRUSH pickup notification and I halt to a stop. I have 10 seconds to take the delivery job — a five-minute ride away on Canal Street — and I click “Accept” just before the offer disappears.
I have 10 seconds to take the delivery job — a five-minute ride away on Canal Street — and I click “Accept” just before the offer disappears.
Steamboats and water taxis cruise the East River below, as I glide from the bridge exit to the sauna of 90-degree Chinatown. The steamy odours swirl around me, the scent of barbecued pork tinged with exhaust wafting by as pigeons circle overhead. I arrive at my destination: the hipster mecca Pies and Thighs, to find my delivery of a fried chicken biscuit is destined for a location 40 blocks north. But it’s all part of the job — the further the distance I have to travel, the more money I can make. I gingerly pack the takeout order in an insulated hot/cold bag stuffed in my backpack, push the button to indicate I’ve received the delivery, unlock my bike and hop back on my ride.
I thread and dodge through traffic as jaywalking pedestrians on cell phones, construction workers in orange vests and weaving box trucks interrupt my route to the Allen Street bike path. I cross the precarious stop-and-go traffic on Houston — construction vehicles have overtaken the street and disregard most other forms of traffic — and bolt for the First Avenue bike lane uptown, where I’m forced to compete with illegally parked cop cars, idling delivery trucks and foreigners on Citibikes travelling two-by-two. Red-faced and out of breath, I finally arrive at my midtown destination and buzz for the third floor apartment. Luckily I can bring my bike into the lobby here (not true of all drop-off locations), race up the stairs and drop the bag off with its rightful and grateful owner. “Thanks,” he says, bewildered to see a white 30-something woman in a summer dress dropping off his delivery. “No problem,” I tip my bike helmet and head out the door, waiting for my next Uber job. I check the app to see what I earned for the 20-minute 54-second delivery, which covered a distance of 2.86 miles: The ride netted $9.68 — 80% of which will end up in my pocket.
So … how did I get here?
I might not be the first person you would expect to be burning rubber on two wheels in order to deliver you a piping-hot lunch. By day — from September to June — I’m an early career New York City public school teacher. I am lucky to be debt-free and living on a comparatively comfortable NYC teacher’s salary (a third-year teacher in NYC makes about $55,000, versus her North Carolina counterpart, with a salary of $36,000). But the taxing cost of living in a desirable Brooklyn enclave means it’s essential for me to work every bit of summertime hustle to pay for life in New York beyond the monthly rent.
The job lets you work on your own schedule, stay fit, explore parts of the city you might never otherwise see, and cheat death on a daily basis.
Earlier this summer, my partner quit his job in anticipation of returning to grad school in the autumn. Rather than taking a leisurely break in advance of his return to campus life, he decided, looking down the barrel of a crippling amount of impending debt, to cover his living expenses over the summer months by signing up to be an Uber bike messenger. Uber launched its bike-courier service officially last fall (after a year-long trial) to service customers seeking to shuttle packages between locations and to transport lunch and dinner orders for the UberEATS food delivery service. As anyone with four wheels and working papers can drive for the Uber car service, a schmo equipped with a bicycle, a helmet and delivery bag can enroll to make a few bucks ferrying Sriracha nuggets to your door. My partner was inspired to enlist by a friend who has a full-time job, but picks up the occasional delivery on his lunch shift or post-work. The money is not great (we’ll get to that) and half will eventually be eaten up by taxes, but the job lets you work on your own schedule, stay fit, explore parts of the city you might never otherwise see, and cheat death on a daily basis.
If you already know someone working for Uber, ask her to invite you to the service, which currently operates in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. A friend earned $100 for referring me. You can earn the same for each biker you recommend — plus you’ll receive a $100 bonus for making 10 trips in your first week of work. Once you have registered as an Uber Partner, you are required to watch a short video on how to operate the app and complete a brief quiz on the service’s rules and regulations. Then Uber will conduct a background check to make sure you meet their standards to be a bike courier. (I am not quite sure what these standards are, but I assume they are looking for people without felony convictions. You can request they supply you with a copy of the background check if you are curious.)
Then comes the waiting period. I had to wait for over two weeks before I was approved and could start riding. When the stars finally do align, your phone will buzz and you will receive a text from Uber HQ: “Your account is now active!” Once you download the Uber Partner app and select whether you will work on bike or on foot, you can go “Online” and wait for the delivery requests to roll in.
How it works
Unlike similar courier-service apps like Postmates, you have no choice in which jobs come to you. A notification arrives on your phone — allegedly powered by an algorithm which takes into consideration your geolocation, but some pickups can be miles away — and you accept or ignore it. You do not get paid for the distance you travel to a job, only the distance biked between pickup and drop-off, so there is no monetary bonus for biking from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a pickup (though your soon-to-be bulging thigh muscles will thank you later).
As an Uber bike courier, you will get called for two forms of pickups — UberEATS requests, which are food deliveries, and UberRUSH jobs. (Note: This is how the bike delivery service operates in the New York; in other markets, riders for the two services work independently of each other.) Once you have accepted a job from UberEATS, you can see what your pickup and drop-off locations are. If a drop-off location is crazy far away or inconvenient for some reason, you can always cancel a job, but the more jobs you cancel, the less frequently you will receive offers, so claims Uber. Also, you receive incentive-based bonus pay for keeping your acceptance rate high.
For UberRUSH jobs, you are not permitted to deliver certain banned items, including people, pets and illegal goods, but there were certainly occasions when I was not entirely sure what freight I was hauling.
UberRUSH operates more like a traditional bike-messenger service — you deliver items, often documents, from businesses to businesses, or person-to-person. However, for these requests, you do not know where your drop-off location will be until you have picked up your delivery. This can be a real pain in the ass. Case in point. I once picked up keys for a client in Greenpoint only to discover I had to deliver them to East 97th Street — a distance that required traveling through a borough (Queens) and over two bridges (Pulaski and the Queensboro) over a period of 40 minutes that would only give me a flat rate payout of $20. (You receive $20 for any job that requires you to travel over a bridge. This is great if you are going from South Williamsburg to the Lower East Side — a 10-minute job can net quite a payout — but it’s not so great if you are traveling eight miles.) But I accepted the job rather than face penalty for having a cancellation on my record.
While the penalties for cancellations can be harsh, Uber offers incentives that make accepting long-haul or inconvenient jobs more desirable: You receive additional pay for having a daily acceptance rate of over 85%, for traveling over bridges (see above) and for conducting a minimum number of deliveries during given time intervals, about which you are notified in advance via text message. Additionally, the service recently expanded to Williamsburg and Greenpoint and the service often offers a bonus of $5 for each pickup in those neighborhoods.
The system has its pitfalls. The service is more popular in midtown and downtown Manhattan than uptown, so if you have a job that requires you to travel north of 59th Street, you might be stuck waiting around for a gig afterward. This happened to me one night I was trying to make three rides between 6pm to 9pm; luckily my third offer came in by 8:43pm, but I had biked around the city for a good 45 minutes just waiting to hear any sign of activity from the app.
For UberRUSH jobs, you are not permitted to deliver certain banned items, including people, pets and illegal goods, but there were certainly occasions when I was not entirely sure what freight I was hauling. Unless I was to poke through my client’s packaging (which, although tempting, I never did), there was no way to verify I was not inadvertently carrying a brick of weed or a firearm in my bag.
Before my Uber messenger experience, I was a fairly committed bike commuter. But I am not biking century rides on a consistent basis, nor do I own a fully loaded Bianchi Vertigo. You can do this gig, like most food delivery bikers in this city, on a secondhand ride with zero whistles — though a bell is recommended. I began by wearing a dress or denim shorts on my early rides, but graduated to more biker-appropriate spandex as the days — and the sweat-soaking — wore on. To complete my ’80s biker look, I purchased a Dakine hip pack to give me easy access to my cell phone, wallet and keys. And you will need to make sure your ride is decently maintained — pump your tires to the appropriate PSI as soon as you feel them losing pressure. I ended up logging 35 to 50 miles a day on my bike, but a rider doing eight hours or more in shifts could easily surpass that.
You can do this gig, like most food delivery bikers in this city, on a secondhand ride with zero whistles — though a bell is recommended.
You don’t need much more, though an insulated bag is required by Uber. A sturdy backpack from eBags.com, lined with a freezer bag secured for $2.95 at my local Key Foods grocery store, got the job done (much superior to an over-the-shoulder bag whose unsteadiness resulted in a carton of soup exploding, but more on that later). Uber will provide you with a more traditional, if bulky, delivery bag if you drop by their offices, as well as a charger.
A backup charger is recommended as using the app in tandem with navigation can drain your battery. The one Uber provides is quite reliable and will keep you operating for hours. A U-lock, for quick and easy stops and starts, is essential, as are bike lights for nighttime rides. (I prefer the Cycle Torch Night Owl, a rechargeable demon that will blind passersby on its high settings — make sure to turn it to low. It’s a steal on Amazon.com for $24.95, with rear light included.)
It is essential to keep hydrated while working in the 90-degree heat. Before heading out for the day, I would load up my 70-ounce capacity Aurora Camelback and tuck it into my backpack, securing the drinking spout over my shoulder for easy access. This works as long as you have a sizeable pack. A standard issue water bottle also does the trick; you can easily pop into many fast food restaurants with self-serve soda fountains to refill it when you run dry.
Living your dreams
The most appealing aspect of working as a bike courier — on top of its power to burn calories — is the glimpse it offers you into the private worlds and habits of New Yorkers. I frequently took on the role of an armchair anthropologist, privileged with brief glimpses into the modern dwellings and workplaces of New Yorkers of all stripes.
I frequently took on the role of an armchair anthropologist, privileged with brief glimpses into the modern dwellings and workplaces of New Yorkers of all stripes.
There was the tech startup, with under-construction topiary gardens and glass conference rooms overrun by pierced 20-somethings on the 11th floor of one of Jared Kushner’s recently acquired properties (formerly the headquarters for the Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower) looking down on the peons in DUMBO; the penthouse resident who lived across from the Met and received her designer dry-cleaning fresh from a two-mile ride crammed in my sweat-laden backpack; the woman who could not be bothered to walk the five blocks from her apartment it would have required her to retrieve the tablet she left at her seamstress — she preferred to fork over the $5.50 for the pleasure of having it delivered; the steamy Williamsburg kitchen where I dodged hot pans and scurrying busboys in order to pick up my delivery order; the pristine quiet of a hidden art gallery in a glassy 57th Street highrise, where I delivered the secretary’s lunch.
One consistent theme: We forget things. Other than food, I was most frequently tasked with delivering keys. Rather than endure a subway ride from the Lower East Side to East Williamsburg, a young gentleman of means chose to lounge at the tony Ludlow House while I retrieved his house keys from his girlfriend’s apartment and shuttled them to him; I never met the client, but I did get to stand in the lobby of the member’s only club while a Shia LeBouef look-alike signed in.
I did find New Yorkers to be uncommonly cordial and abiding. In a new development on North 5th Street, a trio of 20-somethings were sympathetic and understanding when their soup exploded all over the inside of my carry bag, ruining their entire meal (granted, the restaurant I had picked it up from did not package the food adequately). When I apologized profusely, they urged me not to worry about it. Restaurant employees offered water while I waited; those who ordered during lunch hour frequently tried to tip me (though Uber’s policy says riders can accept none).
Before you think about leaving that desk job to spend your days speeding the streets, a few things to consider.
1. You might die. Or end up with crippling debt from medical expenses you can’t cover. Since the company is operating under a freelancer model, Uber does not provide health insurance. My partner, his Ubering friend, and I are all fully insured, whether by self-selecting into ObamaCare or through our day jobs. So if one of us gets side-swiped by an 18-wheeler, should we survive the ordeal, we will be covered medically (though we might have a healthy deductible to pay off). Given that the most I made working an eight-hour shift was $124 (after incentives), it might not be a worthwhile value proposition to give up that desk job with solid benefits for a potentially dangerous line of work where you will have to cough up for your own medical expenses.
2. About that pay. Again, it’s not much. You are guaranteed to make $4 per job. So even if you have a pickup at 500 Park Avenue and the drop-off is at 502 Park, you will make $4. For any delivery that requires you to travel more than a mile, you earn a prorated fee. However, you are only paid for what Uber deems the most efficient route to your destination, so if you take an unnecessary detour, you won’t be paid for that mileage. It is unclear to me whether the “most efficient route” is synonymous with “most efficient, safe route.” According to Crain’s, with incentives, riders seem to average $9/hour. Don’t forget, you are not getting paid for miles logged to pickups, so that time on the clock is not valued by your lord and master. And after taxes, since you are working as a freelancer, you will lose about half that pay. So, is making $4.50 an hour worth it to you? If you’re just in it for the exhilaration and exercise benefits, maybe.
3. You may be contributing to the disenfranchisement of the bike messenger profession. Just as Uber is “disrupting” the taxi service industry, the company is clearly making the effort to do the same to the bipedal messenger and delivery field. Crain’s issued a report faulting the company for classifying its couriers as independent contractors — meaning Uber does not have to pay workers minimum wage.
As I was floating from job to job, I repeatedly asked myself, “How is Uber making any money off this?” For RUSH deliveries, Uber charges clients in New York a base rate of $5.50 for the first mile plus $2.50 for each additional mile. As a messenger, you make 80% of that fee. But UberEATS charges minimal fees for deliveries, despite that drivers receive a minimum of $4 for a run. (On one delivery, I biked over three miles to deliver sushi from Kip’s Bay to a sunglass shop near the World Trade Center — which shared the same block as a sushi joint. Many customers seem unaware that they are often ordering food from miles away.) Presumably Uber is pouring money into an investment on the future, when competing companies are no longer around to trifle with their dominance.
Whereas traditional bike courier services offer benefits like worker’s comp to their riders, Uber offers no such protections — and can severely undercut the fees those companies must charge to make a profit. In the 1980s, the US Department of Labor set industry regulations that protected riders from being classified as independent contractors so the courier services would insure them as employees — but those policies have yet to be enforced upon Uber.
Food delivery bikers, in contrast, are famously unprotected. As many are in the US illegally, they often are underpaid and uninsured — but many are supporting families abroad. By signing up to deliver food for UberEATS, you may be pushing these guys out of a job if Uber’s plans for industry domination take hold. (See this profile of a food delivery man from the New York Times for more on the immigrant delivery experience: For Deliverymen, Speed, Tips and Feer on Wheels.)
Back to school
In the 1980s flick Quicksilver, a day-trader played by Kevin Bacon loses everything on Wall Street and remakes himself as a bike messenger, finding he hits the same highs he did on the trading floor by dodging traffic on the streets and competing against fellow bike bruisers for supremacy on the roads. In my brief tenure as a courier, I had plenty of death-defying moments–I was nearly doored by multiple phone-distracted pedestrians emerging from cabs, sardined between commercial vans jostling for position on a choked Garment District street and repeatedly risked life and limb dodging swarming hordes of tourists in Midtown.
Being a bike courier is much like operating in a live-action video game, your bank filling with coin after each successful ride.
But I found that, despite the sweat and fatigue and mortal risk involved, the adrenaline is addictive. There were days I kept pushing for “one more ride,” in part just to see to which corner of the city Uber would direct me. Being a bike courier is much like operating in a live-action video game, your bank filling with coin after each successful ride. Shuttling lunches in Midtown is just as taxing as battling Bowser at the end of Super Mario, but those moments of stress and survival are countered by the rides that give you the chance to breeze through Central Park or cruise down the Hudson River bike path. You are getting paid (again, very little) to soak in the skyscrapers and watch the people of this hustling, bustling organism of a city go about their days. So while I look forward to returning to the routines of teacher life (though, beyond the consistency of a bell ringing every 45 minutes, there is also very little that is routine to that job), I anticipate looking out my classroom window this fall, wistful for the outdoors and the possibilities of what-lies-around-the-corner from my Quicksilver days.
The writer is a New York City high school mathematics teacher. Her perfect day would include a discussion about Beyoncé over a meal of fried clams followed by any movie starring Barbara Stanwyck.
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