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For Deliverymen, Speed, Tips and Fear on Wheels

The New York Times: For Deliverymen, Speed, Tips and Fear on Wheels

By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Published: March 2, 2012

FOR a few blocks, Lin Dakang had Park Avenue to himself.

There were no cars besides those idling at red lights as his bicycle whizzed uptown at nearly 20 miles per hour. It was a moment of bliss on a hectic Saturday night.

But Mr. Lin had no time to savor it. A clear plastic takeout bag hung from his handlebars: a steaming order of chicken in garlic sauce and vegetable lo mein that would cool quickly in the evening air.

Seconds counted, and Mr. Lin glided through intersections against the light, pausing briefly to check the traffic before pushing on the pedals and engaging the small but powerful electric engine in his rear hub.

This first delivery of the dinner shift was more than a mile from the restaurant. Arriving, he surged off the bicycle, lashing it to a nearby pole with a heavy chain. A doorman stepped from the gleaming entrance of a prewar building on Park Avenue and pointed him to a side alley.

Mr. Lin hurried down a ramp, past trash bags and through a door into the basement. There, a building worker waited to take him up in a manually operated freight elevator. He exchanged few words with the customer, who handed over $15.50 and a $2 tip.

For two and a half miles of travel, round trip. On a brisk winter night.

“So-so,” Mr. Lin, 39, said of the amount before speeding off to the next delivery.

Each day, and especially at night, thousands of deliverymen like Mr. Lin clatter over potholes in streets and crisscross broad delivery zones in a dash for tips. Ubiquitous but largely anonymous, they race through their rounds and deposit food with barely a word to their customers.

Their world draws little notice from most New Yorkers, except those who view delivery bicycles as an urban menace. Complaints by residents in some neighborhoods — particularly the Upper East Side, where Mr. Lin works — have prompted ticketing by the police and calls to punish restaurants for their sidewalk-riding, red-light-running employees. Electric bicycles, officially banned but increasingly favored by many who deliver food, have only stoked the fire, as they have extended restaurant delivery zones and put an even greater premium on speed.

And the elements of the job are a constant: nasty weather, dangerous encounters with cars and long hours for wages and tips that can fall well below the minimum wage.

Deliverymen and women have few defenders or advocates. They lack the cultural aura that once gave bad behavior by bicycle messengers an outlaw appeal. Nobody romanticizes deliverymen — and they are almost all male — as urban cowboys.

“It’s one of those things that New Yorkers just look away from,” said Kevin Bolger, 40, a former owner of a messenger company who has worked as a food deliveryman. “Delivery workers are like dishwashers on wheels.”

MR. LIN’S day began hours earlier in a small apartment above a laundromat in the Chinese enclave of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that he shared with his older sister and three other people, all of whom work in restaurants.

He was awake at 8:40 a.m., and his routine was simple: brush teeth, take 10 minutes to dress, compose himself and pray before heading downstairs to buy breakfast: one roll, one milk tea, $2. It was the only money he would spend on food all day.

An hour-and-a-half journey by subway and foot took him to the Upper East Side, where he has worked at a small Chinese takeout place, Six Happiness, for more than a year, the longest he has been in one job since he arrived in this country from Fujian Province in China in 2009.

He had a lot on his mind that Saturday: his wife back home; his work as a church volunteer; and, most of all, an asylum hearing in a Manhattan court in a few days that would probably alter the course of his life.

But on the bike, he said, those worries faded completely in favor of a more primal concern. “I just pray to God that nothing happens to me,” he said in Mandarin Chinese. “You have to understand how horrible the taxis are. In America, they can stop wherever they want!”

The order Mr. Lin was carrying was the largest of the night: $57.54 for several items, including Peking duck.

Already more than 100 deliveries had come to the building, the doorman said. It was barely 8 o’clock.

Mr. Lin began to worry that the other order he was carrying would get cold. “Could get canceled,” he said in English before remembering it was a credit card order. “So no cancel.”

Finally, after 15 minutes, a building worker returned with the signed receipt and five singles. Mr. Lin hustled out the door and back onto the bike, powering up the modest hill to York Avenue and bolting uptown to 80th Street.

“There you are!” the man at the next apartment said as Mr. Lin handed him the still-warm food.

“Thanks a lot,” Mr. Lin said, happy for the $2 tip and no mention of the wait.

BEFORE he was a deliveryman, Mr. Lin owned an auto-detailing shop in Shanghai.

“I had a nice storefront, but the government knocked it down,” he said.

After the demolition, part of a project to widen a road, he struggled to find work. With his wife and son, he left Shanghai and returned to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province. But, Mr. Lin said, he faced persecution because he was a devout Christian.

Unable to find a job, he embarked on a harrowing eight-month journey from China through El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala and, finally, Mexico, before he was smuggled into the United States. He arrived in New York in October 2009, found a job delivering food through a man he had met in Sunset Park and applied for asylum on grounds of religious persecution.

Life in New York has not always been easy. “To say you’re not tired — when you work in a restaurant — is a lie,” Mr. Lin said, adding that fatigue could be dangerous on the bike.

He was knocked down by opening car doors several times, and an electric bicycle was stolen. Before he knew the street grid, he moved through four jobs, losing at least one for being slow. “There were so many cars on the road,” he said. “It was my first time riding a bike here. And I was so unfamiliar. It was a little scary at first.”

The emphasis on speed means deliverymen are often in conflict with those on the streets around them. On the Upper East Side, the epicenter of an effort to rein in rule-breaking delivery cyclists, the New York Police Department wrote 6,600 tickets in 2011, more than in the previous two years combined. The department does not specify whether the violations were issued to delivery cyclists, but advocates for pedestrians and cyclists said a large number probably were.

The police said they had also recently begun confiscating electric bicycles, which are increasingly prevalent despite being banned from the streets by state law. A bill introduced on Wednesday in the City Council would double the fines for those caught riding electric bikes, to $1,000.

Some community leaders have suggested making the safety record of delivery cyclists part of a restaurant’s letter grade. Others, including State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents a large portion of the Upper East Side, are pushing for a change in state law that would hold employers accountable for violations by their deliverymen, issuing tickets to both the cyclists and the restaurants.

Advocates for pedestrians and cyclists pointed to Lenny’s, a bagel and sandwich chain, as a model for balancing service with safety. The company’s cyclists face reprimands for minor violations and can be fired for not wearing a helmet — required by law for working cyclists — or for riding on the sidewalk.

But away from the debate, on the streets each day, Mr. Lin, like many deliverymen, approaches the rules of the road pragmatically.

On that Saturday night, he rode on the sidewalk within a few doors of his restaurant and to lock up. He stopped at lights when there was traffic, and breezed through them when there was not. He turned the wrong way up 82nd Street, for half a block, to make a delivery. Each infraction, if ticketed, could have cost him at least a day’s worth of tips in fines, or, in the case of running a red light, as much as $270. But the extra speed seemed worth the risk.

After Mr. Lin made a short run to a nearby white brick building that netted a $1 tip, his shift ended, just before 9:30 p.m.