Koch’s messengers may be today’s food delivery cyclists

Riding wrong way 1

Two cyclists ride oppo­site direc­tions on a one way avenue south of Times Square.

In 1987 Mayor Ed Koch tried to ban cyclists from a swath of Mid­town Man­hat­tan. At that time it was bike mes­sen­gers who got the rap in the so-called bike wars. Today, it’s the food deliv­ery cyclists.

The city is not try­ing to ban them from rid­ing any­where. But one fre­quent com­plaint about bike lanes stems from a fear of bicy­clists rid­ing the wrong way and blind­sid­ing a pedestrian.

One rea­son the fear often focuses on food cyclists is that deliv­ery­men “are a huge pro­por­tion of cyclists on the road,” accord­ing to Lisa Slad­kus of Upper West Side Streets Renais­sance Campaign.

Envi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mist and cycling advo­cate Charles Komanoff cre­ated a study of bike trends using data from the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and else­where. It found that between 1985 and 2011, the num­ber of bike mes­sen­gers in the city dropped from 5000 to 1000, whereas food deliv­ery cyclists rose from 500 to 5000.

That is among 179,000 daily cyclists in New York City in 2011, the study found. The per­cent­age is small, but whereas non­com­mer­cial cyclists take three daily trips, the aver­age food deliv­ery cyclist makes thir­teen deliv­er­ies and twenty-two trips daily, the study showed.

One rea­son for the uneasy pas­sage of the Colum­bus Avenue bike lane on Feb 6, was that pro­po­nents said pro­tected bike lanes (with bar­ri­ers) reduce cyclist-pedestrian col­li­sions. A Hunter Col­lege study in 2011 found that approx­i­mately a thou­sand hos­pi­tal patients a year are involved in cycling-pedestrian collisions.

This ten­sion comes at a time when the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion is count­ing down its final days, and, as the New York Times points out (2.13.13), none of Bloomberg’s poten­tial replace­ments seem as bike-friendly as the mayor.

The city has taken action specif­i­cally on food deliv­ery cyclists. Though cycling laws have existed for decades, the DOT launched safety cam­paigns for food deliv­ery cyclists last year. Last sum­mer it launched a six-person “com­mer­cial cyclist out­reach and enforce­ment unit.” And this year the it will start enforc­ing laws that involve wear­ing reflec­tive vests, ID num­bers on the chest, and of course, rid­ing the right way, off the side­walks, and stop­ping at red lights.

But the New York of Mayor Bloomberg and DOT Com­mis­sioner Sadik-Kahn does not appear likely to ever ban cycling any­where. In fact, in writ­ing, part of the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 is to “make bicy­cling safer and more con­ve­nient” as part of its “sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion” list.

Koch’s plan to ban cycling on Fifth, Madi­son and Park never mate­ri­al­ized. Mes­sen­gers and sup­port­ers daily protested by rid­ing in Mid­town before it could go through, and the state Supreme Court killed the plan for what Komanoff, in a his­tor­i­cal essay called a “tech­ni­cal­ity”: the city hadn’t pub­lished offi­cial notice on time. The city didn’t bother try­ing again.

But times have not changed as much as it may seem. In order for the city to expand its bike infra­struc­ture, com­mu­nity boards have to accept pro­pos­als by DOT, which isn’t granted. Food deliv­ery cyclists are one reason.

In win­ning over sup­port, the mes­sen­gers may have had an advan­tage that food deliv­ery cyclists don’t. Komanoff said the mes­sen­gers had a way of win­ning over sup­port because of a “cool factor.”

In some way that cool fac­tor kind of coex­isted in the resis­tance and para­noia that was stirred up by the media and was exac­er­bated by the fact that the mes­sen­gers would go fast and would go aggressively.”

The mes­sen­gers, many of whom were minori­ties just as the food-delivery cyclists are, were seen as sub-cultural young peo­ple with a kind of bravado, he said. “They had a whole pride in their bike and what they did. And I think that to some extent that was an impor­tant aspect of the way New York­ers reacted [to them] in the ‘80s,” he said.

With­out that kind of cul­tural aes­thetic pro­tec­tion, food deliv­ery cyclists are more vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism, said Komanoff. From the ‘80s into the ‘90s, he said, there were bike mes­sen­ger zines. “It is really hard to imag­ine there ever being a zine about food deliv­ery cycling,” he said. “And I think that that lack of a pos­i­tive cul­ture makes it eas­ier for the aver­age New Yorker to write these guys off as dif­fer­ent, as alien, as the ‘other.’” Hol­ly­wood con­firms Komanoff’s point: both Kevin Bacon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have starred in films as bike messengers.

While there is no hard data dis­tin­guish­ing food deliv­ery cyclists in safety sta­tis­tics, a sin­gle count was done for this piece. On a one-way avenue with a pro­tected bike lane, in a two-block sec­tion of Man­hat­tan, forty-three cyclists were counted in thirty min­utes around 2 p.m. Food deliv­ery cyclists were iden­ti­fied as those car­ry­ing food deliv­ery bags or wear­ing reflec­tive vests and ID num­bers. Five of 25 food delivery-identified cyclists rode the wrong way. Three of 18 non-food-delivery-identified cyclists rode the wrong way. Some of those may have been messengers.

(Cor­rec­tion added: num­ber of mes­sen­gers reduced to 1000, not 100. Thanks to C. Komanoff for catch­ing the typo.)