The Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,000-foot stretch of asphalt and beige-painted steel connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, is the perfect place for an ambush. The narrow bike path along its west side is poorly lit; darkened trash-strewn alcoves on either end are useful for lying in wait. All summer, food-delivery workers returning home after their shifts have been violently attacked there for their bikes: by gunmen pulling up on motorcycles, by knife-wielding thieves leaping from the recesses, by muggers blocking the path with Citi Bikes and brandishing broken bottles.
“Once you go onto that bridge, it’s another world,” one frequent crosser said. “You ever see wildlife with the wildebeest trying to cross with the crocodiles? That’s the crocodiles over there. We’re the wildebeests just trying to get by.”
Lately, delivery workers have found safety in numbers. On a humid July night, his last dinner orders complete, Cesar Solano, a lanky and serious 19-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico, rode his heavy electric bike onto the sidewalk at 125th Street and First Avenue and dismounted beneath an overpass. Across the street, through a lattice of on-ramps and off-ramps, was the entrance to the Willis, which threads under the exit of the RFK Bridge and over the Harlem River Drive before shooting out across the Harlem River. Whatever happens on the bridge is blocked from view by the highway.
Several other workers had already arrived. The headlights of their parked bikes provided the only illumination. Cesar watched, his arms crossed, as his older cousin Sergio Solano and another worker strung a banner between the traffic light and a signpost on the corner. It read WE ARE ON GUARD TO PROTECT OUR DELIVERY WORKERS.
Sergio walked back beneath the overpass, took up his megaphone, and whooped the siren, signaling to workers riding up First Avenue to wait and form a group before crossing. When five assembled, he announced the next departure for the Bronx.
Cesar, Sergio, and three other members of their family, all of whom work delivering food, had been standing watch each night for nearly a month. They live together nearby and heard about the attacks through the Facebook page they co-founded called El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, or “The Deliveryboys in the Big Apple Daily.” They started it in part to chronicle the bike thefts that have been plaguing workers on the bridge and elsewhere across the city. Sergio himself lost two bikes in two months. He reported both to the police, but the cases went nowhere, an experience common enough that many workers have concluded calling 911 is a waste of time.
Losing a bike is devastating for a delivery worker, obliterating several weeks’ worth of wages as well as the tool they need to earn those wages. “It’s my colleague,” Cesar said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s what takes me to work; it’s who I work with and what takes me home.” He’s customized his with dark-blue tape covering its frame, blue spokes, and color-changing LED light strips on its rear rack. Two Mexican flags fly from his front fork. He also attached a second battery since the main one lasts only seven hours, and he rides fast and for every app he can, typically working from breakfast to dinner. He maintains his bike with the help of a traveling mechanic known only as Su, who broadcasts his GPS location as he roams upper Manhattan. Recently, Cesar added a holster to his top bar for his five-pound steel U-lock so he can quickly draw it to defend himself in case of attack.
Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the fluctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave — all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact. Cesar recently biked from 77th on the Upper East Side 18 blocks south and over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, then up through Long Island City and over another bridge to Roosevelt Island, all to deliver a single slice of cake for no tip at all. And now he had to worry about losing his bike, purchased with savings on his birthday.
For Cesar and many other delivery workers, the thefts broke something loose. Some started protesting and lobbying, partnering with nonprofits and city officials to propose legislation. Cesar and the Deliveryboys took another tack, forming a civil guard reminiscent of the one that patrolled San Juan Puerto Montaña, the small, mostly Indigenous Me’phaa village where they are from.
That night, the space under the RFK overpass was a makeshift but welcoming way station. Aluminum catering trays of tacos and beans were arrayed beneath the trusses of the bridge. Arrivals never went long before being offered a plate and a Fanta. The parked bikes flashed festively. Some workers lingered only long enough for a quick fist bump before forming a convoy and departing. But a rotating crew of around a dozen stayed and chatted — sharing stories about who got in an accident and how they’re doing, how orders had slowed lately. Cesar, who hopes to be a video editor, livestreamed his nightly broadcast to the Deliveryboys page. It was something between a news bulletin and a pledge drive, with Cesar interviewing workers, thanking people for donating food, and shouting out to his viewers, who number in the thousands and tune in from Staten Island to their hometown in Mexico.
Just before 1 a.m., a delivery worker rode up, his right arm bleeding. People rushed to him. The worker had been waiting, he explained, at a red light on 110th when someone leaped in front of him with a knife and demanded his bike. The worker accelerated but was slashed on the arm as he fled. Soon, a police cruiser arrived and later an ambulance.
The worker, his blood pooling on the street, at first refused to be taken to the hospital. But the Deliveryboys convinced him to go. Sergio and Cesar shared their phone numbers and took his bike home when they left around 2 a.m. He retrieved it the next day before the Deliveryboys began their watch again.
For years, delivery workers in New York have improvised solutions like the bridge patrol to make their jobs feasible. These methods have been remarkably successful, undergirding the illusion of limitless and frictionless delivery. But every hack that made their working conditions tolerable only encouraged the apps and restaurants to ask more of them, until the job evolved into something uniquely intense, dangerous, and precarious.
Take the electric bike. When e-bikes first arrived in the city in the late 2000s, they were ridden mostly by older Chinese immigrants who used them to stay in the job as they aged, according to Do Lee, a Queens College professor who wrote his dissertation on delivery workers. But once restaurant owners and executives at companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub-Seamless figured out it was possible to do more and faster deliveries, they adjusted their expectations, and e-bikes became a de facto job requirement.
Today, delivery workers have an overwhelmingly preferred brand: the Arrow, essentially a rugged battery-powered mountain bike that tops out at around 28 miles per hour. A new Arrow runs $1,800 and can easily exceed $2,500 once it’s equipped with phone-charging mounts, lights, second batteries, air horns, racks, mud flaps, and other essential upgrades. What began as a technological assist has become a major start-up investment.
Delivery workers now move faster than just about anything else in the city. They keep pace with cars and weave between them when traffic slows, ever vigilant for opening taxi doors and merging trucks. They know they go too fast, any worker will say, but it’s a calculated risk. Slowing down means being punished by the apps.
A few days after the Deliveryboys began their Willis guard, I met Anthony Chavez in front of a sleek glass apartment building near Lincoln Center. Chavez is something of an influencer among delivery workers, though his fame was inadvertent and the 26-year-old is too reserved to fully embrace the role. Wanting to share the tricks and texture of New York delivery, he started filming his work in late 2019 and posting the videos to a Facebook page he started called Chapín en Dos Ruedas, meaning “Guatemalan on Two Wheels.” Later, his posts about bike thefts would expand his audience to more than 12,000, but at first it was mostly just the six other Guatemalan delivery workers he lives with in the Bronx. Long stretches of his videos pass with little dialogue, just the background whine of his bike and the Dopplering traffic punctuated occasionally by his advice: Always wear a helmet, only listen to music with one earbud, avoid running red lights, and, if you must, really look both ways.
For about half his week, Chavez works at a rotisserie-chicken spot in midtown. He likes it there; the delivery radius is a bit over a mile, and the kitchen is good at batching orders. The restaurant pays him even when an accident takes him out of commission. He doesn’t even need his Arrow. Instead, he rides his pedal-powered Cannondale. An enthusiastic cyclist who rode BMXs back home and wears a small gold bike on his necklace, he likes cycling best about the job.
This used to be how delivery worked across the city. A restaurant that made delivery-friendly food like pizza or Chinese employed people to take it to customers in the neighborhood. Managers could be cruel, and owners frequently exploited a worker’s immigration status with illegally low wages, but the restaurant also provided shelter, restrooms, and often free meals and a place to eat them alongside co-workers. Unfortunately for Chavez, the chicken spot never has enough hours, so the rest of the time, he works for the apps.
Before the apps, sites like Seamless and Grubhub simply listed restaurants that already offered delivery. But DoorDash, Postmates, and the other apps that arrived in the mid-2010s had their own delivery workers, armies of contractors directed by software on their phones. If a restaurant didn’t offer delivery or was too far away, the app just sent a gig worker to order takeout and bring it to you.
The main reason restaurants weren’t already letting you order a single bacon, egg, and cheese from 50 blocks away for almost no charge is that it’s a terrible business model. Expensive, wasteful, labor intensive — you would lose money on every order. The apps promised to solve this problem through algorithmic optimization and scale. This has yet to happen — none of the companies are consistently profitable — but for a while they solved the problem with money. Armed with billions in venture capital, the apps subsidized what had been a low-margin side gig of the restaurant industry until it resembled any other Silicon Valley consumer-gratification machine. Seamless, which merged with Grubhub and added its own gig platform to compete, was particularly direct in its pitch, running cutesy subway ads about ordering delivery with zero human contact and requesting miniature entrées for your hamster.
The apps failed and bought each other, and now three giants remain: DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub-Seamless. Each divides the New York market more or less equally, and each uses the piecework model pioneered by Uber itself. Workers get paid when they accept and complete a delivery, and a gamelike system of rewards and penalties keeps them moving: high scores for being on time, low scores and fewer orders for tardiness, and so on. Chavez and others call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss — always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to fix your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.
Then there is a fourth app, which Chavez and thousands of others work for but few customers have heard of, called Relay Delivery. It’s a privately held company founded in 2014 and mostly limited to New York. The best way to understand Relay is to think of most delivery apps as two different businesses: the lucrative digital one that customers order from and that charges restaurants commission and advertising fees, and the labor-intensive, logistically complicated — “crummy,” in the words of Grubhub’s founder — business of getting the food to the customer. Relay handles just the second one.
Restaurants can outsource all their delivery to Relay, no matter if the customer ordered on Seamless or DoorDash or called direct. When the food is ready, the restaurant uses the Relay app to summon a worker who is supposed to appear in under five minutes. It’s often cheaper for restaurants than the other apps, and it’s extremely reliable.
This is in part because the rewards Relay offers workers are greater and its penalties more severe. Rather than piecework, it pays $12.50 per hour plus tips. But unlike Uber and DoorDash, workers can deliver food only if they’re scheduled, and the schedule is designed through daily zero-sum competition, with the best-rated workers getting first dibs. If you get an early enough sign-up time to grab the Upper West Side from 5 to 9 p.m., you can rest easy knowing you’ll have a decently paying job tomorrow. But if you rejected a delivery, or went too slow, or weren’t in your designated zone the second your shift started (even if that was because you were delivering a Relay order from your prior shift), or committed any other mysterious infraction, your sign-up time moves back 20 minutes. Maybe all that’s left is Hoboken from 2 to 4 p.m. Worse, maybe there’s nothing and you’re relegated to picoteo, or “pecking.”
You see them around the city, sitting on benches jabbing their screens, refreshing the schedule on the off chance some unlucky colleague had to cancel. It’s a fate terrifying enough that when one worker hit a storm drain, flew from his bike, and suffered a concussion so severe he was passing in and out of consciousness and had to be taken to the hospital, he still made sure to have a friend message the company explaining why he wasn’t accepting orders. Later, trying to get his score up, he volunteered to work during Hurricane Ida, wrecked his bike, and got bumped from the schedule entirely.
So while DoorDash and Uber workers have some leeway to pick which deliveries they take, as a practical matter, Relay workers accept every order assigned to them. They obey the bespoke instructions that pop up on their screens: Don’t wait outside Benny’s Burritos, don’t ask to use the restroom, be “super nice!” to Dig Inn because it is a “VIP client” — or have your account suspended. Above all, they try to maintain the ideal pace of a delivery every 15 minutes, no matter the delivery distance.
If these sound more like the demands placed on an actual employee as opposed to an ostensibly free independent contractor, many class-action plaintiffs have agreed. The company has been sued multiple times for worker misclassification, tip theft, and other infractions. It settled three times, avoiding a ruling that could torpedo its business model, and another case is currently in arbitration.
A spokesperson said the company has implemented a fix to prevent restaurants from unilaterally expanding their delivery zones, but it currently only works for new entrants to the platform. The tip theft that workers often complain of occurs when restaurants receive an order, then enter the wrong tip information into the Relay app, the spokesperson said, and the company has added a way for workers to dispute this. As for the intense pressure, the company said that it matches the number of riders each day with anticipated demand but that there is a large backlog of people who want to work.
That’s true. Many would rather work for a restaurant, but when forced to pick among the apps, Chavez, Cesar, and others choose Relay, which they say pays better and more consistently than its piecework peers. It is, after all, the closest among them to a traditional job. But all the apps have this in common: The physical practicalities of maintaining the modern buffet of speedy delivery options fall to the workers.
I followed Chavez down the ramp of the glass tower’s parking garage and around the corner to where delivery workers have set up a subterranean base. Electric bikes were parked in front of plywood shelving crammed with charging batteries, their lights blinking red and green. Under the garage ramp, five workers sat on a pipe eating lunch beneath a harsh fluorescent light, clothes hung to dry on another pipe above their heads. About a dozen people sat on folding chairs around a long table, eating from Styrofoam takeout trays and playing with their phones. Others napped in the carriages of bike rickshaws draped with plastic flowers.
Garages like these are scattered across the city, a solution worked out to replace some of the necessities once supplied by restaurants. Another option for shelter, particularly in the winter, is to get a Chase debit card and take refuge in the lobbies of the bank’s ubiquitous branches, warming yourself with a coffee before you’re told to move on. But the coffee raises another pressing question: where to find a restroom. The garage solves both problems and others, like bike storage and battery charging. Now, instead of shift meals during the predinner lull, workers take turns ordering delivery and eat underground. (They always tip well.) Chavez pays $120 a month for his spot.
Every adaptation has a cost, the Arrow being by far the largest. The appeal of the Arrow is the network of shops that sell it. They sell only Arrows, and if you have one, they will do simple repairs for cheap or free. The shops also charge second batteries for a monthly fee. The city’s pocked streets are rough on the bikes, and each evening just before the dinner rush, delivery workers wait outside Arrow stores as mechanics strip and rewire water-damaged controllers and replace bald tires with the fluid focus of a NASCAR pit crew.
Bikes, cold-weather gear, garages, maintenance: The costs add up. Workers even pay for their own app-branded cooler bags. So while DoorDash claims Manhattan workers make $33 per hour, including tips, when you factor in expenses, delivery workers have a base pay of $7.87 per hour, according to a recent study of app-based workers conducted by the Cornell Worker Institute and the Worker’s Justice Project. Neither estimate includes time spent waiting between deliveries.
Workers developed the whole system — the bikes, repair networks, shelters, charging stations — because they had to. To the apps, they are independent contractors; to restaurants, they are emissaries of the apps; to customers, they represent the restaurants. In reality, the workers are on their own, often without even the minimum in government support. As contractors and, often, undocumented immigrants, they have few protections and virtually no safety net. The few times city authorities noted the delivery worker’s changing role, it was typically with confused hostility. Until recently, throttle-powered electric bikes like the Arrow were illegal to ride, though not to own. Mayor de Blasio heightened enforcement in 2017, calling the bikes “a real danger” after an Upper West Side investment banker clocked workers with a speed gun and complained to him on “The Brian Lehrer Show.”
The NYPD set up checkpoints, fining riders $500, seizing their bikes, and posting photos of the busts on Twitter. The police would then return the bikes because, again, they were legal to own. It was a costly and bewildering ritual. For years, bike activists and workers pushed for legalization, though the apps that benefited from them were largely silent. It was only when another group of tech companies — hoping to make scooter-sharing legal — joined the fight that a bill moved forward in Albany. Then the pandemic hit, restaurants were restricted to takeout, and the mayor had to acknowledge that the bikes were an essential part of the city’s delivery infrastructure. He halted enforcement. The bikes were officially legalized three months later.
Maybe it was legalization that triggered the robberies. Maybe it was the pandemic-emptied streets. Maybe it was all the people out of work who needed money, or all the other people out of work who were enlisting to serve the newly formed Zoom class and suddenly needed e-bikes. Everyone has a theory. But what happened next is a familiar story. The workers turned to the city for help, got none, and started figuring out a solution themselves.
Chavez has no history of activism and no interest in being a leader. Those things take time, and he came to the city with a plan: work hard for five years and save enough money to buy a house in Guatemala City. Many workers treat the job like a dangerous but temporary trial they hope will give them a shot at pulling themselves out of poverty back home. Cesar has a plan too: work until he can buy a house for his parents and himself, then return. Things don’t always go according to plan. You meet someone here and start a family. You discover that all the money you thought you were saving has gone to bikes and food and rent. The city becomes familiar. Years go by.
That was the case for Eliseo Tohom, Chavez’s 36-year-old roommate. He’s been working delivery for 14 years. Chavez teases him on his livestreams. “That Eliseo is well known around these streets,” he said when Tohom chimed in on the chat. “Single ladies, delivery worker Eliseo is looking for a girl to take back to Guatemala.”
Last October, the two were eating pizza in Central Park and talking about the robberies. A fellow garage member, 17 years old, had been unlocking his bike after depositing a dinner on Riverside Drive when two men tackled him from behind. A third grabbed his bike and rode off as the other assailants leaped into a waiting car.
It was the second such attack to befall a garage member and one of countless they had heard about. According to NYPD data, robberies and attempted robberies of delivery workers increased 65 percent in 2020, to 332, and are on track to exceed that number this year. But those are only the small fraction of cases that are reported to the police. Workers say officers often discouraged them from filing reports and showed so little progress solving the thefts they did report that many stopped bothering to do so. In contrast to the NYPD’s numbers, the Worker’s Justice Project’s survey found that 54 percent of the city’s delivery workers have had their bikes stolen. About 30 percent of those thefts were violent. The group said it receives approximately 50 reports of thefts and robberies a day.
Tohom had put together a pool to buy the kid a new bike, but he wanted to do more. He proposed going to the local precinct, maybe with a dozen or so people from their garage and another group in midtown, and asking the police to do something. Chavez posted the announcement on Chapín.
About 30 people showed up to the park at 72nd and Amsterdam and rode honking to the precinct. There, they blocked the street, shouting “No more robberies!” to nonplussed cops. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking officer came out. Tohom stepped forward and listed robbery after robbery — Monday at 150 Central Park, yesterday at 100th, another at 67th, knives, guns, machetes, thefts they reported months ago and received no response about, bikes stolen with GPS that police refused to pursue — as the crowd yelled “Help us.”
Chavez posted a video of the scene, and it ricocheted through New York’s delivery community. Overnight, he gained 1,000 followers. The next day, a representative got in touch from the Worker’s Justice Project, which had previously supported construction workers and domestic laborers and had started organizing delivery workers during the pandemic. WJP helped file the paperwork for a more formal rally the following week. Again, Chavez announced it on his Facebook page. This time, hundreds showed up. Chavez livestreamed as the armada rode honking down Broadway, flags waving from their bikes, to City Hall.
It was the first time so many delivery workers had gathered in one place, and it sparked an explosion of new groups. It was there that Cesar met Chavez. Soon after, he and his cousins and uncles launched the Deliveryboys page. Like Chavez’s page, it soon became a hub for theft alerts, but it was also a place to memorialize slain and injured workers. When the DoorDash worker Francisco Villalva Vitinio was shot and killed for his bike in March, the Deliveryboys posted videos of vigils in New York and of Villalva Vitinio’s casket being carried down the streets of his hometown in Guerrero, Mexico. Later they broadcast live from the precinct on the day the suspect was arrested.
Small cadres of workers had already begun forming groups on WhatsApp and Telegram to share information and protect one another. But now they built more formal and larger versions with names like Delivery Worker Alerts, Emergency Group, and Robbery Alerts in the Big Apple. At the protest, workers scanned QR codes on one another’s phones to join. Approximate territories took shape, with groups for the Upper West Side, Astoria, and lower Manhattan.
“There are thousands of delivery workers on the streets, and if we are all connected, we can see the thieves and act ourselves,” Chavez later told his viewers as he rode. Join a group, he said. Buy a GPS and hide it on your bike; that way, when it gets stolen, you can track it down and call on your fellow workers for help. If the police wouldn’t get their bikes back, maybe they could do it themselves.
It was Gustavo Ajche, a 38-year-old construction worker and part-time DoorDasher, who contacted Chavez’s group after the impromptu precinct rally and helped get permits for the larger one. Even then, he was pushing the group to think bigger. Chavez and Tohom wanted to march to Columbus Circle; Ajche said the thefts were affecting everyone, so they should march all the way to City Hall. He also wanted them to think beyond the robberies, to regulations and durable improvements to working conditions.
I met Ajche at 60 Wall Street, a gaudy ’80s atrium decorated with palm trees and columns that is a frequent hangout for delivery workers in the Financial District. The nearby parking garage where Ajche stores his bike isn’t as nice as Chavez’s, he explained, on account of leaks and rats.
There were about a dozen Arrows parked outside, all with stickers bearing the red-and-black fist-raised deliveryman logo of Los Deliveristas Unidos, an arm of the Worker’s Justice Project that Ajche helped start. An animated speaker with an open face, Ajche is an effective organizer, and he’s eager to grow the movement. Taking out his phone, he showed me a new Deliveristas logo written in Bengali — part of the group’s effort to expand beyond Spanish-speaking workers. He would soon make versions in Mandarin and French. I noted the green gear-eyed skull logo on the back of his phone case, the symbol of Aztecas en dos Ruedas (“Aztecs on Two Wheels”), a fixie-riding, alley-cat-racing club of delivery workers. “They are my friends; they are with us,” he said by way of explanation. A worker, still helmeted, pushed through the turnstile door and waved to Ajche before joining a group seated on the other side of the hall — Ajche’s friends too.
After the success of the October march, the Deliveristas planned an even larger rally for April. This time, thousands gathered and rode honking to City Hall, where they were joined by representatives from SEIU 32BJ, the powerful union that backed the Fight for $15. City Councilmember Brad Lander, then running for city comptroller, and State Senator Jessica Ramos spoke. Later, the City Council introduced a package of bills crafted in discussion with the Deliveristas that would establish minimum pay and give workers more control over their routes, among other changes (it will likely be voted on this month). In June, the Deliveristas helped kill a bill pushed by Uber and Lyft that would have allowed gig workers to unionize while falling short of offering them full employment rights.
Some of the apps also began discussions with the Deliveristas. DoorDash announced that nearly 200 (out of 18,000) of its restaurants would let delivery workers use their restrooms and that the company is working on an emergency-assistance button for its app.
Ajche is far from appeased. He recalled a Zoom meeting in which DoorDash put forward a “top Dasher” to tell them how great working for DoorDash was. Ajche silenced him by saying that he can bring 500 people with complaints. “They are afraid of us,” he said. “They think we are trying to unionize.”
Later in June, around the time when Cesar and the Deliveryboys were beginning their watch at the Willis Avenue Bridge, Ajche and other Deliveristas met with the NYPD chief of department, Rodney Harrison, who agreed to appoint an officer to act as a liaison with the workers and to increase security on the bridges.
Progress is slow. The NYPD said it encourages people to register their bikes with the department and to call 911 if their bike is stolen. But the department is a sprawling organization with tremendous inertia and little understanding of what modern delivery work entails. “What we’ve been doing is conquering precinct by precinct,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, whom the WJP brought on to handle police relations and policy. Colón Hernández, who previously worked on a construction-fraud task force in the Manhattan DA’s office, recalled a recent exchange in which she was pushing an officer to investigate a stolen bike and he said, essentially, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a bike.” Colón Hernández launched into an explanation: First off, it’s their tool; they lose that tool, they don’t work tomorrow. Second, it probably cost around $3,000. “That patrol officer looked at me very differently,” she said. “They were like, ‘Wait a minute. This is a grand larceny?’ ”
She has been having conversations like that across the city’s bureaucracy. Take the Willis Avenue Bridge. First, she had to talk to the precincts on either side of the bridge because the city splits jurisdiction down the middle. Then came the cameras, which workers complained were broken, because despite the NYPD sign saying the bridge was under 24-hour surveillance, whenever they went to the police asking for footage of their assaults, they were told none existed. But the cameras worked just fine; it’s just that they were pointed at the cars, not the bike path. To change that, Colón Hernández will need to track down someone in the Department of Transportation and explain why it’s urgently important that they shift the traffic cameras on a bridge.
Chavez and the Deliveryboys rarely attend these meetings. They stress their independence and express skepticism that anyone — police, city officials, sometimes even the Deliveristas — will ever help them. Chavez sees himself as just a guy with a Facebook page. Juan Solano, Cesar’s uncle and the most outspoken of the Deliveryboys, sees a distinction between “politics,” which are futile, and what they are doing, which is “organizing our people” to help themselves.
Ajche understands the wariness. “In our countries, organizations show up, promise to do stuff, and never deliver,” he said. It’s not like they’ve gotten much help from institutions here, either. Yet he is palpably frustrated at the resistance. “A change of mind would be good for them. They have potential; they’ve done things. But they reached a point where they can’t do much more since they’re not in touch with politicians.”
Ajche pointed out that earlier this year, the Deliveryboys told their followers to barrage the Relay app with a cut-and-paste indictment of the company’s rating system, long routes, and vanishing tips. “Us delivery workers are tired of so much injustice,” they wrote, threatening to “stop working without prior notice.”
“It’s the same thing that we are trying to do!” Ajche said.
Not long after the walkout threat, Relay added a DISPUTE TIP button. It was a victory, but a partial one. Making use of the feature requires workers to know the actual amount a customer tipped, and many lack the language skills to ask. Juan is thinking about making cards in English so they can show customers why they need to know.
Compared to the grinding progress of New York’s bureaucracy, when it comes to thefts, self-defense yields immediate results: a bike recovered, a thief apprehended, a bridge defended.
Chavez advises workers to keep a photo of their bike on their phone. If it’s stolen, send the photo to the group, and often another worker will soon spot someone selling it on the street. The spotter sends the location, then pretends to be an interested buyer — “Hey, buddy, how much you want for that?” — until reinforcements arrive and unobtrusively encircle the two hagglers before closing in. Ideally, surrounded by a dozen delivery workers, the suspect gives up peacefully and returns the bike to its rightful owner.
But not always. In June, a Lower East Side group saw someone selling a stolen bike on Lafayette, but the suspect hopped on the bike and fled. The group gave chase for several blocks before tackling him on Delancey. At that point, the police took notice and detained the suspect. When the bike’s owner arrived, he ceremoniously inserted his key into the lock, dangling from the frame, and opened it to cheers.
Two weeks later, a Relay worker named Angel Lopez was cruising up Amsterdam with a dinner from Celeste when he noticed someone sawing through a bike lock with a power grinder, throwing up sparks. He stopped, shocked. While he was debating what to do, workers from a nearby Chinese takeout place rushed out, grabbed chairs from their outdoor-dining setup, and started hitting the thief, who responded by brandishing his buzz saw. A standoff ensued until the thief, deterred, jogged off. Lopez sent an alert to his group, Upper Furious, and followed from a distance.
If I let him go, he’s just gonna get away, just like every other guy, he thought. Lopez crossed paths with two other workers and told them what was happening. They joined in cautious pursuit. Periodically, the thief looked back and yelled, “Keep following me. I got something for you,” Lopez said, and they wondered what that could mean, whether he could have a gun in his backpack and be luring them to a less crowded part of town.
The man stopped at another locked bike and began again with the buzz saw, threatening the workers whenever they got close. “That thing will cut your face off,” Lopez recalled. The bike freed, the thief started to pedal away.
There were now about ten workers, and they chased the thief, trying to shove him off his bike as he attempted to strike them with his saw. Lopez said they passed a cop car and shouted for help, to no avail.
They hit the downward slope toward Riverside Park, and a few workers gunned their bikes forward to head off the thief. Surrounded, he got off the bike and swung the saw, then hurled the cut lock at the gathered crowd. But in throwing the lock, he lost his grip on the saw, and it fell to the ground. It was at that moment that police arrived, pushed through the workers, and pinned the suspect to the ground with, Lopez said, a degree of force he felt ambivalent about. “It got to the point where he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ — you know those famous lines,” he recalled. A few workers shouted that he deserved it. “You could feel the anger in the air,” Lopez said.
He couldn’t stay to talk to the cops. He was 30 minutes late with his order and worried Relay would deactivate him. “You’re no superhero,” he imagined the company telling him. “Just deliver the food.” The suspect was charged with attempted robbery, possession of a weapon, petit larceny, and resisting arrest.
These ad hoc sting operations worry Colón Hernández. She believes that some of the thieves are organized, possibly transporting the bikes out of state. They are often armed. Workers have been stabbed and attacked with fireworks when they tried to recover their bikes themselves. Chasing down and apprehending every thief in the city is both unsustainable and dangerous.
“The first time works. The second time may work. What happens when the third time, somebody gets killed? Or you hurt somebody because you’re chasing people at a very fast pace?” she said. “I’ve been saying this to the NYPD: One day I’m going to get a call that I don’t want to get.”
On a Friday night in July, Nicolas was coming back outside after dropping off a pizza near Madison Square Park when he saw that his bike had vanished. What am I going to do? he thought. How am I going to work?
Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Nicolas, 42 (who, fearing retaliation from the thief, requested a pseudonym), worked to send money home to his four children, whom he hadn’t seen since he crossed the border 12 years ago. The more he worked, the sooner he could return, and he worked a lot: a 5 a.m. cleaning shift at a pizza place, then delivering either for the restaurant or for DoorDash.
He called his brother, another delivery worker, and asked him to post a photo of his bike to the Deliveryboys’ WhatsApp. An hour later, he got a hit: Someone had spotted his bike, a teal-taped Arrow, being wheeled into an apartment building in the Bronx. The tipster had followed the man, filmed him, and noted the address. Nicolas got on the train and headed there.
He was met by five other workers from the WhatsApp group who’d come to help. Standing in front of the building, Nicolas called 911 and was told to wait for a patrol car, so they waited. And waited. After midnight, he thanked the others for standing by him and told them to go home.
Three days later, after he’d given the bike up for lost, one of the workers who had stood with him Friday flagged him down. Another bike had been stolen and traced to the same building. A group was gathering to get it back.
When the two arrived, they encountered 15 or so workers standing in front of the building. Cesar was there along with a contingent that had caravanned from the Willis Avenue Bridge. Chavez was there too. Nicolas introduced himself.
Cesar and Chavez had been called there by the owner of the other bike, Margaro Solano. Unlike Nicolas’s bike, Margaro’s had a GPS. Seeing his bike had been taken to the Bronx, he and his wife — who left her restaurant job to help — had immediately headed there. They confirmed they had the right place by obtaining building surveillance footage of a man — the same one filmed carrying Nicolas’s bike — lugging Margaro’s up the stairs and into his apartment. They could hear Margaro’s bike alarm blaring through the door.
After Margaro was unable to get help from the nearby precinct, he called Chavez, who texted Cesar, who put out a call on WhatsApp. By the time Nicolas arrived, the group had gone back to the precinct, failed to get help, and settled in for a stakeout.
Rather than risk a confrontation inside the building, Chavez and the others decided the safest approach would be to wait for the thief to emerge and ask for the bikes back. Two workers stood just outside the building entrance, while another loitered in the lobby. The rest gathered on the sidewalk outside, chatting. The stakeout was the first time most of them had met in person.
Around midnight, conversation began to shift to how late it was and when they should decide to call it a night. Many had come directly from work, skipping dinner. Then he emerged, the man from the videos. The workers on the street watched as he opened the lobby door and stepped outside.
The group followed him for a block, tailing him as stealthily as a dozen deliverymen on electric bikes could manage. After a second block, they descended, surrounding him on the sidewalk.
For vigilante justice, it was a restrained confrontation. No one touched anyone else. The workers, masked, stood back in a circle and asked for their bikes to be returned; the man towered over them by at least two heads. Chavez was filming, Cesar broadcasting live. Nicolas stood at the margins, watching.
To Cesar’s surprise, the man asked how many bikes they had come for.
Two, he answered.
When the thief asked for $1,000 to give them back, the workers started shouting. “Show him! Let him see!” they yelled in Spanish. “The camera was watching you!” in English. Chavez said they didn’t want trouble and wouldn’t call the police if the man just gave back the bikes — a bluff. Chavez knew the police wouldn’t come. The man didn’t budge.
A worker held out his phone to the suspect, showing him the surveillance video. He watched footage of himself carrying the bike up the stairs. Then he watched it again. He paused, thought it over, and agreed to return the bikes. The group formed an escort down Grand Concourse, the suspect surrounded by workers on foot who were circled by bikers cruising slowly.
Chaos ensued once they entered the building. An acquaintance of the man blocked the workers in the entryway while attempting to assure them he would bring their bikes down. Unconvinced, they pushed forward until everyone — the two men, followed by Cesar, Chavez, Nicolas, Margaro, and several others — started running up the stairs. As they neared the fifth floor, they could hear the bike’s shrill alarm. Nicolas was too thrilled at the prospect of being reunited with his bike to be scared. One man held the workers at bay while the other brought out Margaro’s bike, lights flashing, and then Nicolas’s. Cesar glimpsed two other bikes inside before the men shut the door.
“Thank you!” a worker shouted in English as the group shuffled the bikes down the stairs. “Let’s go! Two bikes — we came to get one, left with two,” he continued in Spanish. “Let’s go tell the precinct we actually could get it. Police don’t know how to do their job.”
Cesar was bringing up the rear and still streaming when someone grabbed him from behind. In the video, the suspect’s acquaintance can be heard shouting that he should be rewarded for helping them. Cesar elbowed his assailant and broke free, dashing down the stairs to join the others in front of the building. They mounted their bikes and sped away, riding down the bike lane together.
The next day, Chavez would tell Colón Hernández what had happened and send her the evidence they’d gathered. She’d watch the video of the raid with dismay — reckless, dangerous, no plan at all — and then work the system her way. She’d finish the process of filing Nicolas’s police report and stay on the detectives. She’d involve the new delivery liaison. Three weeks after the bikes were recovered, the suspect would be arrested and charged with petit larceny and criminal possession of stolen property.
But the workers didn’t know any of that that night. In fact, they wouldn’t hear about the arrest until I told them. The night they got the bikes back, they had little reason to believe justice would be served. It was their own detective work that had succeeded when the system failed them.
After they rode some distance from the building, Chavez filmed a news broadcast outside a bodega. It was a mix of anger and triumph.
“The police did nothing,” Chavez narrated as Nicolas held up the paperwork he’d been given by a precinct days before. “We had agreed with them that they would be there for us whenever a bike got stolen, and they weren’t. Don’t commit then. We organize. We recover our bicycles.”
They didn’t linger to celebrate their victory. It was late, and they had work in the morning. Nicolas’s predawn shift would begin in just four hours. He hopped back on his bike and sped home to get some rest.