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The Ride

The journey delivery riders take through the city is one of the central aspects, when looking at urban traces, because it includes both social interactions and an engagement with the physical environment. At the same time, the route the riders take is interesting to analyze as an element of digital geographies produced by the order being placed and then carried out by the rider. Not only did we interview riders about their experience on the road, but also one of them agreed to tracking her route and filming her journey through the city during one shift. In total we spoke to three riders delivering by bike and one who works for a beverage delivery service in Berlin that uses cars.

All delivery workers we interviewed reported that their journey is being suggested by Google Maps. While it works well for cars and when there is a good bicycle infrastructure, it can create problems if this is not given. In any case their ride through the city often leads to obstruction with other road users, either because they have to park the car in places they are not supposed to or because they dismiss traffic rules in order to get to their destination faster.

Kate mentioned the good bicycle infrastructure in Copenhagen, that allows her to get around easily and safely during her shifts (as you can see in the video). The former delivery cyclist Mark remembered how he struggled  to cycle up the hills of Turin, often without receiving the additional 1€ that the algorithm should automatically add for deliveries in that part of the city. Max on the other hand, who works in Berlin complained about the mismatch between the suggested route and the existing infrastructure, referring to the many roads with cobblestones and old run-down cycle lanes:

“You can use these ways when you commute to work sometime, but not working 30 hours a week. That will break your bike after some weeks.”

In order to escape these obstacles and not strain his bike too much, he sometimes swerves onto the sidewalk. Whenever this happens, he tries not to bother pedestrians too much and adapts to their speed. However, some of them react aggressively, do not move and almost voluntarily have him bump into them and provoke accidents (which is just one example of the risks to which drivers are exposed):

“When I wear my work clothes and people recognize me as a delivery driver they are more aggressive and unfriendly compared to when I cycle in my “civilian” clothes.”

It is interesting, in this regard, that the social interaction he describes is dependent on how other people identify him. By now people apparently have become used to the riders visible everywhere in their flashy colored jackets, but also developed some sort of resentment as they associate them with inappropriate road behavior. In this context it is interesting to notice that the riders of the newly introduced grocery delivery company GORILLAS (Berlin) wear only black and leave much less visible traces in the urban landscape than their colleagues from Wolt and Lieferando.

See full report on the GORILLAS dispatch center in Berlin-Kreuzberg here

The work of the delivery workers creates its very own digital geography, as the routes they take exist only because of the received orders (see Kate’s ride). Since the riders do not have a say in where to go and how long the individual distances are, this also highlights how little self-determination is inherent in this activity. Additionally the big delivery companies help produce this digital landscape by providing their riders with so-called hotspot maps and respective perimeters around them that structure the way riders move through the city and adding an invisible digital layer to the urban environment.

Read the full reports with riders here  and here

Kate’s Ride - The Map


Route of a food courier during her shift in Copenhagen.

Kate – working for Wolt in Copenhagen and who we interviewed about her work – agreed to track and film her journey through the city. This is a very literal digital trace of her movements during a shift of work. It is a geography produced both “through” and “by” the digital (Ash et. al, 2018). We can see a digital trail of her route, but that route only exists because of digital platforms that determine who orders what foods and also what routes should be used to get between them. Also, it demonstrates clearly how the convenience of the end consumer stands in contrast to the work of the delivery rider cycling all around the city, just to deliver aout 3 meals within an hour.

Kate’s Ride - The Video


Video of a food courier during her shift in Copenhagen.

This fast-paced version of the food courier’s ride emphasises both the sense of pressure experienced by any food delivery worker, pushed to monetise (Chen, 2020) any second spent on the bike, and the multiple minor and more serious dangers along the way. For example, crossing a street in the wrong way while a car arrives in the opposite direction (min 5.49), the constant effort of overcoming other cyclists in order to arrive as quickly as possible to destination, rushing through pedestrians and tables on the pavement to reach the delivery spot (min 9.13 to 9.27), and so on. Furthermore, the increased speed of the video also gives the idea of the stress a delivery cyclist might experience when forced to stop at a red light, or to slow down for a busy narrow path (min 4.30, for example).

See also: Health & Safety , Riders full report  

At the end of the video, the viewer is left with the feeling that a lot of cycling has been done for just a couple of tasks. This impression can be further reinforced by watching the above map reproducing the GPS tracking of a food courier’s journey. Still, thanks to the good cycling infrastructure available in Copenhagen – and the good weather on the day of the shooting – the ride still results pleasant to some extent.

As a researcher based in a location where cars really dominate public streets, I immediately sensed how safe the cycling person was and how the forced stops were just a few, compared to any journey of someone doing the same job here in Italy. Conversely, as in my country there are, generally speaking, more days of sun and warmth, I found myself questioning how such an experience might be in the cold Danish wintertime. Last but not least, to expand on the topic of colours, I reflected on how the light blue of Wolt was shining in this urban landscape: while the other cyclists passed by – unnoticed and undistinguishable – one could immediately spot any food delivery personnel crossing the scene. In my city, the bright yellow of Glovo does the same trick, becoming little by little a familiar, movable urban trace. While such colours can contribute to reduce the risks for cyclists (for example, making them highly visible to car drivers) they are also talking to our psych, being a key branding tool (see this article on marketing, psychology and colours, and Satcharoen, 2017), turning delivery cyclists into two-wheeled living billboards. As a result, the added value (or surplus, as Marx would have it) produced by such workers for platform services is deployed on multiple levels: they concretely make the service possible, they ensure customers can have a closer, physical connection with the platform service, they produce spatial and behavioural data that digital powers can further exploit, they contribute with their cycling in allowing platform businesses to gain space and power in the built environment.

References

Chen, J. Y., & Sun, P. (2020). Temporal arbitrage, fragmented rush, and opportunistic behaviors: The labor politics of time in the platform economy. New Media & Society, 22(9), 1561–1579. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820913567

Markham, A. (2017). Ethnography in the Digital Internet Era: from fields to flows, descriptions to interventions. In Y. S. L. Norman K. Denzin (Ed.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 650–668). SAGE Publications.

Mazzucato, M. (2018). The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. Penguin Books-Random House. https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.8108

Satcharoen, K. (2017). The influence of colour on intention to adopt food delivery service mobile app. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Communication and Information Processing - ICCIP ’17, 87–91. https://doi.org/10.1145/3162957.3163018 

Sultana, F. (2007). Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(3), 374–385.