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What it’s like to be a downtown food delivery cyclist: Micallef

For more than two hours, we zigzagged through Toronto's downtown core, dropping off orders for a smartphone-based, on-demand food delivery service.

Doug Howat pedals across the Fort York rail corridor bridge while on the job as food delivery cyclist for Foodora. He says he can make about $20 an hour.

Torstar News Service

Doug Howat pedals across the Fort York rail corridor bridge while on the job as food delivery cyclist for Foodora. He says he can make about $20 an hour.

We rode through the hot city night on an algorithmic ricochet that flicked us around the streets like we were in a video game powered by our sweaty legs.

“You get caught in the vortex,” says Doug Howat, as he pedaled up Bay St., waiting for his phone to buzz with details of his next delivery. “If I ride towards the core I find I’ll get the next delivery faster.”

Howat, 34, invited me to ride along with him to understand the experience of being a two-wheeled delivery rider for Foodora, a smartphone-based, on-demand food delivery service. For over two hours we zigzagged across the downtown core, repeating some routes, visiting one condo building twice, and seeing a side of Toronto that was both culinary and geographic. Chicken. Waffles. Thai. Elevators. Brief concierge chats. Broken elevators. Traffic. Heat. Diesel exhaust. Petulant cab drivers. Speed, then waiting.

“The ability to go inside buildings is another perk of the job,” Howat says. “To see the rooms and hallways behind all those glowing windows. Plaster walls, brass-covered elevators, arched hallways stained with cigarette smoke from the 1970s.”

Food-delivery people on bicycles have quickly become ubiquitous in the city, huffing and puffing away with insulated packs on their backs or lashed to their bikes, their route dispatched by geographic algorithms and, when needed, human intervention. Not so long ago, this was largely the domain of compact cars and take-out joints, though in previous generations, before the personal automobile came to dominate our lives, so much more was delivered. Remember the milkman? I still have dreams of going house to house in my paperboy days: in the time before online comment sections and anonymous Twitter accounts, people let the paperboy know when they didn’t like the news. Oh boy, did they ever.

Doug Howat trying to deliver food to a resident who isn't listed on the concierge's official roster. Often he will have to call to get the name of whoever the unit is registered with.

Torstar News Service

Doug Howat trying to deliver food to a resident who isn't listed on the concierge's official roster. Often he will have to call to get the name of whoever the unit is registered with.

This is just the next technological step to all that. Food delivery like this isn’t just a Toronto thing of course. On a recent trip to the cycling utopia of Amsterdam, delivery companies were also everywhere, but so many more were on gas-powered scooters than here, and they raced through the bike lanes, taking some of the lustre away from the storied safety and tranquility of Dutch cycling. App-based delivery companies in Toronto are still largely pedal-based downtown, but they also use scooters and cars, so expect the Amsterdam experience to rise here.

Howat has a romantic view of the job, and when he asked me to ride along with him he described it as an interesting way to see the city because the choice of where to go was out of his hands. He had recently written about his experience for the Toronto-based cycling magazine Dandyhorse in an essay called, “When exploring is part of the job.”

“At any moment I am simply where I am with no thought of being anywhere else,” he wrote. “It’s a bit like a digitally guided roller coaster through the city, I just strap in and ride along.”

Riding with Howat was an interesting mix of clean and efficient digital directives and the analogue messiness of the city. “Toronto’s roads are like a Hobbesian state of nature: very egalitarian, all against all,” he says. “I get cut off or honked at or have to swerve to avoid doorings, but it’s no worse than what drivers do to one another, or to pedestrians.” He’s had some close calls though and is put at more risk when drivers park in bike lanes.

Despite this, Howat says he genuinely likes his job and the company he works for as an independent contractor. With Foodora he can make around $20 an hour, but up to $30 if he really “kicks harder,” and the best rate he’s sustained over a week is $26. The period we rode together he thinks he made about $16, as having me as sidekick inherently slowed down his passage through the city. People have the option to tip their delivery people in the Foodora app, but often don’t. On one long leg of our night, delivering some Thai from Queen W. and Niagara to Queens Quay and Yonge, there was no tip despite our quick riding.

Doug Howat delivering food at his final destination.

Torstar News Service

Doug Howat delivering food at his final destination.

He also gets flexibility in choosing his shifts, usually three to four on weekdays and one on the weekend. They average eight hours each with as many unpaid breaks as he’d like if he needs to run errands or rest. Though this is his full-time job, it allows time for his other creative pursuits that he hopes one day will be a bigger part of his career. “I definitely don’t see myself doing it when I’m 50.”

As happy as he is with the job, he acknowledges its inherent precariousness. There’s no long-term security and there’s also the constant danger of being injured (remember he rides a bike in Toronto traffic.) His bike is a $1,300 racing model, but he painted over the decals and added duct tape here and there to make it look like an old workhorse to avoid being the target of Toronto’s industrious bike thieves. If it’s stolen, he’s out of luck too. It’s a common condition for many people working in other parts of the “gig economy.”

“The whole notion of occupational health and safety doesn’t seem to be included in the business plan of much of this kind of work. In other words, all the risk is shouldered by the cyclist,” says Andrew Cash, a former MP who pushed for precarious work reforms and co-founded the Urban Worker Project, an initiative to give a stronger voice to the growing numbers of independent workers across the country. “And for sure, you may get that ‘well I like working this way’ and I’d say amen to that. I like working this way too. But just because you like it doesn’t mean it should be so unstable, it doesn’t mean you should be taking on so much of the risk alone.”

(Full disclosure: I was part of an informal group of advisers that Cash gathered together as the project was being conceived.)

Built-in exercise, a certain amount of freedom and flexibility, not a bad wage, and the bonus of exploring the city make Howat’s job compelling. As more people are drawn into this very new version of a time-honoured vocation, hopefully some of that precariousness can be stabilized as the industry matures. Something to remember when you place your next poutine order.

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