Aimin Liu’s food delivery job is an exercise of muscle memory and physical endurance. He scans the Chinese kitchen’s receipts and addresses before placing his hands on the padded handlebars of his e-bike. Lifting his body, he is off — as fast as the bike will allow, against the sting of the winter wind.
The goal is to deliver 30 to 40 orders a day, six days a week, across New York’s midtown and lower Manhattan, sometimes as far as 20 city blocks away. Liu has been doing this for almost as many years.
“My legs are no good,” Liu tells VOA in Mandarin, rubbing his 59-year-old kneecaps. “Both of my feet hurt. I have arthritis on both sides.”
If it weren’t for his electric motor-powered bicycle, Liu says he might collapse or deliver half the number of orders on any 12-hour shift — not an option in a low-wage profession that is dependent upon customer tips.
But that is the dilemma faced by Liu and thousands of delivery workers, most of them Chinese immigrant workers in their 50s and 60s.
The e-bike — which can typically reach speeds of 32 kilometers per hour — is legal to purchase and own, but illegal to operate on New York streets, thanks to conflicting federal and state regulations.
Workers like Liu have a choice: Use an e-bike and risk confiscation by the New York Police Department (NYPD), along with a $500 ticket, or don’t use an e-bike and jeopardize a benchmark monthly wage.
“We’ll need to appear in court, which means we’ll have to take days off, and to get the bikes back, and to go pay the fine,” explained Liqiang Liu, 45, an e-bike delivery worker and spokesperson for the New York Delivery Workers Union.
“When you are looking at the loss of four to five days’ worth of pay, on top of the $500 fine, we are easily looking at a loss of over $1,000,” he said.
The bags beneath Aimin Liu’s eyes are pronounced. Once a farmer and truck loader in Fujian province, he became a political asylee in the United States in 1991 and now counts the years until he is eligible for social security benefits.
Already, he has had several run-ins with the police for using an e-bike. But lacking English skills and physical strength, he cannot find another job.
Fifty-three-year-old Deqing Lian, who works six 11-hour shifts every week, cares for his wife who is “not well,” and sends additional money to his parents in China. He says the “economic pressure” he faces is worsened by customers’ expectations to cover long distances and do it fast, an outgrowth of computerized ordering systems.
“If we’re too slow, the customers will be unhappy. They would refuse the meal and demand a refund,” Lian said. “And when we get back from the run, our boss would be cursing at us.”
In October, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD announced stricter measures to hold e-bike operators and the restaurants that use them accountable, citing hazardous use.
“E-bikes are too often a danger on the city’s streets and sidewalks,” NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said.
But Do Lee, an advocate for The Biking Public Project and an Environmental Psychology Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says arguments that deem e-bikes unsafe don’t add up and, instead, impoverish “an already impoverished community.”
“It’s largely these very privileged, wealthy residents who are complaining about very low-wage immigrant workers who often don’t have English fluency and are very low-wage, and so they lack a lot of political capital to fight back on this,” Lee said.
His research, citing NYPD data from 2007 to 2015, suggests a disproportionate number of tickets were issued to bicyclists of color based on the neighborhoods where they live and work. Within the food delivery workforce, that largely equates to Latino and Asian immigrants.
‘Simply too old’
Among New York pedestrians and drivers, the very mention of an e-bike sometimes draws a visceral reaction.
“They never stop on the red light; they go in any direction,” said Lana Rayberg, a Belarusian-American artist.
Kyshia Anderson was more sympathetic. “The e-bikes stop faster than the regular bike,” she said. “I’m more paranoid of taxi drivers.”
Like his older peers, Deqing Lian feels he is out of options. Asked whether his kids might be able to help if he were out of a job, he replied, “They are hardly capable of taking care of themselves. How could I expect them care for us?
“We don’t want to rely on the government,” Lian added. “We still have our hands and our feet. But without these e-bikes, we really don’t have any other means. We are simply too old.”