Bike safety and gig work
March 29, 2023
I was happy to see Kate Wagner’s piece in The Nation calling for a systemic approach to bicycle safety. The status quo is intolerable: drivers are killing bicyclists on an almost daily basis. “Each of these unnecessary deaths is blood on the hands of feckless politicians who refuse to do the necessary work to create streets that would ameliorate the carnage because it requires inconveniencing a certain type of crank who thinks the city exists as a place to park their car.”
But bike advocates can fall into a trap of individualizing the problem too much, calling “car drivers… the villains, those who bike and use public transit their virtuous foils.” More than blaming “someone’s lapse of attention” for a near-death experience, we should look at “the fact that the way our streets and cities are designed creates scenarios in which a lapse of attention can prove deadly.”
The solution: “mass action and solidarity” in the vein of Amsterdam’s 1970s die-ins, of which Kate sees an echo in Chicago’s contemporary Bike Grid Now protests. (See also Safe Street Rebel in San Francisco.) That’s how we force the powers that be to change our streets and guarantee “the right to the city… a right to free movement.”
I think she’s absolutely right, particularly in her point about not demonizing the gig delivery driver who double-parks in a bike lane, because they’re a cog in a brutally exploitative machine that expects them to meet quotas or else. That’s why when Safe Street Rebel did a “Just a Minute” protest on Valencia Street, we didn’t yell at double-parked drivers or key their cars. Instead, we blocked the travel lane around the double-parked car, creating a temporary protected bike lane so bicyclists could safely proceed (and, as a side effect, traffic was blocked) for the duration of the dropoff or pickup.
It’s not that I don’t understand the urge to punish drivers who park in bike lanes. Drivers definitely think that’s less of a big deal than double-parking blocking the traffic lane (but leaving the bike lane open)—which would get them honked at by other drivers. One of the strongest motivators for a driver is to avoid angering other drivers and getting honked at. The result is that when they can’t or don’t want to find a legal parking spot, drivers opt to imperil bicyclists rather than inconveniencing other drivers. Clearly a bad outcome. Siccing the cops on drivers to write an expensive ticket is an attempt to change this calculus. But there’s a practical problem with this approach.1
A worker for a so-called “platform” like Uber, Lyft, Doordash, or Postmates is essentially disposable to their employer.2 The gig economy celebrates working oneself nearly to death, and with earnings as low as $270 a week, bringing home enough to make rent is a matter of completing as many rides/deliveries as possible, as fast as possible. When a worker can’t keep up due to declining health, crashes their car, or gets their car repossessed after missed loan payments, gig companies simply get another worker. There is always another person desperate for work.
Even if we imagine a world in which police rigorously and non-racistly give citations for blocked bike lanes, that citation goes to the worker struggling to make ends meet—not the platform employing them. The platform replaces them with another worker and continues to demand a level of performance that’s impossible to achieve without illegal, hazardous parking.
For this reason, I viewed the passage of California’s Prop 22, which classified gig workers as “independent contractors” not subject to a guaranteed minimum wage, as a blow not just to labor, but to safe streets. As SF State Professor Jason Henderson said in a podcast appearance in March 2020, for parking citations to have an effect here, we would need a legal way to pass over the precarious worker who Uber, Lyft and their ilk use as a human shield,3 and instead give a “billion-dollar parking ticket” directly to the companies that expect and profit from this behavior. Prop 22 made that much harder.
A big part of improving bike safety, of course, is to emphasize infrastructural change over enforcement, in keeping with the CDC’s frequently cited hierarchy of safety controls.4 But we do need to change the culture of driving that sees blocking a bike lane or crosswalk as no big deal. It’s just that it won’t work to change that culture on the backs of precarious workers who don’t have the freedom to take their time and park safer even if they want to.
One specific way bike advocates can express the solidarity Kate calls for, then, is to support efforts to organize gig workers (a notoriously difficult effort), and help stave off adoption of Prop 22–like laws in other states. The bicyclist and the gig driver, much as we might appear to be enemies on the street, actually have something in common: our health is endangered by the cheap labor and high productivity gig employers demand.
Actually, several problems. The first is that the bike community has no actual ability to control the police, who not only display patterns of extreme racial bias, not only barely write traffic tickets for actually dangerous infractions at all, but themselves harbor strong anti-bike, pro-car biases. In fact, I participated in a “Just a Minute” action on Valencia where one of the cars we had to create a temporary people-protected bike lane around was… a cop car, stopping in the bike lane to get coffee two blocks from Mission Station. So if you call for more traffic cops, they’re more likely to cite bike riders, especially of color, who are safely rolling stop signs than to do anything about dangerous driving. ↩
I refuse to accept gig companies’ line that their employees are in fact “independent contractors,” even if they have so far gotten away with writing that absurdity into law in California. ↩
When gig workers are ticketed for blocking bike lanes, the fine is sometimes later waived due to financial hardship. It’s hard to disagree with this, but it’s infuriating that their bosses, who are getting richer than ever, aren’t asked to make up the difference. ↩
A popular graphic often shared on social media and reproduced on FreestyleCyclists.org provides examples of applying the hierarchy to streets: at the highest level is elimination of the hazard (ban cars), then substitution (smaller cars, buses), then engineering (curb- and bollard-protected bike lanes), then process (signs, enforcement and educational campaigns) and lastly personal protective equipment (helmets, hi-viz clothing). ↩