The constant thefts of their electric bikes have led New York City’s food delivery workers to organize themselves over the past two years, using Facebook and WhatsApp to create a city-wide support network and community watch group.
Their community activism is partially based on traditional Indigenous Mexican forms of organization.
On a cold, rainy November night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Juan Solano rides his electric bicycle through the city streets. Soaking wet with water in his boots, he still manages to keep a smile on his face as he battles the natural elements.
He knows by heart the addresses of all the buildings in the neighborhood; some of the largest ones have separate service entrances that workers must use. He’s one of the approximately 60,000 food delivery workers who keep New York City afloat, working for apps like Grubhub, Doordash and Relay.
Solano has been a delivery worker for the past four years since arriving in the United States from his hometown, San Juan Puerto Montaña, in Guerrero, Mexico. He’s seen his fair share of incidents — two traffic accidents and a robbery last year.
According to The New York Times, electric-bicycle thefts increased 98% between 2019 and 2020. The bikes, which delivery workers depend on, cost around $2,000 apiece and are frequently sold on the black market.
The NYPD says they don’t have data for the number of robberies this year, but a Facebook page created by Juan Solano and his three cousins Sergio, Cesar and Marcelino Solano, El Diario de los Delivery Boys en la Gran Manzana, has documented at least 70 bike thefts in the past three months.
“When the pandemic started, people started robbing us with guns, with knives, or three people would take your bike,” recalls Antony Chavez, another delivery worker.
The distances they needed to travel also became much longer, increasing the number of traffic accidents. The application Relay, which Juan uses, is one of the few that pays an hourly wage of $12.50 plus tips — but in exchange riders have to accept all the orders that come in, even if it’s just a single slice of pizza delivered 50 blocks away.
And if there’s an accident, “When you fall with a bicycle . . . and you need to go to an ambulance, who will take care of your bicycle?” asked Juan. “The ambulance doesn’t take the bike.”
The Solano cousins started the Delivery Boys Facebook page in November 2020 to share information with their community. At that time, Juan remembers, delivery workers were barely organized, and most thefts occurred with impunity. Now two years later, the page has more than 43,000 followers and conditions have improved, even as robberies continue on a daily basis.
The workers created a mutual support network using seven WhatsApp groups.
“They are communicating in real time, and if someone steals your bike [or is hit in a traffic accident], they immediately send an alert to the group and go [to the scene] and recover the bikes,” explains Ambar Reyes, a researcher at MIT who has been studying the Delivery Boys. They use different means to catch thieves, such as installing hidden GPSs on bikes or physically going to the location where the robbery occurred within minutes of it happening.
“We get at least three cases a day,” Juan told The Indupendent.
In fact, during the Delivery Boys’ own anniversary celebration, there was an accident just a few blocks away at 110th St. and 1st Ave. “In five minutes, about 20 colleagues were gathered,” Juan said proudly. “We were able to help faster than the police.”
In particular, Juan says robberies used to occur daily along the Willis Avenue Bridge between the South Bronx and East Harlem. He and his cousins don’t frequently cross it, since they live in East Harlem and most of their work is in Manhattan, but when they heard complaints from several of their compañeros, they knew it was time to organize.
Starting in June 2021, they launched a community watch group.
“We have urged everyone to cross in groups so as not to be assaulted, because the people who take our bicycles — if they see you alone, they’ll take [your bike], but if they see that there are five or six of you, they do nothing, because even they are afraid of us,” says Solano.
Despite holding protests addressing the NYPD and making demands to install security cameras and put more lighting on the bridge, the deliverers never received a clear response from the police.
In the absence of police support, “we help ourselves,” Juan explains. “The people save the people.”
At 125th St. and 1st Ave., at the entrance to the bridge, a rotating group would stand guard from 8 p.m. until the early hours of the morning. If someone was robbed, they would immediately go to the middle of the bridge to help them.
Juan and his cousins come from the Tlapaneca Indigenous community, isolated from the mainstream culture in Mexico. Spanish is actually Juan’s second language.
Their “forms of social organization in New York and in Mexico are born from the same reason; which is a lack of help from the government when they need help,” says Reyes.
In addition to community watch groups, which are common in Guerrero and other states in Mexico, the Delivery Boys use Facebook live broadcasts like a community radio station, a form of communication also common in Mexican rural and Indigenous communities, according to Reyes.
The on-site watch ended about eight months ago when they saw the robberies decrease, but the space under the bridge remains a place of unity between Manhattan and the Bronx; that’s where they celebrated their anniversary, with a birthday cake, mariachi music and the raffle of a new electric bicycle.
The Delivery Boys, along with other groups, make up the NYC Food Delivery Movement.
Self-sustaining and without ties to NGOs or local politicians, “We are not an organization, we are just a movement and what we do is move around the city,” explains Sergio Solano.
Conditions remain difficult. Founder of another Facebook page, El Chapín en Dos Ruedas, Antony Chavez, originally from Guatemala, lives in the Bronx but keeps his bike in a Manhattan parking lot for safety.
Rolando Reras, with four years delivering under his belt, now uses a shared bike from the city instead of his own; he’s already had his own stolen and is “afraid it will be stolen again.”
Many delivery workers have lost their lives. On Nov. 2, during Day of the Dead celebrations, the Delivery Boys created a traditional ofrenda under the Willis Avenue Bridge commemorating the at least 18 delivery boys who died over the past year.
One of them is Tiburcio Castillo, who passed away after being assaulted crossing the same bridge in June of this year.
Still, the workers are proud that in recent months they have been able to recover more of the stolen bicycles, thanks to the GPSs with which they can locate them.
“Right now I have about ten GPSes to give away to my followers, to encourage them” to use them, said Chavez.
In fact, just last month the Delivery Boys recovered a stolen bike.
“Even though the compañero gave it up for lost, today thanks to the [GPS] it appeared in Manhattan,” the page reads. “[After] an intense search the compañeros from the WhatsApp group were able to recover it.”