Op-ed | It’s time for New York City to regulate delivery apps

Delivery biker arriving at destination – motogirl
Delivery work is now, by far, the deadliest job in New York City, writes Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris.
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It’s happened to all of us. 

Maybe you were crossing the street, biking to work, or taking your kid to school when, out of nowhere, an e-bike zoomed across your path — putting you in harm’s way. 

Complaints of reckless riding, crashes, e-bikes on the sidewalk, and unlicensed mopeds and motorcycles have become constant in New York City. At Transportation Alternatives, we’ve been fighting for safer streets in New York City for over 50 years, and we know something has to change. 

In 2016, Silicon Valley launched the first “same-day” delivery apps — and wreaked havoc on New York City’s streets. Today, these companies—– such as DoorDash, Instacart, Seamless, and UberEats — are in a constant race to the bottom, and they don’t care about safety, be it yours or that of their workers. 

As more and more New Yorkers rely on delivered food, goods, and medicine, delivery companies have, in turn, promised impossible delivery windows that drive dangerous working conditions and make our streets less safe. Delivery work is now, by far, the deadliest job in New York City. Delivery workers aren’t just in danger at work, uncertified batteries are also causing deadly fires across the city. Razor-thin margins incentivize behavior that puts everyone last — except for the companies’ shareholders. 

New York City has walked this road before — and with some of the very same tech companies. More than a decade ago, the app-based for-hire vehicle industry was born, and similarly brought sudden change and disruption to New York City’s streets. In both app-based systems, the speed of transportation and number of deliveries is a core function resting on immense pressure to complete as many trips as quickly as possible. What followed the launch of each of these new industries was congestion, crashes, chaos, labor violations, and a rising danger to all New Yorkers.

When New York City regulated for-hire vehicles, we learned that the most effective and equitable way to overcome the risks associated with new options is to create rules and resources — like vehicle standards, maximum working hours, and protections against wage theft — that encourage or require users to avoid these risks. Regulatory measures can mandate a safe systems approach that ensures safe and legal riding, just like it did with Uber and Lyft. 

New York City doesn’t have to choose between safety and better transportation — with care, we can and should have both. Of course, everyone from drivers to bike riders to those on e-scooters must respect traffic laws and the most vulnerable people on our streets: pedestrians. 

The status quo is unsustainable, and we’re not the only ones who have noticed. Last month, Mayor Adams proposed a brand-new city agency to finally regulate these delivery companies: the Department of Sustainable Delivery. 

As longtime leaders when it comes to transportation policy, urban planning best practices, and sustainable cities, we have some ideas for what this new department can and should look like. 

The City’s efforts must center safety, especially for the most vulnerable New Yorkers, and support the 70,000 delivery workers who put their life in harm’s way for low-pay to deliver our food. To start, a regulatory agency should provide training and support to delivery workers; hold the apps accountable for dangerous conditions and wage theft; create an accountability mechanism to address reckless driving; standardize batteries and charging; and ensure that our sidewalks and intersections remain sacred spaces for pedestrians.

Change is an opportunity for growth, and our city must take the long-view, seeking greener, cheaper, and more equitable modes across the five boroughs — instead of knee-jerk reactions to ban and restrict. 

The implementation of minimum pay has already led to delivery workers riding at safer slower speeds. Let’s expand approaches that work — finally putting everyday New Yorkers above the app companies. You can read more about our ideas for a successful, effective, and fair Department of Sustainable Delivery. 

As a city forever at the forefront of innovation, it is time for New York City to also get out front and lead. We applaud Mayor Adams’ commitment to taking this on — doing so must create a hub to welcome and work with new companies and modes in a manner that meets the needs of New Yorkers.

The status quo isn’t working for anyone, it’s dangerous and unpredictable. It’s time to learn from our past, and regulate instant delivery apps the same way we regulate for-hire vehicles. The safety of our fellow New Yorkers — be they delivery workers, children crossing the street, or older New Yorkers walking down the sidewalk — depends on it.

Danny Harris is Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives