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Battle for the Streets

How Chicago bike deliverers fight wind, roads, and cars to deliver your food

It was a slippery, rainy October evening in Chicago, but Angel Amado, who had been delivering food on his bike for about four years, was determined to make some bonus cash running orders for the independent on-demand food delivery service DoorDash. That’s how he found himself speeding over the Wells Street Bridge, which carries cars, bikes, and pedestrians across the Chicago River in the Loop. The city had outfitted the bridge with paved bike lanes a few years before, but the vehicle portion in the middle is like a metal cheese grater, Amado says. As he rushed along the path, his bike started to slip and glide off the drenched concrete. The wheels lost traction, and ended up tossing him into the traffic lane.

“I broke my hand. I broke my knee. I was out,” he says. “I tried to pick myself up; I couldn't because my hand was broken. I couldn't stand up because of my leg, so I couldn't drag myself. I was basically stuck on the bridge.” A motorist got out of his car to stop traffic from running Amado over, and another passerby hopped over the pedestrian walkway on the bridge to pull him to safety. Amado spent the next four months recovering, unable to ride or deliver.

For Amado and other Chicago bike messengers, navigating the city’s streets on two wheels presents numerous obstacles. Chicago’s infamous winter weather conditions — from freezing temperatures and bitter winds to icy roads and snow — are the least of bike messengers’ worries. Traffic and tense relationships with drivers are also hurdles in their daily journeys. As cities like Chicago try to make their roads safer for cyclists, people who rely on their bikes for their livelihood find themselves in a constant battle with drivers over territory and rights of ways in "bike-friendly" streets that are still a work in progress. Yet despite the challenges, bike messengers like Amado spend days and nights delivering meals, with no plans to stop soon.

Eater wanted to know exactly how tough food delivery is in Chicago and what riders like Amado experience on a regular basis. To help, Amado, who works as a bike delivery driver for a Chicago Potbelly sandwich location in addition to DoorDash, agreed to wear a Microsoft Band fitness tracker for 24 hours, covering one evening shift for DoorDash and one day shift for Potbelly. The band let Eater track his heart rate, calories, stress levels, and routes during his delivery shifts. The data revealed just how perilous delivery work can be in a city whose motorists, climate, and changing infrastructure can be relentless to cyclists.

To circumvent the weather and prevent accidents like the one on the bridge, Amado watches the forecasts religiously. During the first evening he wore the fitness tracker, it was a wintry 33 degrees, warmer than the average 25 degrees for this time of year. But the cold is not the scariest issue, he says.

“If a biker dresses properly, you don't feel the cold until you stop moving. We sweat with all our layers on. Right now, I probably have like five layers on,” he says, pointing out the ski goggles he wears to protect his face from Chicago’s winds; his gloves, with compartments for hand warmers; and multiple layers of socks and body liners.

According to the band, Amado’s body temperature stayed high at the beginning of his night shift, but started to decrease the longer he stayed outside. The next morning, during his shift with Potbelly, his average temperatures were much lower.

But Amado says it’s really the ground condition that determines whether he’ll ride or how many DoorDash orders he will take. When the ground is wet, sometimes the risk isn’t worth it. “If it's too slippery on the ground for me to survive, if I can't stop, that's when I say, ‘Okay, I'm nothing compared to a car,’” he says. “I think about my kids and say, ‘Slow down.’” After all, wet conditions are what caused his accident on the bridge.

Aside from weather, in order to stay safe and make it through his shifts, Amado has to be aware of traffic conditions and know the safest, quickest routes. That’s where bike lanes become important. Most of the streets Amado traveled during his routes have bike lanes, according to the fitness tracker’s GPS and city bike lane data, but almost none have protected bike lanes, which use barriers to separate cyclists from traffic.

But despite Chicago’s growing number of bike lanes, cyclists and drivers still clash. And that tension, which is pervasive, is one of the most stressful parts of bike delivery work, Amado says.

“Dude, those people want to kill you. I'm not even kidding,” Amado says, describing one incident in Columbus, Ohio, during the Doo Dah Fourth of July parade. Spectators, including children and families, watched someone drive an SUV in the parade with a bike attached to the front bender and a pair of dummy legs hanging out of the sun roof. A large neon green sign on the side of the car read, “I'll share the road when you follow the rules." It shook many in the cycling community, including Amado. “They allowed that to be a float in a parade. I am literally pissed about it,” he says. “That's probably the most stressful part, is the cars.”

Nighttime rides can be worse for traffic clashes. “At night you not only get more drivers because everybody's off work, but you get the people frustrated from working eight hours — the ones that decide to go to the bar after work, and get in their car,” he says. “A lot of unnecessary drivers that don't need to be driving [are out] after 5 p.m. It just makes it a lot scarier.” And nights are when Amado does most of his shifts for DoorDash.

This tension between drivers and cyclists has been a challenge for the City of Chicago, which makes its “bike-friendly” streets a selling point, pitched to tourists and future residents. In recent years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has introduced several initiatives aimed at preventing bike accidents and making Chicago one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. The Bike 2015 Plan is aimed at increasing ridership and reducing injuries, the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 aims to build a 645-mile network of on-street bikeways in the city, and most recently, Vision Zero Chicago hopes to reduce all traffic accidents, including ones involving bikes. That’s all not to mention the city’s much-touted bike-sharing program Divvy.

But despite the efforts, the number of bicycle deaths remains constant, with an average of six deaths a year between 2005 and 2014. The city says the unchanging number is due to an increase in cyclists on Chicago streets, where they clash with cars. Still, the stories are haunting and recent. In August 2016, a 20-year-old Art Institute student was riding her bike when she was struck and killed by a semi-trailer that crossed into the bike lane. The very next day, a 58-year-old Chicago rider was killed in a hit-and-run. Both events occurred just days after Illinois lawmakers approved Dennis’ Law, a bill that gives Illinois cyclists the same right of ways as other vehicles. That bill was named after Dennis Jurs, a 68-year-old who was killed on his bike in 2015 by a car that failed to yield at an intersection. A judge later dismissed the driver’s traffic citation, ruling that bikes were not vehicles and therefore did not have the same right of way as cars, prompting the bill’s proposal.

Mike Henry, the Midwest regional manager for DoorDash, said in an email that the company takes several steps to protect the 5 to 10 percent of their deliverers who don’t use cars. That includes providing commercial insurance and limiting the orders they can take during risky weather. There’s also a live support system for riders to call if they are in an accident.

But Amado manages to take things easy and keep his cool in the streets, despite riding through some of the area’s most dangerous intersections. The Microsoft Band tracked Amado’s stress levels throughout his DoorDash shift. It measures stress using galvanic skin response, or the micro-levels of moisture the skin produces in moments of stimulation. The data shows that at the start of his Thursday night shift for DoorDash, his stress levels increased, but stayed steady throughout the night.

As stressful as the job can be, Amado says bike delivery has made him healthier. During a two-hour shift with Potbelly, Amado rode 10 miles at an average speed of five miles per hour, burning 1,355 calories. The night before, with DoorDash, he rode only two miles in nearly two and a half hours, but still burned 1,256 calories. Delivery work, Amado says, has helped him lose 100 pounds and get back in shape.

“When I was driving [in a car], I was 310 pounds. I went back to biking because I was on the verge of killing myself from being a really big guy. I decided to change that: got back into biking, started thinking healthier,” he says. “I went from 310 to 210; that's when I got hurt.” It’s also what motivated him during his post-accident recovery.

That’s part of the reason Amado says he loves delivering food on his bike. At some point, he’d forgotten what percent of his time riding is for work and how much is for pleasure, he says. Despite the Chicago weather and tension between the city’s motorists and cyclists, Amado doesn’t have plans to stop riding. In many ways, biking and delivery have saved his life.

Vince Dixon is Eater's data visualization reporter. John Carvajal is a Colombian-American cartoonist living in snowy Vermont, where he received a MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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