Fast food, faster bikes: On the road with the e-bike couriers of Sheffield
‘If you’re not taking risks you’re not trying hard enough’
By Dan Hayes
Tuesday lunchtime. Six days before Christmas. An e-bike courier stands near the steps of the High Street branch of Lloyds Bank opposite McDonald’s. He’s dressed in the distinctive turquoise livery of a Deliveroo rider, with a cube-shaped rucksack strapped to his back. His hood is up and a balaclava covers his face so that all you can see are his eyes. I try to engage him in conversation, but it quickly becomes apparent that, due to a language barrier, much by way of mutual understanding will probably be beyond us. I just about manage to ascertain that it's his first day on the job, but our chat remains strained. I try to explain to him why I’m asking all these stupid questions, but he seems to think I’m after a job.
It’s been just over a decade since Deliveroo first began trading in London, using smartphone technology to speed up and automate the takeaway delivery business. Since then, as more and more people have gotten used to the idea that almost anything can be delivered directly to your door quickly, there’s been an arms race between Deliveroo and competitors from Just Eat and Uber Eats to firms that do groceries as well as food like Getir and Gopuff. As a result, the number of couriers on our roads has increased rapidly — as has the money at stake. The need to keep up with this pace in order to make money has produced a market for ever bigger and faster e-bikes, which now zoom constantly around our city centre. Our insatiable appetite for convenience is effectively making our streets a less safe place.
The vehicle belonging to the balaclava-covered courier looks like a fairly typical mountain bike — except for the oversized frame where its electric motor is stored. In the UK, legal e-bikes are limited to 15.5 miles per hour and must rely predominantly on pedal power. Many of those currently used by food couriers in Sheffield are much faster than that, either by design or by heavy modification. With thick tyres and big electric motors, they are essentially electric motorbikes, and therefore illegal, but enforcing the law is a different matter.
Figures from the last census show that there were 2,255 delivery drivers and couriers living in Sheffield, many of whom will be using e-bikes. I come into contact with them often on my regular runs around the city centre, sometimes having to take evasive action to avoid them coming towards me. Some of the pavements I run on are shared walk and cycle ways, but many are pedestrian-only, meaning you shouldn’t even be riding a regular bike on them. A vehicle that can do 30 miles per hour with a heavy electric motor in it could do some real damage. “This one is legal,” the man assures me. How much do they cost, I ask? “I don’t know,” he replies.
I speak to two other couriers outside Lloyds. Mustafa, from Sudan, is a slight man with a shock of curly black hair poking out of his snood. His bike, which isn’t one of the really powerful-looking ones, cost him about £500. It could be road legal, but it’s difficult for me to tell. When I ask what’s most difficult about his job, Mustafa responds that it’s the irregular pay. So-called “gig economy” workers are paid by the delivery rather than by the hour, meaning that if they don’t get through enough jobs, their income will suffer. A Bureau of Investigative Journalism report from 2021 found that some Deliveroo riders were earning less than £2 an hour during shifts at the same time as the firm’s boss got a £500 million windfall. “Sometimes enough, sometimes not,” Mustafa tells me.
Mustafa’s friend is from Eritrea, and agrees about the pay, but adds that sometimes other cars on the road can make the job dangerous — with statistics showing that South Yorkshire is one of the most dangerous places to be a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorcyclist in the UK, it’s easy to see why some of the couriers would prefer to ride on the pavement. He tells me that his main job is as a support worker, and being a food courier is something he does to make up income in his spare time. “I’m on holiday now,” he says. It doesn’t look like much of a holiday to me. The cold, though, is less of a problem than the physical labour. “The hills are very hard,” he says.
Jobs tend to come more regularly after 5pm, especially when the weather is bad. It’s almost 5pm now, and the rain and wind are getting worse. Soon enough they’re out on jobs, so I sit and watch their colleagues come and go instead. One Just Eat rider uses a break in his orders to fix his bike seat by hammering it with a spanner. Shortly afterwards, two Deliveroo riders set off up Fargate in tandem, fighting their way past the crowds. The second seems to still be adjusting to his e-bike and crashes into a hostile vehicle barrier. His electric motor is strapped to the frame using masking tape. Almost none of the couriers wear much by way of protective equipment like helmets or high-vis clothing. Some do have decent boots and waterproof trousers, and huge handlebar mittens to keep their hands warm. As one courier rides away, he leaves a trail of his breath streaming in the air.
The couriers seem invisible to the throng of Christmas shoppers — but not to each other. They shake hands, chat, and help each other out with their kit when needed. They seem to know and get along well with some of the staff at the German Doner Kebab shop, which has a separate entrance on York Street which they use. At most other shops, however, such as McDonald’s over the road, they just wait in line to be handed their deliveries. No one even speaks to them. It strikes me as a completely thankless task. The fact that they all seem to be very recent immigrants makes this feel infinitely worse.
For people who find themselves at the bottom of the pile, trade unions were historically the vehicle to win better pay and working conditions. But attempts by food couriers to flex their collective muscles have so far been mixed. In the winter of 2021-22, Sheffield was the site of the longest gig economy strike ever, when couriers for Stuart Delivery won some concessions on pay and conditions. However, a UK Supreme Court ruling last month found that Deliveroo workers could not be classified as employees, meaning that they will still be denied the minimum wage, statutory sick pay, and the right to collective negotiations on both pay and conditions. Deliveroo described the ruling as a “victory for flexible working”. The ruling effectively means that — barring a change in the law, as is currently proposed by Labour — the gig economy is here to stay.
Recent changes in the industry have not gone unnoticed in Sheffield. “I know these guys work long hours for not much pay [but] I can't help but feel anxious whenever I drive through the city centre,” one resident wrote in a recent thread on Reddit. “The sheer number of guys that have strapped a motor to an old mountain bike and thrash around the city with no helmet on… makes me worry.” Another, who identifies himself as a bus driver in the city, says the police should crack down on the problem before someone gets seriously hurt.
One person on the thread seems to know more about the way the industry has changed recently than the others, so I arrange to give him a call. A former courier himself, he says that until a few years ago, the industry employed mainly students and young people from Sheffield trying to earn a bit of extra pocket money. However, this has now morphed into an industry which almost exclusively employs very recent immigrants, often coming from countries where material poverty leads to a “hustle culture” where low-level, risky, yet non-violent law breaking is more common.
The former courier, Andrew, said he worked in the industry for around five months between 2017 and 2018. At that time it was just about possible to make money using a legal electric bike. But over time, the complicated algorithms used by the big delivery firms like Deliveroo have increasingly prioritised speed by “rewarding” fast couriers with more deliveries. Andrew says this incentivises law breaking. “If you’re not taking risks you’re not trying hard enough,” he says. “But if you're constantly pushing lights and crossings and junctions, sooner or later you’re going to get something wrong.”
For the couriers, however, time is money. As I wander home, one of them zooms past me on his way up South Street. When I get to the entrance, William, who is also from Eritrea, is looking a bit confused. He’s carrying a delivery of two hot drinks from Caffè Nero (the cups are fully sealable now, which I hadn’t realised) to a flat at Park Hill, but he doesn’t know how to use the intercom. The customer doesn't want to come to the door, so I offer to show William where he has to go. As I lead the way, we get talking.
It turns out William is a former asylum seeker whose claim has recently been accepted, meaning he can now work. When he came to the UK he first went to Belfast before moving to Sheffield when he got leave to remain earlier this year. Eritrea, a country in East Africa which borders Ethiopia, is considered one of the most repressive in the world, where persecution and forced military conscription are common. But William says the ease of finding better paid work was also a factor in his decision to come to the UK.
Like all of the other couriers I meet, William’s English is poor, making communication difficult. He is currently taking language classes at Sheffield College. He lives on London Road, and has been couriering for about a month. His bike is electric, but his motor, which is strapped to the frame, is not as powerful as many of the others you see. The ones with the big tyres are much faster, he tells me, but it’s a case of putting together enough money to buy one.
Ditto for the large handlebar-mounted mittens that many of the couriers have. William has some regular woolly gloves on which look like they would be fine for walking around town, but could leave your fingers a bit chilly if you’re whizzing up and down Sheffield’s hills in the winter. He says he’ll buy some when he has enough money. It’s cold and hard work, he admits, but the electric motor makes it easier. Of all the places he could have gone, why did he come to Sheffield? “I like this city,” he says.
During the gig economy strike last year, Now Then magazine highlighted economist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which argues gig economy workers are an entirely new social class defined by “unstable labour arrangements, lack of identity and erosion of rights”. However, as well as being downtrodden, Standing also says he believes that, if organised, this dangerous new precariat class has huge “transformative potential” to bring about change. To me, these poor people don’t look dangerous to anyone other than themselves. They look like the most exploited people in our city.
None of the people we spoke to for this article are shown in these photographs. As always, paying members can let us know what they think about Sheffield’s food delivery industry and the firms that profit from it in the comments section.