In an industry rife with anecdote, where some bike couriers are known to brag about their income or cry poor, one veteran rider is pulling back the curtain.
It's not an easy life – a hospital visit is usually just one oblivious driver away and the weather turns hostile a few months each year – but this man says doing bicycle food deliveries now is better than the "sweatshop on wheels" he remembers as a traditional courier. And he realized that every day he worked he was creating a stream of data that could show the real picture of life on two wheels. So he started to post his mileage and earnings online, hoping to cut through the rhetoric and keep the blog going long enough to make a robust, albeit one-person, data set.
The man, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of losing his livelihood, is posting his data at openmessenger.wordpress.com. The early numbers suggest an industry where no rider will get rich, but one in which someone willing to hustle can do much better than minimum wage. Through Thursday of this week he had ridden about 12 hours for UberEats, covering 167 kilometres and making just under $250. A change by the company last month in how it pays couriers has actually helped, he said, resulting in him earning slightly more money for a delivery.
"The high-earning couriers are being rewarded now," the man said in an interview this week. "They've weeded out the casuals."
But this is still precarious employment in which the pieceworker carries the risk and discomfort.
This blogger's bike was wrecked recently by a driver pulling away from a parking spot, forcing him to source a new one. He wasn't working when the collision happened, but this is an ever-present danger. He turned up to talk wearing many layers, arguing that "you're not actually a courier until you work through a winter." On one particularly snowy December day, though, a combination of a broken shoelace and a "surly" laundromat woman left him riding a long way back downtown from Jane and Finch with a wet and very cold foot. And he acknowledged having thousands of dollars of traffic fines hanging over his head, justifying them by arguing that no one following all the laws would be able to ride fast enough to make even minimum wage.
And while the man says that these are halcyon days for the fastest couriers, he worries about what will happen if Uber learns his identity, or gets too powerful.
"The goings are good right now," he said. "But in five years, when Uber has a monopoly, you'll be able to look back [and compare to] see how these people are being stepped on."
The nature of piecework means that earnings generated as a delivery-cyclist jump around dramatically. Data provided by the blogging courier show the numbers for a few days riding in November and January:
Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016
Time riding: 2 hours and 58 minutes
Total earnings: $86
Hourly rate: $28.99
Distance ridden: 38 kilometres
Earnings a kilometre: $2.26
Friday, Nov. 25, 2016
Time riding: 2 hours and 47 minutes
Total earnings: $46
Hourly rate: $16.53
Distance ridden: 52 kilometres
Earnings a kilometre: $0.88
Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017
Time riding: 2 hours and 26 minutes
Total earnings: $43.50
Hourly rate: $17.88
Distance ridden: 45 kilometres
Earnings a kilometre: $0.97
Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017
Time riding: 4 hours and 37 minutes
Total earnings: $100
Hourly rate: about $21.66
Distance ridden: 50 kilometres
Earnings a kilometre: $2
Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017
Time riding: 2 hours and 29 minutes
Total earnings: $47
Hourly rate: about $18.93
Distance ridden: 35 kilometres
Earnings a kilometre: $1.34