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A pedestrian and a rider on an electric bike at the intersection of Spadina Ave. and Richmond St. West in downtown Toronto in 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Corey Mintz is the author of The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants As We Knew Them.

The convenience economy has certainly solved some problems that are, well, inconvenient. Need some household items, but no time to run errands? Forgot to pick up some ingredients for feeding the dinner guests you’re hosting later? Or perhaps you’re craving a particular meal from that restaurant located way across town, but you’d rather not take the time to travel there? Thanks to third-party delivery services such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, SkipTheDishes and others, the solution is now literally at our fingertips. We can summon the speedy delivery of soggy fries to our doorsteps at any time of day.

While these particular problems may have been solved, however, the convenience economy has also spawned an entirely new set of quagmires for the municipalities in which they operate. Take this emerging set of issues, for example: Bike lanes overrun by small motorized vehicles. Commuters trapped on train cars with barricaded doors. Exploding lithium-ion batteries.

This is where we are at with electric bikes, increasingly preferred as the mode of transport by couriers for third-party delivery services.

Lately, we’ve started to experience entirely predictable problems resulting from the increase in e-bike use. Faster than a bicycle, yet more navigable in traffic and easier to park than a car, e-bikes have become a fixture of city streets, sidewalks and bike lanes, where they are never quite the right size or speed for any of those paths. As their riders wait to pick up orders, the battery-powered bikes congregate on sidewalks in front of popular restaurants, inconveniencing pedestrians and discouraging dine-in customers. Recent social-media photos and complaints have stemmed from Southwestern Ontario’s GO commuter trains, where excess e-bikes are overcrowding and even blocking doors and exits on cars intended for the transport of just two bicycles. It’s an inevitable result of a growing low-income work force that lives in the more affordable municipalities surrounding large cities, who must travel into an urban centre to service a wealthier clientele accustomed to ultraconvenience. (I recently witnessed an e-bike courier deliver a burger and soda to a resident who lived across the street from a Harvey’s.) Most shockingly, the lithium-ion batteries that power these bikes have been starting deadly fires, which are so common that they are now the third leading cause of fires in New York, according to the city’s fire department.

That’s a lot of problems stemming from just one product, even one as helpful as the e-bike. Not to mention, as e-bike couriers have now joined the legions of delivery workers classified by app companies as “contractors,” these workers have also long been denied access to bathrooms (more on this later), and are left to fend for themselves when finding a toilet. In my experience writing about logistical and ethical challenges in hospitality, the industry’s problems never seem to concern the majority of diners or politicians. But I think we’re one viral photo of a food courier peeing in a bottle away from the public suddenly caring.

So what should be done about the challenges presented by e-bikes? And whose responsibility is it?

Certain problems are easier to assign accountability for. Transit issues, in particular, are the responsibility of cities and provinces, and some are (slowly) stepping up to the plate in responding to e-bikes. A spokesperson for Metrolinx, the agency that manages several transportation systems in Southern Ontario, says that they are increasing bike capacity on certain GO trains to alleviate the aforementioned congestion, and are in the process of procuring coaches designed for the storage of e-bikes. Every bike or e-bike is potentially one less car in use. So that’s a net gain. But the advantages are limited if we don’t build the network of bike paths needed. The exception is perhaps Vancouver, which has an enviable web of separated bike lanes. Ontario, and more specifically Toronto’s, strategy of building transit for the needs of the population it had 40 years ago is failing to adapt to emerging needs like this. Most cities, with their urban versus suburban constituencies, are still fighting a bike-lane battle road by road. That attitude is incompatible with the creation of a network needed for today’s urban environment.

The other problems posed by e-bikes have proven more difficult to solve, largely because the general strategy of the companies responsible for creating the convenience economy has been characterized by growth at all costs, with no regard for consequences. Many of the challenges e-bike couriers (and other app delivery workers) face – from finding a place to go pee, to access to safe workplace equipment – are traditionally the responsibilities of employers. But these particular employers have successfully avoided responsibility through the categorization of their workers as “independent contractors.”

From its inception, the gig economy has been based on the use of workers who, technically speaking, don’t work as full-time employees for food-delivery companies, even if that’s exactly what they do. “Independent contractors” benefit, as Uber and their pals will tell you, from the flexibility to work the hours they choose. But in every other way, they have less control and protection over their earnings, benefits, overtime, bargaining rights and safety. After California passed a 2019 law that required gig workers to be classified as employees, companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spent more than US$200-million on Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that successfully overturned that law. After their victory, Uber vowed to replicate this strategy in other states and countries. This lobbying can be seen in Ontario through Uber’s Flexible Work+ campaign, a lobbying effort unveiled in 2021 in which Uber directly asked provincial governments “to require our industry to provide self-directed benefits … [and] enhanced worker protections.” It’s a strange recognition of employment standards that Uber realizes would be nice for gig workers, but that it won’t be implementing without its peers being required to follow suit.

In the absence of delivery companies taking on full responsibility for their workers, it should be up to our governments to intervene. To its credit, Ontario has taken action on the bathroom-access issue, making it the only province or territory to do so, to my knowledge. Since March 1, 2022, the province has required businesses to provide washroom access to couriers delivering to or from a workplace – though it’s a hard rule to enforce. “In practice, that law is not universally followed,” says Brice Sopher, vice-president of the advocacy group Gig Workers United. Mr. Sopher, who has worked as a courier since 2015, estimates that about 15 per cent of the time, restaurant owners or employees will stop couriers from using their washrooms, and many businesses have signs posted stating that washrooms are not for couriers.

The more terrifying consequences of e-bikes that demand a legislative solution are the fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, stemming from less expensive, second-hand or repaired batteries prone to overheating. In 2022, half of Vancouver’s 10 fire fatalities were from blazes started by rechargeable batteries. A spokesperson for the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services says that so far this year they have had 24 fires started by rechargeable batteries, averaging one a week.

This year, after a slew of deaths caused by rechargeable battery fires, Uber began a pilot project in New York to determine the “best approaches for providing safer, discounted e-bike rental and purchase options for delivery people, as well as a pilot trade-in program.” And the e-bike company Zoomo provides discounted rentals for Uber Eats couriers. But why is this a problem for each company to solve? Why do I have to ask Uber, Skip and their peers about policies that should be a matter of public safety regulation? If these companies require a work force that depends on e-bikes, why do we not have laws requiring the provision of transportation with batteries that don’t burst into flames?

No, tipping couriers well won’t solve these problems. Fighting these companies on the legal fiction that their employees are not employees, and not letting them get away with rewriting our labour laws, is how we can do something about it.

These aren’t unintended or unforeseeable consequences any more than being full is an unintended consequence of eating. They are predictable repercussions of businesses that disrupt not merely our dining habits, but our economy, culture and transportation systems. They highlight a key role of government – to ensure that the private-interest desire for profit doesn’t infringe on the public’s rights to safety.

The cabal that successfully redefined the legal definition of delivery-app workers in California is seeking to do the same in Canada by lobbying provincial governments to rewrite their labour laws. These e-bike problems are examples of why our Ministries of Labour, if they are concerned with the lives and conditions of workers, should be pushing back.

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