Food delivery companies need to resolve safety for riders

3 March 2023    

The author of this blog is Kate Samuels, Policy Officer.

The increase in the number of food deliveries made by bike in Scotland is a very positive development. As well as helping us to cut carbon emissions, every trip that might otherwise have been made by car helps to reduce congestion and improve air quality on our streets.

Unfortunately, there are reports of people making these deliveries not obeying the rules of the road: from couriers cycling through red lights to riding motorised bikes or mopeds on pavements and on shared paths intended for pedal bikes.

At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that working conditions for riders may be in part encouraging many to take unacceptable risks in order to earn a reliable living wage.

Vulnerability of riders

As vulnerable road users, food delivery riders face the same dangers that others do when riding on bikes, including close passes, obstructed cycle infrastructure and bad weather conditions. These dangers are multiplied due to the number of hours riders spend on the roads and the corners they cut to deliver food quickly and earn more money, with riders citing pressure to break laws such as running red lights and using pavements to avoid losing income.

A lack of lights on bikes has become a common complaint, something which can arise from lack of awareness of this rule or lack of money to buy the required lights, with companies not always providing them as standard to new riders. When it comes to the overall visibility of riders, this too can also be compromised by dark coloured bags and uniforms (although some companies have recently updated their uniforms with brighter colours than used previously). It is also the case that riders do not necessarily receive high-vis clothing automatically when signing up, but often only after completing a set number of orders (in some instances over 50 deliveries).

Fundamentally, rising deaths of food delivery riders on roads clearly demonstrate the real dangers faced and the particularly vulnerable position that riders can find themselves in when it comes to their own safety.

Risking safety as part of the job

Over the last few years, several studies have highlighted the risks and dangers commonly faced by delivery cyclists. In 2018 University College London found that food delivery work put riders at higher risk of traffic collisions and injury, and also highlighted the dangers of riders having to accept orders while on the go which could lead to checking phones while riding. Researchers found too that on-the-job safety training was often minimal.

A 2020 University of Edinburgh study involving interviews with twenty-five delivery riders, showed that ‘algorithmic uncertainty’, or the lack of clarity around how their delivery platform assigns jobs, led many to feel a lack of control over their work. Participants cited a fear of rejecting orders in case this counted against them in future, as well as regularly weighing personal safety concerns against the need to complete orders quickly.

While research does show specific safety challenges for food delivery riders, accentuated by pressure to deliver at speed, these challenges can also be linked to wider issues of poverty, fair work and zero-hour contracts.

Change is needed

While delivery platforms claim to offer a range of support to new riders, this does not always include mandatory safety training or a bike check. Instead, any training that is provided is often limited to videos and online safety guidance provided at ‘onboarding’, with evidence that viewing of such guidance is seldom checked.

It is clear from speaking with riders that there are significant gaps where more training could be provided, particularly around cycling safely, managing risks on the road, and observing the hierarchy of road users as outlined in the recently updated Highway Code.

Added to inconsistencies over training and equipment is the fact that insurance is not necessarily provided to all riders, and that when it is, it can often be limited.

As demand for home deliveries of food and other goods grows and changes, we expect to see the number of bike couriers on our streets also increase. While this should be welcomed and seen as part of Scotland’s wider modal and cultural shift towards more active lifestyles and greener, more environmentally friendly transportation, steps need to be taken to ensure the safety of all vulnerable road users including pedestrians and delivery riders themselves.

This need for a review also applies to working arrangements for drivers of delivery vehicles, who, though facing similar pressures, present inherently greater risk of harm to themselves and others on the road.

The onus is on delivery companies to show that they take road safety seriously by offering more support and training to ensure the safety of their riders and other road users.