On your bike: exploring the geography and leisure of work as a cycle courier

Dr Wil Chivers, recently appointed as a social science lecturer at Cardiff University, has presented findings from his WISERD research exploring the nature of work as a cycle courier in the gig/platform economy, at the Work, Employment and Society Conference 2021.

The paper, On your bike: exploring the geography and leisure of work as a cycle courier, presents findings from an ethnographic project which follows the daily working experiences of cycle couriers working for Cardiff food delivery companies: Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Stuart.

A theme running through many critical accounts of employment in the gig/platform economy is that of individualised and isolating working conditions. While this is an inherent feature of jobs such as cycle couriering (and may be appealing for some workers) the lack of social or professional contact with other workers can impact on workers’ wellbeing and a loss of community or solidarity. This, amongst other things, inhibits the possibility for collective action.

Cycle couriering is a physically demanding job. It requires workers to travel long distances for extended periods of time and navigate a wide and potentially risky urban infrastructure. Any ‘downtime’ is unpaid.

Taking a step away from current debates concerning employment rights and status in the gig/platform economy, Dr Chivers’ paper explores the nature of cycle courier employment through the lens of geography and sociality instead. It is led by two related questions: “how do couriers experience urban geography in the course of their work”, and “how is a ‘courier community’ created and maintained?”

Primary data collection consisted of accompanying couriers around the city by bicycle during their working hours. Journeys and accompanying statistics (including distance and speed) were mapped via GPS, photos and videos were recorded and fieldnotes were written at the end of each day based on Dr Chivers’ observations and conversations with the couriers.

Follow-up interviews probed the questions of how couriers perceive the geography of their ‘workplace’ in greater depth, in terms of their daily shifts and the social side of couriering.

Dr Chivers says:

Drawing on these varied data sources, I argue that cycle couriers have an efficiency-based view of urban geography but that these considerations can be impacted by the specific operating logics of the respective platforms they work through. I also suggest that viewing the city streets as a workplace provides a basis for social interaction and community that can be important to wellbeing and continued participation in the gig/platform economy.