Uber Eats and the Image of the City

The sharing economy is a seemingly unstoppable force in the modern global economy. It is changing the way the smartphone owner travels, books a room, and most pertinent to me, how they order delivery food. After reflecting on my brief stint as a bicycle courier, I realized that my deliveries took me to places I would’ve never considered visiting otherwise.

I moved to Washington, DC in June for a summer internship, fully intent on discovering the city on my single-speed bicycle. But by the end of the month, I had ridden a paltry 15 miles, and had visited only tourist attractions, parks, and the millennial-laden Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Washington is more than its Neoclassical marble behemoths. It is also complete streets. Shiny glass towers. Communities threatened by gentrification and discrimination. I found this out by delivering sushi rolls and BBQ chicken with Uber Eats, the ridesharing service’s foray into food delivery.

Critics describe the dominant architectural style of Washington DC as a mix of Federal, Beaux-Arts, and Modern. The photo above is the apartment building I lived in this summer, a prime example of Transit-Oriented Development (its front door was a 90 second walk from a the NoMa-Gallaudet University Metro stop) Photo Credit: Daniela Waltersdorfer
Union Station. Photo Credit: massmat, Flickr
United States Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States of America. Photo Credit: massmat; Flickr

One afternoon in late June, a fellow intern learned I was a cyclist, and recommend I sign up to become a delivery rider using the Uber Eats platform. 2 weeks and a background check later, I owed the company, recently valued at $51 billion, $20 for a deposit on a delivery bag. I broke even after my first night of deliveries.

Using this platform to earn an extra $100 every week is perhaps the most flexible way to earn money I’ve ever encountered. I worked when I wanted to, and Uber pays its “independent contractors” handsomely when demand is high. It also offered me and other new riders a $100 bonus to complete 15 trips in my first weekend of work. When was the last time a fast food restaurant paid the new hire a bonus on the first week? My first week, I earned $55 an hour, and was hooked.

Bike Courier
While delivering for Uber, I acted as an independent contractor. This means I received no benefits, insurance, or funds to repair flat tires. I also had to pay a $20 “deposit” for this boxy backpack. Photo Credit: Brian Vaughn.

But like a shiny new bike, the glamour wore off quickly. I sweated through the DC heat dome. My phone died in the middle of a delivery (Uber gave me no directions on how to handle this, and I ate the food I was delivering for lunch). Living a second identity as a  “wannabe” bicycle courier was no longer exciting, and it was certainly not helping me like or understand DC.

And then I tried something different.

Rather than rushing to complete as many deliveries as possible, working for hours on end to the point of exhaustion, I established a routine that resulted in roughly 90 minutes of riding per night, yielding about $30 on average ($15/hour).

On my rides, I started noticing districts and where their edges, landmarks, and nodes were. I frequently delivered from restaurants on H Street, a corridor largely burned during the city’s 1968 riots. H Street’s recent commercial potential is being realized thanks in part to the deeply criticized streetcar that operates for free (according to its website, the operator will eventually charge a fare). I find it personally troubling that I was a benefactor from the gentrification of this corridor, without owning property there.

Multiple trips took me to Trinidad, a neighborhood made infamous for gun violence and unconstitutional police checkpoints. In Capitol Hill, I pedaled through what Alan Jacobs would recognize as Great Streets: the places connecting the million dollar row houses to East Capitol Street. I learned the nation’s capital also has a Franklin Street.

14th Street, Washington, DC
14th Street NE is a place that creates community, provides equitable transportation accommodations for all road users, and is very pretty on a warm August evening. Photo Credit: Brian Vaughn.

The money was nice. But the value of the hot summer nights I spent in DC was in learning how to read a city and recognize its elements: concrete and human. Walking would’ve been a better way to read these streets, but the chicken wings would’ve gotten cold.

Video: On my bike

Brian Vaughn is an Editorial Board member and undergraduate content editor for CPJ. He is fascinated with the nexus of communications, transportation, renewable energy, and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure. A Florida native, Brian spent the summer of 2016 interning in the Office of Sustainability and Safety Management at the US Department of Transportation. This fall, he will begin his Junior year at UNC-Chapel Hill as an environmental studies major.