Digital work and urban deliveries: on-demand food delivery

Platform-based on-demand delivery services are rapidly developing in urban areas, especially in the food sector, raising new issues for urban planners, especially in transport.

Based on a survey of over 100 couriers conducted in 2018 in the municipality of Paris (France), a new paper aims to analyze the profile, delivery activity, and mobility practices of the couriers working for delivery platforms. The main objective is to show how mobility practices are shaped by the characteristics of digital work in the urban delivery sector and to highlight new challenges for urban authorities and research.

Compared to other studies, this research is based on quantitative data. It distinguishes three categories of couriers, depending on whether they have another activity: students, people with another paid job, and people with no other paid or non-paid activity.

Findings show that these three categories have different characteristics regarding age, education, residential location, the intensity of delivery activity, and the characteristics of mobility practices, especially regarding the transport modes used.

The paper highlights that digitalization adds new issues that question this form of work’s environmental and social sustainability. Food platform-mediated delivery couriers must accept the terms of digital platforms: self-employed status, payment per delivery run, short delivery times, algorithmic control, and personal possession of their means of transportation. Their activity is also very constrained by the time restaurants to take to prepare the orders. In this context, mobility appears as one of the only parameters that the couriers can control and use to increase their earnings since the rest of their activity is constrained by both the platforms (gig work, algorithmic control), the restaurants (waiting times) and the clients (timeliness).

Regardless of the mode of transport, the data also showed that couriers felt particularly at risk on the roads because of their vulnerability as motorized or nonmotorized two-wheeler users in traffic. This study highlights the contradictions between environmental and social sustainability objectives in the transportation sector and how some individuals react by taking risks and using illegal modes of transport. Couriers depend on the French regulation that requires the use of a bicycle, even though traffic, conditions related to travel from home, digital work, and, especially, algorithmic control and delivery deadlines make bicycles dangerous and, in many cases, unsuitable, especially for those for whom delivery is the only source of income.

Source: Aguilera A, Dablanc L, Rallet A. Digital Work and Urban Delivery: Profile, Activity and Mobility Practices of On-Demand Food Delivery Couriers in Paris (France). Information. 2022; 13(9):433.

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