After algorithm shift, Uber Eats couriers without cars report dwindling wages

J. Cooper mourns for the days when bicycle messengers were a common fixture in Chicago. Up until the 2010s, the city’s streets were packed with a ragtag coalition of sweat-drenched cyclists speeding from office to office. These workers were so integral to the professional landscape that former Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed Oct. 9, 2007, to be “Bicycle Messenger Appreciation Day.” 

Today, Cooper, who has delivered for Uber Eats using his bicycle for nearly three years, struggles to feel a similar sense of appreciation. 

Months ago, Cooper noticed that the number of deliveries being assigned to him by Uber Eats had dwindled, especially during peak hours like the lunch and dinner rushes. After speaking with fellow food delivery workers, who reported similar lags, but only if the delivery method was cycling or walking, Cooper began to wonder if a change to the app’s algorithm was behind the switch.

It wasn’t an unfounded suspicion. In May, a spokesperson acknowledged a shift in how orders were being routed to couriers.

“We have not phased out couriers who deliver on foot, and we have no plans to,” Uber Eats told Fortune in a statement. “We are simply encouraging couriers to bike when possible to ensure the most reliable delivery times for consumers.”

That statement reportedly echoed an April email in which the company told couriers, “We’re changing the way courier trip requests are sent. (Hint: wheels > feet.)” 

Now, Cooper believes Uber Eats has shifted its algorithm yet again to prioritize couriers who deliver via car over those who deliver via bicycle. 

“The change in algorithm has killed bikers’ and walkers’ profits,” he told Salon Food. “I noticed long ago that Uber was giving preference to cars . . . Can you imagine being on a bike and a car being given shorter-distance orders than you are?” 

Mike Hammond, another Chicago-based Uber Eats courier who delivers using his bicycle, similarly suspects an algorithm shift after witnessing his “profits taking a hit.” What’s more, it’s increasingly difficult to turn a profit doing this type of gig work, he says.

“Delivery people on these apps are not employees, and their pay is the sum of all the trips they take in a day,” Hammond told Salon. “The reality is that the app sends you $2 offers 90% of the time.” 

He continued, “This means that in order to really make any money, you have to be very selective about the orders you accept and wait around for an order that makes financial sense to take. At the end of the day, you end up making less than minimum wage a lot of times.” 

Reached via email, a spokesperson told Salon that Uber Eats had sent couriers who deliver on foot a communication detailing a change intended to prioritize the worker with the most “efficient delivery time” in the interest of reliable service. 

According to Uber Eats, couriers are assigned orders based on a variety of factors: the courier’s mode of transportation; the pick-up and drop-off location; as well as how many other couriers are available at the time. 

While the spokesperson said the change wasn’t intended to prioritize one mode of transportation over another, they didn’t respond to inquiries about the potential impacts the move would have on bicycle couriers.

Regardless, concerns about a shift in the Uber Eats algorithm negatively impacting bicycle couriers have been echoed by numerous Reddit users who report doing gig work for the company. Despite being online for hours, workers described plummeting profits after receiving no orders in a July 7 post titled “Real talk, is the biking algorithm dead?”.

“Mostly dead in Dallas,” one user reported. “I think the priority [was] swapped and bikes get the leftovers.” 

Another individual echoed that sentiment: “Yeah, 100% seems like it. I started working [by] bike in May, literally back-to-back orders nonstop all day . . . Ever since the walker [announcement] in April, literally lucky to make 30 to 50 bucks, and that’s after working 8 to 10 hours.” 

“I’m a student and I could pull in $400 a week being picky with what I accept,” someone else wrote. “Now there aren’t even orders to accept lol. Thank god I’m not our only income.” 

This shift at Uber Eats arrived at a time when many gig workers were feeling the brunt of surging gas prices. While the company has implemented per-ride or per-order surcharges, to some, the option for couriers to pick up orders using a bicycle or while walking, especially in more densely populated cities, seemed like a sensible alternative. 

Hammond attempted this transition after gas prices began to climb and Uber Eats reduced base pay to $2 within his market.

“The plan was to bike during the day and drive at night,” he said, “but in this market right now, it’s tough to make a profit either way.”

According to Hammond, he simply isn’t getting any traction for bicycle orders, which is tough to swallow as it costs more and more to fill up his car. This development leaves bicycle-only couriers like Cooper feeling further unmoored.

“At present, I am not seeking other bike work, and other than food delivery, what is there?” Cooper said. “‘Bike mode’ is not very conducive to delivering groceries or packages, and the old bike messenger-type jobs don’t seem to exist anymore. It’s sad in that when delivery apps first came on the scene they were totally bike-oriented.” 

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