As a cycling activist, I know how much work it takes to get a bike lane painted on a city street. Each one requires multiple meetings, votes by neighborhood and city councils, and overcoming the objections of local business owners who invariably decry any loss of parking.
Yet there’s one massive business who doesn’t show up for these fights, a business in direct competition with almost every shopkeeper. A company whose business model prioritizes shopping convenience over concerns about safety or working conditions. If you spend any time biking, you’ll find their delivery trucks parked in bike lanes throughout the Twin Cities. That company, of course, is Amazon.
Before we get too far, we need to acknowledge that driving or parking in the bike lane in Minnesota is explicitly illegal. (See #9 in BikeMN’s excellent FAQ on state cycling laws for complete statutory citations.) Delivery vehicles are not exempted. Cars with their hazards blinking are not exempted. Very brief stops of less than one minute are not exempted. This is our first lesson, if you will.
Of course, the problem isn’t limited to just one category of vehicle. Private citizens, Uber drivers, school buses, food trucks, USPS trucks, FedEx, UPS — you name it. The users of the app Bike Lane Uprising have done an excellent job quantifying and categorizing these illegal obstructions for Minneapolis and Saint Paul, complete with maps and pictures. They report that about 52% of obstructions are personal vehicles and 35% are commercial vehicles.
In my experience, more than any other commercial road user, Amazon delivery drivers routinely block the lane, even when a legal parking spot is available just a few yards away. Amazon’s exploitation of bicycle safety infrastructure seems to be almost deliberate — part of a system designed to exploit workers that forces them to cut corners and endanger vulnerable road users.
Perhaps Amazon also understands that if we don’t feel safe biking in our cities, we’re more likely to just stay home and order more products from Amazon.
Jeff Bezos and Amazon have been exploiting loopholes from the very beginning. For years, they avoided paying sales taxes in Minnesota by keeping all of their operations out of state. Amazon took advantage of economic development funds all across the country to build its warehouses, then routinely exploited their workers and shorted their paychecks. Even the small form factor of their delivery trucks are designed to avoid federal regulation. And when it comes to corporate tax avoidance, Minnesota’s own Institute on Local Self-Reliance puts it plainly:
“Amazon has proven to be one of the defter exploiters of our tax code, and Jeff Bezos is, arguably, the first CEO to devise a market domination strategy built explicitly on tax dodging.”Institute on Local Self-Reliance
Just this month, the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states sued Amazon, accusing it of violating antitrust laws. Over the course of almost 30 years, Amazon’s business model has set the bar for just how many laws and regulations it can avoid through skillful manipulation of loopholes. Companies like Uber and Lyft are merely following their example.
The way Amazon employs its drivers is no different. The second lesson we need to acknowledge is that none of these are Amazon Amazon drivers. They don’t actually work for Amazon. Instead, they work for one of over 3,000 independent contractors. Yes, they wear Amazon uniforms, drive Amazon branded vans and follow routes precisely dictated by Amazon. But they are not Amazon employees.
This arrangement, common throughout America’s 21st century gig economy, protects Amazon from payroll costs and liability. It also protects them from unionization. When workers organized a union earlier this year at one of Amazon’s delivery contractors, California’s Battle Tested Solutions (BTS), Amazon simply terminated their contract with BTS.
The Teamsters are continuing a strike against Amazon, arguing that the company has engaged in unfair labor practices and has forced drivers to work in hot vans without air conditioning or water.
“It’s unacceptable that we are making deliveries in 100-degree temperatures without enough water or working air conditioning,” said Heath Lopez, a striking Amazon driver… “We are on strike to stop Amazon’s unfair labor practices. It’s time for Amazon to take responsibility for our safety.”Teamsters Press Release, August 15, 2023
In Colorado, drivers are suing Amazon over a lack of breaks and being forced by unrelenting schedules to pee in bottles. How can we expect drivers working under such inhumane conditions to drive a little bit out of their way to avoid blocking a bike lane? The answer: we can’t.
Thus, the third lesson is: This situation isn’t really the drivers’ fault.
So, what can even be done? Personally, this question has led me down a road of frustration and despair. I’ve tried talking to drivers, only to be met with universal indifference. I’ve tried yelling at them, but doing so feels horrible because, again, this isn’t really their fault.
I’ve tried Tweeting about it, which elicits a bot reply like this:
Thanks, “Norm”, but when I posted a picture of your independent contractors violating the law on your company’s behalf, I kinda hoped you’d initiate an investigation without forcing me to log into an account to file a complaint so that it can be processed by your algorithm.
I’ve even tried to flag down a cop and ask them to issue a ticket. Recently I tried this in downtown Minneapolis. The cop just shrugged, rolled up his window and drove away. Alas, this is the fourth lesson: The police aren’t going to help.
Direct action might help. Last year in San Francisco, frustrated cycling advocates launched the “Just a Minute” campaign. Their strategy is to deploy volunteers in yellow shirts to block the traffic lane whenever a driver pulled over into the bike lane. “This new idea takes things up a notch,” wrote Streetsblog, “and will force motorists to wait and experience first-hand what cyclists go through every time someone blocks the bike lane for ‘just a minute.'”
Cycling advocates Chicago Bike Grid Now! immediately borrowed the Just a Minute strategy after 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook died when her mother veered their bicycle out of the bike lane to avoid a parked ComEd utility truck. Lily’s parents are now suing the city, claiming that they failed to enforce laws against obstructing bike lanes. In response, the city has raised fines and agreed to tow any vehicles blocking bike lanes. But it still seems far from sufficient. Just a few weeks ago, John Kezdy, member of the punk band The Effigies, died when he crashed his bicycle into a stopped Amazon van blocking a Chicago-area bike lane.
I’ve tried the Just A Minute strategy by myself a few times now. Ho Boy! — does it make drivers mad. One driver in downtown St. Paul cussed me out and yelled, “You must be fun at parties!” as he sped away. (This is untrue. I am not, in fact, fun at parties.)
Another attempt in south Minneapolis was worse. Drivers honked and yelled, a passing cyclist didn’t stop to help, a UPS driver (also parked in the bike lane) screamed from across the street, and the Amazon driver called the cops on me. In the middle of this, a man walking by said, “I don’t disagree with you, but you’re making too big a deal out of this.” Gesturing to the Amazon driver, he added, “He’s just doing his job.”
I am thankful to this passerby for stating the fifth lesson so clearly. He’s just doing his job.
But would we say “He’s just doing his job” about a restaurant cook not refrigerating foods properly? Or about a surgeon not washing her hands? Of course not. Yet we tolerate all sorts of life-endangering behaviors when done by drivers of motor vehicles.
We have a word for this phenomenon: Motonormativity. On a wide range of ethical questions, a UK study found that people view misdeeds much less harshly when done by drivers than when committed during most any other type of activity. For example:
61% of people agreed that risk was “a natural part of driving,” whereas just 31% agreed when “driving” was changed to “working”.The Guardian, January 17, 2023
Given Motonormativity and the fact that so many drivers already hate cyclists anyway, it seems clear that direct action initiatives like Just a Minute aren’t going to accomplish much without a concerted advocacy campaign behind it. And probably my own personal attempts are less than useless.
All of which has taught me the sixth lesson: Ordinary people can’t fix this problem. Change can come only from fixing systems and infrastructure. Here’s what I think needs to change.
We’re living in a gig economy of instant gratification. Amazon’s isn’t the only fleet of delivery vans that have invaded our urban environment in the past decade or so. There’s also Uber, DoorDash, Shipt, Carvana. (Yes, even cars get delivered to your home nowadays.)
Yet our streetscape makes little accommodation for these new road users. We need to convert a few free parking spots on every block into dedicated delivery parking, especially on any street with a bike lane.
We also need to stop building painted bike lanes. Paint doesn’t really protect cyclists at all. Nor do plastic bollards — the last three pictures all feature Amazon vans in bike lanes “protected” by flexposts. Only concrete can (usually) get the job done.
The seventh lesson: If we’re not going to enforce bike lane laws, then we need curb- and grade-separated lanes, which are much less likely to be blocked.
Our eighth lesson is: Let’s democratize enforcement. A recent bill in New York City would have offered a bounty to citizens reporting illegally parked cars in bus or bike lanes. Unfortunately, the bill stalled after the 25% bounty was removed and a training requirement was added for citizen reporters. Nonetheless, when police are reluctant to issue parking tickets, crowdsourcing enforcement is a promising way forward. The entire gig economy runs on phone apps–why not make an app that’ll help keep our streets safe?
I don’t think paying a bounty is a necessary component of such a citizen enforcement strategy–Bike Lane Uprising has already logged thousands of infractions with no bounties or any consequences for drivers whatsoever. A similar system, Parking Mobility, tracks and reports cars blocking accessibility infrastructure. Cyclists, transit riders, and disability activists would simply appreciate a tool that disincentivizes illegal parking and makes our streets safer and more accessible for everyone.
Whether or not you care about bike lanes, it’s clear that changes are required at all levels of government to protect gig economy workers. First and foremost, state and federal labor authorities need to enforce existing laws and require Amazon to employ their drivers as actual employees. In my non-lawyer opinion, these workers never should have been treated as independent contractors. They should be full-fledged employees protected by wage laws with the right to unionize, same as UPS or USPS drivers.
Nationally, this has been a long and contentious challenge. California attempted a broad reclassification of gig workers as employees in 2019, but an Uber- and Lyft-promoted ballot measure in 2020 reversed course. The issue has been fighting its way through the courts ever since.
This year in Minnesota, the legislature took a huge step in the right direction by passing worker protections for gig drivers. But, bowing to threats from Uber and Lyft, Governor Walz vetoed the bill, a truly condemnable action for the highest elected official of the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor party.
A few weeks later, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (also ostensibly DFL) vetoed a similar ordinance passed by the City Council. A bitter 10th lesson: Progress requires leadership.
But that leadership doesn’t deliver packages and doesn’t ride through our cities on obstructed bikeways. In the end, it will be the workers themselves who make change. Only by organizing for better working conditions can they make the job of delivering packages safer and more humane for themselves and everyone else.
A great local example is “Carbucks,” the Starbucks on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. For years, the coffee shop’s drive through was notorious for blocking the Marshall Avenue bike lane as well as traffic lanes on both Snelling and Marshall. The city hemmed and hawed for years but failed to fix the problem. Finally, the workers themselves prevailed and forced Starbucks to abandon its drive through.
I truly believe that Amazon employees don’t want to spend their days blocking bike lanes and getting yelled at by randos like me. I’m sure they’d prefer not to shave seconds off their routes by breaking traffic laws. Our 11th and final lesson: Give power to the workers.
We all bear a huge responsibility, too — for all of Amazon’s sins. Even after almost 30 years of ecommerce, too many of us are still enthralled by Amazon’s gee whiz factor. We click a button; a package shows up magically on our doorstep. Amazon conveniently hides from us the workers who made that product, the workers who shipped it from the other side of the world, the workers who picked that item off a shelf and put it in a box, and the workers who delivered it to your house. It isn’t magic. It isn’t even really robots or algorithms. It’s lots and lots of human workers making it all possible.
I’d prefer not to be tilting at windmills against Amazon — it’s an incredibly frustrating pastime. But a safer and more humane world is possible. All we have to do is want it. We can order it up today.
All photos by Dan Marshall