Tales from working as a bike courier

Many of us will work at some point during university, whether it is because you need the money, for the work experience or a bit of both. I have worked quite a range of jobs myself since high school (herding cows or teaching kids biathlon anyone?), but with none of my qualifications from home being useful in the UK (lifeguarding or first aid are not accepted for example, ski instructor certificate is just outright useless in Dundee) and having never worked a ‘standard’ student city job such as retail or in a café, it was never hard for any place I applied to to find someone who had the experience or references that were actually from the UK. Turns out applying as a delivery rider is quite easy and apparently well-paid (according to the job add…more on that in a bit), so I thought why not and added that to my list of jobs. Anyways, if you are looking for a job and think this might be for you or if you simply want to hear a little of the life the person bringing you your takeout, this is some infos, what I have learnt from two years of working as a bike courier in Dundee and some random stories at the end.

  • The application – Pretty easy if the company is taking on new riders. Filling out forms online, I had a background check done and had my right to work checked, then a talk with someone from the company explaining how to use the app and ordering the thermal bag (mine was free but I think that was a deal at the time and probably depends on the company). I was out on the road quite fast, although I have heard of others taking a lot longer to be approved to ride. If you have any friends who ride they will likely have a referral code that will earn them a little money at no disadvantage to you if you want to do a favour. I got a jacket and phone mount with the thermal bag but this will depend on the company. For anyone looking at using a car, you will need extra insurance.
  • The hours – At the moment Dundee seems to be free login across all companies but I am not 100% sure this is correct, I work free login anyways. Basically, this means you can go online whenever you want for however long you want, which is pretty nice when you are doing it next to university. I tend to do 3 or 4 shifts a week, usually for 2-3 hours, depending on my course workload and how much other cycling I am doing that week, outside of term time I will do longer shifts and work more days. 2-3h shifts will usually be around 10-20k of cycling for me.
  • The pay – For deliveries from restaurants in the city centre to anything around the city centre we will be making between 3 and 4 pounds, over 4 pounds if we get lucky or ride a little further. A 5-pound order would tend to send me past Baxter Park as a distance reference, from the city centre to beyond the Kingsway will usually pay between 5 and 7 pounds, sometimes you will get two orders at once making a longer ride more worthwhile. Generally, if it is beyond the Kingsway I will decline the order unless I am desperate, as it will take me more time than doing two shorter ones. The fees slightly vary and sometimes there are boosts at busier times where you can make between 1.2 and 1.5x any order fees (I think there are bigger boosts available but I have never gotten more than 1.5 in Dundee. On job ads companies seem to claim you can make £120 a day, this may be possible in busier cities, but not in Dundee unless you turn out to be significantly better than me at the job.
  • The catch – The fees and hours sound great to you, you like cycling and this is sounding like a dream job? NO. The main catch is the fact that you are not classified as an employee, basically meaning you have no rights. Minimum wage? No. Sick pay? No. Need your bike repaired? No income. Injured? No income. The company did not care much about who I was when I applied, and they do not care about me now either. You only get paid for orders you deliver, if you get offered nothing to deliver you earn nothing. While some days I am racing around doing 3 orders an hour, other days I will sit outside for multiple hours without getting a single delivery. Every shift is a gamble whether to stay online or go home, some weeks Friday night is amazing, other weeks I will sit around not making anything. It does not hurt companies to have too many riders out, since they only need to pay the deliveries done either way and you will often see a bunch of riders in the city centre waiting to get any orders. Some hours I can make over £20 (including tips and definitely rare), other shifts I will not even be near minimum wage and I have been out for whole multi-hour shifts and made nothing at all. Tips can often make a massive difference on bad shifts, no matter how small the tip is. I have seen friends not tip on their orders because we only had a few coins and they thought it was embarrassing to tip that little, while I cannot speak for other riders on this I would be over the moon for any tip, even if it is tiny since tips are quite rare most shifts. The delivery drivers I have talked to seem to make a little more on average than me on the bike, but they are also paying for fuel and food delivery insurance.
  • The bike – I started out on a fixie, then switched to a road bike and occasionally used my mountain bike when the road bike was in need of fixing or when it gets too slippery for my skinny tyres. My favourite has to be the road bike, the fixie limited me too much on which orders I would take due to hills and the mountain bike is slow and heavy, although I do enjoy the ability to go down stairs and over cobbles without shaking (you’re probably happy if I don’t clonk down stairs with your food though and I quite like not spilling food in my bag). Overall you do want a cheaper bike since you will be leaving it outside restaurants and houses often and there will not always be things to lock it to. Also, a good lock, bike lights, bright clothes and a helmet are a must, I have had many close calls with cars and was happy to be visible and wearing a helmet. The helmet also tells people I have cycled, in bad weather or after doing long/hilly rides people tend to give pity tips.
  • Best times and orders – Generally bad weather will make for better shifts since fewer riders will be out to share the orders with, killer winds, rain and snow often make for my best shifts, when it snowed in February this year I was working some of my best shifts ever despite cycling extremely slowly. Days when others do not want to work are also good, around Christmas and New Years I worked some pretty good shifts for example. My personal favourite delivery areas are heading east up Victoria Road, Princes Street or Broughty Ferry Road or west along Perth Road as these tend to pay worthwhile amounts but not include too much uphill to make for slower rides. Up Lochee Road and Blackness Road or to City Quay are also pretty nice ones, and of course ones that do not require leaving the city centre. The benefit of going west from the city centre for me is that that is where most of my friends live and it is the side of town I know better, so I barely need to check the map, while heading east or uphill tends to get me more tips. Preferred areas vary by rider and some riders will decline orders I think are great, so you will need to figure out what works for you. The common place for riders to wait is right in the city centre and you will usually find other bored riders waiting for orders to chat to. Another option is to take a long order if there are too many riders in the centre and then ride deliveries from one of the Kingsway retail parks, these areas are often less hilly, although crossing the Kingsway on a bike can be a nightmare at times. Over time you also learn which roads you prefer taking, I often stray from the suggested route taking roads I know, since I will be faster not having to check the map.
  • I mentioned chatting to other riders, which can help with figuring out which orders are worth taking when you are starting out, but other people worth talking to are restaurant staff. If there are many riders waiting in a restaurant when you arrive, it is possible to miss your order already being ready. By knowing the restaurant staff you can avoid this, some of my most regular restaurants recognise me when I arrive and it helps get me the food faster.
  • If you want your food as quick as possible, make it clear which house is yours. If you get a map with your location, make sure it is in the right place on your street or write a comment if you cannot change it. I waste time on many orders because the pin is on the wrong end of the street and I end up having to look for your house. Also if your house does not have a number on the door (seems to be a thing too many places across Dundee) please put something in the comments (e.g. the door colour or something noticeable outside your door), if your doorbell uses flat letters/numbers different to your address please comments so I don’t have to bother your neighbours. If you live in student accommodation, please write the name of it, if the pin ends up between Heathfield and Belmont for example and you have only given a flat number I will have to call you. It helps me get the order done quicker and you get your food quicker and warmer and do not have to talk to me on the phone, it’s win-win really.
  • For my last tip, valuable things to bring on your ride are snacks and a drink, a portable charger, spare inner tubes and tools to fix minor bike issues (and the knowledge to), a spare jacket and something to do in case you end up sitting around. I will often bring things to read for uni or a book along once the weather gets a little warmer to still feel like I am using my time well if I end up getting no orders. The spare jacket also works as a separation between orders if I get two at once that are packed in multiple bags or include drinks to make sure I keep the parts together correctly and do not pass over the wrong things when I get to the customer’s door.
  • Lastly, I thought I would share some of the things that have happened on shifts. Hope you get some laughs out of my sad delivery life.
    • How many guys do you need to change a tyre? One evening a guy slashed his tyre and since there were no orders and I still had my old worn tyres that I had not yet gotten rid of, I offered to get those to allow him to ride until his new tyres arrived. Turned out he did not really know how to change a tyre, and neither did any of the guys around. I offered to, but since they had already tried they decided it would be embarrassing if I managed to, so I got to spend a good 30mins sitting on a bench watching 4 guys figure out changing a tyre and laughing.
    • The list of times I have almost run over animals or had one try to murder me has gotten pretty long. Various rats (yeah the Belmont students were not kidding), seagulls and pigeons have almost gotten run over, while I have been chased by a few angry dogs (while the owners did nothing) and had a range of birds swoop down dangerously close to my face. The most terrifying moment has to be a pigeon actually landing on my handlebars during a shift. In my absolute panic I looked at it and said ‘f*ck off mate’ to the bird, another rider watched it happen and I do not think I will ever recover from that embarrassment.
    • People giving me very unclear directions to their door resulting in me suddenly standing in someone else’s backyard or ringing the wrong doorbell, then awkwardly realising I am in the wrong place and having to explain that to the person at the door.
    • Some houses around Dundee have some cool but extremely unnecessary lift features such as weather forecasts, party music or a display showing me the news. Some buildings also have their lifts in very weird places and I have on one occasion locked myself in a strange one-way door kitchen in an apartment block after trying to get from the lift to the exit and a resident had to come free me.
    • I have an incredible talent at flinging myself and the bike down stairs, over bumps, into tram tracks, across ice and generally just falling over on City Square, if you have ever seen me flip myself over, I promise I actually know how to cycle. Your biggest enemy will unquestionably be cars though, apparently my reaction to a car coming towards me is mostly just screaming, if anyone actually tries to run me over I have no chance.

Hope you enjoyed and feel free to ask questions in case this ramble somehow has inspired you to apply.

Written by:

Hi! I'm from Switzerland and I'm in my 3rd year of Environmental Science. I'm interested in all things outdoors and sports and hope to be talking about my adventure trips from Dundee and taking you along while I discover Scotland bit by bit.

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