Where are all the delivery bikers in Portland?

This is a question I asked myself upon returning from my recent trip to New York and several European cities where bike delivery riders inundate the streets, carrying large insulated bags on their backs or bike racks with food in tow. I hadn’t thought of it much before, but after my trip, Portland’s lack of bicycle delivery riders was striking to me. During the pandemic, food delivery rose massively in popularity, and it’s not going away anytime soon. So how can we make sure more of these trips are taking place by bike?

Portland is home to several companies that specialize in delivering goods by bike, including freight haulers B-Line Urban Delivery (which we recently featured on the BikePortland podcast), catering carriers Portland Pedal Power and food delivery company Cascadian Courier Collective PDX (CCC PDX). CCC PDX is the organization doing the work closest to the bike deliveries I witnessed in other cities, so I decided to ask them for a local bike delivery status update.

“There are a lot of really great local restaurant owners who are frustrated dealing with apps and see the value in working with a local company.”

– Ponce Christie, CCC PDX founder

Cascadian Courier Collective (the other CCC)

CCC PDX began in Eugene a decade ago and started operations in Portland in 2017. But the company grew substantially during the pandemic, when demand for home deliveries skyrocketed and created a new need for delivery by bike. According to owner Ponce Christie, customers and business owners using delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub discovered the limitations of these services, which charge high fees to both consumers and restaurants.

The fees got so out of control that the City of Portland placed a temporary cap on what third-party apps could charge restaurants — 10% of the total order cost — but this rule was not always heeded. In January, Portland City Council approved a permanent fee cap of 15% of a food delivery order total. But CCC PDX can do you one better: Christie said they’ve always had a fee of 10% and they have no plans to raise it.

“All the sudden, everybody was trying out delivery apps for the first time and finding out how awful they are,” Christie told BikePortland on a phone call earlier this week. “I think our business increased by something like 1000%, which is obviously very crazy because we’re a small business. It was difficult to adapt to.”

But they did adapt, hiring dozens of new couriers and cultivating relationships with restaurants who like its local vibe, low fees and eco-friendly approach to food delivery.

“There are a lot of really great local restaurant owners who are frustrated dealing with apps and see the value in working with a local company,” Christie said. “And in general, our customers are pretty loyal. Once they find out about us, they seem to be pretty stoked on the idea, and are down to come back and try again.”

“If I was delivering with a car, all the money I made would just go back into the car.”

– Zak, CCC employee

Out for delivery

Yesterday afternoon I rode around northeast Portland with Zak, who’s been doing bike delivery with CCC PDX for about six months. The job was to deliver packages from the meal kit company Farm to Fit to people’s residences, and Zak upgraded from the standard road bike he takes on smaller deliveries to one of CCC’s Bullitt cargo bikes in order to fit everything. The bike didn’t have an electric assist, but Zak impressively maneuvered it up through the busy streets in the Hollywood neighborhood and then up the Alameda Ridge, dropping off packages as we went.

For many of the same reasons a bike is a great tool for everyday transportation, it’s also a very practical delivery device. You can avoid traffic and the time-consuming hassle of finding parking outside the restaurants and delivery residences. It’s also enjoyable to bike around all day: you get a lot of exercise and can connect with your community. But I think the most convincing reason to deliver by bike instead of car is that you get to keep more of the money you make when you don’t have to pay for gas or car maintenance.

“It’s been nice not paying attention to gas prices for the last six months,” Zak told me. “If I was delivering with a car, all the money I made would just go back into the car.”

It was fun to ride around with Zak, although I have to admit I didn’t envy his position of carrying so much stuff around, especially on a non-electric bike. But Zak was in good spirits the whole time.

“I haven’t had a lot of jobs that I liked,” Zak said. “But I really like doing this one.”

I asked my roommate Patrick Riley, who used to drive for DoorDash, about his time delivering, and he had quite a different perspective.

“It’s not an enjoyable job,” Patrick said. “Most of it is trying to figure out where to park and going somewhere else and figuring out where to park there.”

“I think it’s wrong to be able to order food from a place five-plus miles away anytime you want at the click of a button because the app says it’s convenient.”

The cost of convenience

One of the core beliefs within CCC’s business philosophy is that people don’t always need everything immediately. But that’s a tricky business model in the age of Amazon Prime’s same-day deliveries and 20-minute Uber Eats wait times. People aren’t used to waiting anymore. But Christie pointed out that when you’re delivering within a mile or two, going by bike can often be faster than taking a car.

“I think a lot of people’s argument against bike delivery is that it takes so long. But most of the time, it takes about the same amount of time for us to do the delivery as it would in a car,” he said.

With CCC, Christie also wants to encourage people to look at the options closer to home, within reasonable range for bike delivery.

“I think it’s wrong to be able to order food from a place five-plus miles away anytime you want at the click of a button because the app says it’s convenient,” Christie said. “If you live in Portland, there are probably 20 other restaurants you could be supporting within a mile of you. That’s one of the great things about it here.”

This is one reason CCC hasn’t latched onto the electric bike revolution: they don’t want to set too high of a standard for speed. But in cities like New York, the bike delivery industry is flourishing largely because of electric bikes (though this has caused contention after several inexpensive e-bike batteries have unfortunately caught on fire while charging in apartment complexes). If more people had access to e-bikes in Portland, I think it would open up the career path to people who are less enthusiastic about pedaling a heavy cargo bike full of packages up Portland’s steepest hills. Perhaps if an e-bike rebate bill is passed in Oregon, we’ll enter a new era of bike couriers?

A peek inside CCC headquarters.

I would love to see a renewed culture of bike delivery in Portland. It would mean fewer cars on the streets (and fewer Uber Eats drivers parking in bike lanes, which I see on a fairly regular basis) and connecting with our amazing local restaurants would be a great way to reinvigorate Portland’s bike scene.

In order to encourage this, I think the most important step is to simply make it easier to bike around the city for any purpose — the places where bike delivery works the best around the world are also the places where biking is the most ubiquitous. And as the Portland Bureau of Transportation works on its 2040 Freight Plan, perhaps they can consider ways to incentivize last-mile and food delivery by bike.

For now, you can help support the movement by ordering directly from 16 local spots via CCC’s website.

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