R Forbes works as a courier in Edinburgh, where the Workers’ Observatory supports gig workers to monitor and organise their work.
I began working as a courier in 2018 to earn money during my studies. I had a bike, I liked the views of this city and you don’t have to be fake in this job, so it seemed like a good fit for me. Nowadays I volunteer with cargo bike charity, Cargo Bike Movement and do both food delivery app work and independent deliveries for a restaurant. Before this job, I worked in various hospitality, tourism, and retail roles, but I never really felt like I could be myself in these roles. Working as a bicycle courier has helped me to discover more about myself. Being on my own, doing a physical job and interacting with the public through this anonymous lens creates this space in my life where I can relax into myself and being perceived by the public. I often struggled with my confidence socially so having a job where I can strike up a chat with almost anybody has encouraged me to come out of my shell more. Even something small like talking to another courier while waiting for a pick-up breaks up the seemingly endless memories of cycling up and down the streets of this city.
“how is your day going?”
“what time did you start?”
“has it been busy?”
“where is this order taking you?”
“how did you end up in this city?”
“what time are you working until?”
“why do you like this job?”
It feels nice to connect with other people even if it is only small talk and I truly appreciate every small conversation I have.
Being a bicycle courier has helped me a lot with my queer identity and made me feel more at home in my skin than ever. I used to hate being visibly queer or masculine but now I feel like I don’t mind standing out. I am a queer person, the masculine parts of me are the parts I love the most, and being on my bike makes me forget that really most of what people see is me being a lady wearing some questionable clothes cycling with a big bag, and not the person I am.
and not that there’s anything wrong with being a woman or feminine person! it just doesn’t feel like me.
I am frequently met with comments from the public about how my body is incompatible with this type of work, usually in passing when I am pushing or riding my bike and often when I am unloading a fat groceries order from my bag.
“look at that wee lassie riding a bike”
“I can’t believe they make you carry that”
“you must be very strong for a woman”
who me? carry this bag, it’s the job mate!
tipping makes the bag lighter you know
where’s this wee lassie you speak of? oh me? I’m no a wee lassie pal
These comments confuse me because the majority of people making these comments would be unable to do my job, and what gives people the right to comment on me like I am an inanimate part of the public space. I have to work to not let these comments bother me, so I just focus on the job at hand every day and let everything else run over me like water.
FOR A WOMAN – I don’t see myself as different from the men doing this job, I get on my bike and I run orders for people, the same as men do. I don’t work as hard as the hardest working men but I damn sure work harder than a lot of men in this job. It’s no competition, but when you have grown up feeling like you are physically lesser than men it feels nice to be able to match or surpass them. Having this job makes me feel strong, I take comfort in this and it makes me feel at home in my body. I would love to sit here and lie and say that being a courier has only done wonders for my mental and physical health but that is not the case. There have been times where my life feels so exhausting and I want to shut myself away, but the fear of being unable to pay my bills or afford food sparks me back into motion.
I find this type of work very addicting, the combination of the physical exertion and brightly coloured pinging app which you have to constantly interact with is a perfect neurotransmitter cocktail for our brains. Sometimes I struggle to recognise when I need to stop and rest. When I am nearing the end of my shift, my cognition is fading but I am desperate for that one last order, just three more pounds, come on gimme a short one, just something to take me in the direction of home.
The public looks at couriers every day but rarely do they see us, remember that we are individuals with as much depth to them as the next person. Things make us worry and things make us joyful. I feel a general apathy directed towards us from customers, staff and the public, which reminds me that I exist to them as only part of this cloud of faces and bodies that make up “the courier”. I wonder, do they remember us, do they care that another person has physically brought them their goods, can they even see me? And so, when people say hello, ask how my day is going, shout thank you to me down the hall or tip me, it makes me feel seen. Maybe Deliveroo should encourage the humanisation of couriers more than producing new bags, as this may actually help couriers queer or otherwise, feel seen. After all, it takes fewer resources to talk to us than it does to produce pride bags.