Deliveroo rider speeding hot food to another hungry customerMikael Buck/Deliveroo
Smartphone data from riders and drivers schlepping meals for restaurant-to-home courier service Deliveroo shows that bicycles are faster than cars. In towns and cities, bicyclists are also often faster than motorized two-wheelers. Deliveroo works with 30,000 riders and drivers in 13 countries.
That bicyclists are faster in cities will come as no surprise to bicycle advocates who have staged so-called “commuter races” for many years. However, these races – organized to highlight the swiftness of urban cycling – are usually staged in locations and at hours skewed towards bicycle riders. The Deliveroo stats are significant because they have been extracted from millions of actual journeys.
And it’s all thanks to Frank.
Frank is the name Deliveroo gives its routing algorithm (the name was chosen for the Danny DeVito character in the TV series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)
Delivering millions of simultaneous orders from thousands of restaurants to hungry consumers within 30 minutes using roving self-employed couriers equipped with smartphones is a complex vehicle routing problem: consumers want piping hot food; restaurants want meals picked up when cooked; riders – paid per drop – want multiple deliveries per hour, and Deliveroo needs to make money.
The algorithm team employs data scientists with PhDs in computer vision, computer science, operations research, cognitive neuroscience, econometrics, machine learning, and physics.
“How can we solve dynamic, stochastic routing problems whose complexity is at or beyond the cutting edge of current theory?” asks a job ad for the unicorn company.
Frank’s travel-time model taxes the brain of Deliveroo’s Chief Scientist, Mike Todd, who came from the recommender system algorithm team at Netflix. With a PhD in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University he heads up a team that works to shave minutes off delivery times.
The company’s swanky new offices overlooking London’s Tower Bridge provide covered cycle parking, and the building’s sales website highlights not the closest major roads but the proximity to the Embankment’s protected Cycle Superhighway. Staffers are also encouraged to cycle to work thanks to a company bike-buying scheme. Deliveroo is a company that lives and breathes cycling. However, it was started in 2013 from the seat of a motor scooter. Co-founder Will Shu, a former investment-banking analyst, learned on the job, delivering food from a small number of restaurants by driving his scooter around Central London. One day he delivered to his old manager at a London hedge fund.
“What are you doing?” the manager asked, assuming that Shu had fallen on hard times.
“Delivering pizzas,” Shu replied. He had another delivery on the go and was too busy to explain he was learning how best to scale a start-up. Deliveroo is now valued at $2 billion, and Shu’s scooter – spray painted gold, its driving days over – greets visitors at the corporate HQ.
When he started, Shu didn’t have the benefit of a bespoke routing algorithm – the early Deliveroo used FIFO queueing methodology: first in, first out – but his experience as a two-wheel delivery rider made him appreciate that optimizing the many parts of the ordering and delivery process would be the key to Deliveroo’s success. And he also figured out that some jobs would be better suited to cyclists and others to motorists.