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Bike messengers have pedal power

Couriers combat traffic and nasty weather to make their deliveries on time

American Observer, February 11, 2004

By Lauren Evoy

Washington bike couriers struggle with horrible weather, exhaust fumes and their bikes' need for frequent care and maintenance.

They do it for one simple reason — they love to ride their bikes.

"We are constantly tuning our bikes the way a violinist tunes their violin," said Shawn Bega, of DC Courier.

Since Bega, 33, started DC Courier in 1996, he has employed up to seven messengers at one time and currently employs three.

Sheba Farrin, 30, works for Bega part-time. She and Bega have been working and riding together for seven years. Although she works in a male-dominated field, more women are becoming bike couriers.
        DC Courier delivers all over Washington and into the surrounding suburbs, partnering with a car courier service for longer trips. 
Photo Courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation

The messengers deliver everything from legal documents requiring signatures to architectural blueprints, gifts and misplaced cell phones.

Mile after mile

One day, Bega rode 61 miles. Riding at 14 mph, he can cover a lot of ground.

Farrin said the average for a Courier bike messenger is 30 to 40 miles per day. Because Washington has a relatively small downtown area, riders do not cover as many miles as they would in a bigger city.

According to Bega, one reason for the difference in the average miles covered from city to city is the height of the buildings.
San Francisco is the same as Washington, Bega said. “The actual downtown area is so small and the buildings are so tall that you can spend a lot of time delivering without doing any miles," he said.

A metropolitan necessity

Farrin said the need for bike couriers started in New York City. Bike messengers could avoid gridlock by using their bikes to cut across Manhattan to deliver packages.

Not only are bike deliveries better and more environmentally sound than using cars, but in urban areas bikes tend to travel a little faster across the city, Farrin said.

Another courier, Brad Saaks, 25, works for a different messenger service. He also finds his bike more efficient when traveling in Washington.

"You can pretty much get anywhere within the area that most couriers work in 15 to 20 minutes, from Georgetown to Capitol Hill,” Saaks said. “It's the easiest way to do it."

During the winter, one might wonder if bike couriers get snow days. You have to take the good with the bad as far as weather is concerned, Bega said. The best messengers will ride in any weather.

"It's the rainy days make you worthwhile to your company," Bega said.

Saaks recommends that riders get the best all-weather gear their wallets will allow. "That's all you can do, just brave it out," he said.

Other modes of transportation

Both Farrin and Saaks share cars with family and friends. It is part of the communal culture they live in. Farrin occasionally uses the car she shares with her mom, but still uses her bike as much as possible, even to carry groceries.

Bega described the lack of reliance on cars as a cultural phenomenon.

"You get engrossed into a whole culture that is you and your bicycle and other people who ride bikes, both messengers and nonmessengers," he said.

"It's not that we don't want to drive cars or have cars, it's just not as important to our life,” he said.

Bega said that people like him design their lives in a closely knit bicycling community so that a car does not need to be part of it.

He lives in the district and is within walking or biking distance to friends’ homes, a grocery store and Asylum, his local hangout in Adams Morgan.

Team Bega

Bega, Farrin and Saaks are part of a riding team called Team Bega. They are sponsored by DC Courier, Asylum and Bianchi, a bike manufacturer.

In September, Farrin won the 2003 Cycle Messenger World Championship. Team Bega has had up to 20 riders at any given time, but currently has a core of 10.

Bega is also involved in the The District of Columbia Bicycle Courier Association, or DCBCA, a nonprofit organization that advocates the Safe Streets Campaign and Bike to Work Day. The DCBCA is just one of several organizations that unite bike couriers.
GiantFood Bike DC, a yearly ride hosted by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, was cancelled this year because of the damages the district incurred during Hurricane Isabel. This annual 30-mile ride has about 10,000 to 15,000 cyclists participate.

DCBCA helps by providing volunteers, and Farrin rides with the mayor or other dignitaries.

"We help with Bike DC, we're cyclists, that's the most exciting thing that happens all year,” Farrin said. “That kind of involvement in the community … kind of keeps us together."

Lauren Evoy is a graduate student from North Cape May, N.J. She is studying interactive journalism in AU’s weekend program.


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