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Nerves of Steel
Get the definitive book on bike messengers - "Nerves of Steel"

Strike could help bike couriers as it hinders

Toronto Star, April 9, 2005

by Christian Cotroneo

They gather in the usual place, their street-worn bicycles never far from sight.

A handful of young men, in the final minutes of an eight-hour shift, reflecting on the afternoon rush from behind mirrored sunglasses.

No more deliveries. No more dodging errant pedestrians and four-wheeled bullets.

For a bike courier, the afternoon rush means little more than sun, cigarettes and a wicked sense of humour.

"It's the lemming hour," says courier Bradyn Smith, grinning at the legions of people who spill out of office towers at Adelaide and York Sts. on a Friday afternoon.

But by Monday, the office workers won't be heading to Union Station at the end of the day. A looming TTC strike promises more taxicabs, pedestrians and cars. And, in the downtown core, a rush hour that lasts all day long.

"On Monday, you will see the tragedy of people driving their cars," says Sean Wheldrake, bicycle promotions co-ordinator for the City of Toronto.

"It will be just like trying to drive in the city during a major blizzard, with a lot of people going nowhere."

Couriers couldn't be happier.

You wouldn't think more cars on the road would be music to the ears of people who scrape knuckles and knees to scrape up a living.

But the TTC strike may actually be playing their song.

"More people are going to stay home," says Smith. "So there will be more private packages."

If any industry could use the boost, it's bike couriers'.

"The industry's drying up," says one former courier, now studying to be a welder. "All this e-commerce, e-filing. It's eliminating all the paperwork. It's all digital, man."

Smith remembers the last time a permanent rush hour descended on the city: the two-day TTC strike of 1999.

"It was really, really busy," he says. "So this is going to be interesting."

Interesting, as in not as many gaps in traffic to slip through. Not as much patience for errant pedestrians. And not as much room for mistakes.

Some drivers who hit couriers pay them cash on the spot, looking to avoid insurance or legal complications.

"Some of them will get out and freak on you while you're laying on the road — for scratching their car," says Matt Bennett.

He lost some skin just a few hours earlier, when someone surprised him. Tangled up in his own bike, Bennett skidded down the sidewalk, nearly erasing a tattoo on his upper arm.

"It ripped all my scabs off," he says, grinning.

But it all comes around.

That's why the right handlebar on Jay Colin's bike is exposed steel. "You get too close to me and you're getting a paint job," he says.

A rider's true wrath is reserved for the casually reckless: "People on their cellphones pulling U-turns and that s---" and pedestrians "when they stick their heads out onto the street."

"It's a dangerous job," muses Colin. "You wake up knowing you might get hit by a car or you might get pinned down by a car.

"I get veered into all the time."

Still, if there's a strike, the one thing that makes these pedal-pounders a tad uneasy is going to be on two wheels.

"We're going to be impacted by lots of idiots who haven't ridden a bike in 20 years," Wick Johnson says.

People forced to dust off their bikes to get to work can be slow, uncertain and unpredictable — and anathema to the speed industry.

"The quicker you get things off," says Terry Turner, "the more money you're going to make."

For some couriers, the strike may even make a point that goes far beyond profits.

"See all these guys driving around?" says Robert Anderson, gazing at all the gleaming chrome crawling along Adelaide St. "One guy in an SUV?"

He hopes teeming streets will bring a kind of reckoning, where people realize downtown streets are overloaded with cars.

The strike, by clogging roads even further, may make it that much more obvious.

"It's not going to be a turning point," he says. "But it should be a turning point."


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