Bike, Will Deliver
By: Jennifer Andrews
August 7, 2007
Hello, Detroit? Kevin Bacon just called. He wants his old job back.
Seems he’s caught wind that a renegade group of messengers is showing
the Motor City how to properly get its bike on. And he wants in. Thing
is though, they aren’t out to trade in their three-piece suits for
10-speeds all Quicksilver — as in the 1986 feature film starring Mr.
Bacon — style. Some of them have degrees in urban planning. Others are
going grassroots with biking organizations and events. Not one of them
owns a car. And all of them have an awful lot of, well, messages to
"There’s a lot of romanticism that happens with a bike messenger
service, but at the end of the day we're just delivery dudes," says
Hans Buetow, 26, one of the founders of Rock Dove Couriers. He’s
chomping on his fifth or six meal of the day—one of the perks of riding
a bike for a living. But he and the orange-shirted,
messenger-bag-toting posse that is Rock Dove couldn’t have a more
skewed idea of who they really are.
Rock Dove Couriers (named after beloved urban animal, the courier
pigeon) is a five-person pack of professional bike messengers
“pedaling” their wares around the city. For a courier service, those
wares could mean anything from a subpoena or affidavit to the
occasional last-minute Tigers box seat ticket haul. But don’t be fooled
by the cut-off pants and sweaty brows. They’re specialists. They know
the courts, They know the city buildings and the clerks. And, they know
they can get a package anywhere downtown in 15 minutes rain, shine or
20 below. Just delivery dudes? Yeah, right.
Before they joined forces to form Rock Dove though, Hans and his three
fellow partners, Ben Chodoroff, 22, Jack Van Dyke, 27, and Darrin
Brouhard, 29, experienced their profession under slightly different
conditions. They worked extraordinarily hard for what they call “a
pittance” doing local runs on the bike for car-based delivery companies
that offered no insurance and no protection for packages. "Basically if
we get hit, it'd be like 'I don’t know you,' " Buetow says. But over
the years, the various messengers that ran the local area day in and
day out for car-based companies began to build a unique culture with an
expertise at its core that only being on a bike could afford. "We
realized that all this social capital is in our hands…in the worker’s
hands," adds Chodoroff. "And we should be accountable for it."
To that end, Rock Dove built their own company...for the people, by the
people. It’s what they call a "non-competitive collective" with each
employee taking responsibility for the company name, its profits, and
the packages. "It's more important to deliver packages well and treat
clients well," says Buetow, “than sharing money with someone who didn’t
get on the bike to do the run.” And speaking of keeping things
cooperative, Rock Dove also operates on a non-hierarchical functioning
system so at any given time all the messengers must have a mental map
of where everyone is and where they are headed. "If you move, check
in," Buetow says is the key to their homegrown company working
When it comes down to actually pairing a messenger with a run, Rock
Dove again veers from the traditional delivery and dispatch systems
where the important information gets passed through way too many hands.
The group's system has one of the couriers actually answering the
phone, taking all the info, then going on the run. "So when a client
calls our number," says Chodoroff. "They speak to one of us. They speak
to an actual bike messenger."
And that cuts down on confusion and lends a personal air to such a
fast-paced business. In fact, even the skeptics come around when one of
them is able to pull off the unimaginable by being more mobile with
their two legs than anyone behind the wheel. "That first time we pull
somebody's butt out of the fire, oh, man," Buetow says. "People get
The price is right
Both Hans and Ben say that there's never been a better time to start a
bike-based business. With gas prices in constant flux, Rock Dove has
the advantage of being steady as she goes. Around Metro Detroit and
especially downtown, delivery services are still primarily car-based.
And that’s how Rock Dove knows it's always going to come out on
"We're always parked in front of where we are," says Buetow. "We never
have to pay for parking." And of course, that front-door service
translates into cost savings for clients. The Rock Dove standard rate
is six bucks for a guaranteed two-hour delivery. Want it faster? $18.50
will have a messenger peddling as fast as his two legs will take him.
And by fast, we’re talking like with 15 minutes. "Parking downtown and
outside of downtown is horrible. That’s why we can offer service that's
faster than a car. It may take us 8 minutes to get up to New Center,
but we definitely beat them (the cars) on the parking front,” Buetow
But here's the real kicker when it comes to who is really kicking who's
butt on the cost front: Rock Dove has also started doing runs to both
Oakland and Macomb County Circuit Courts. (Um, wait just a second.
That's like 30 miles each way, right? No one could possibly bike that
far!) Buetow says that through a combo of their bikes, DDOT or SMART
buses ($1.50 per ride, thank you very much), and the existing arteries
of Woodward and Gratiot, they’re able to travel long distances in a
shorter amount of time. “Because our model uses bikes, roads, and
public transportation,” he says, “our solution is not only green, it is
also significantly more cost-effective than cars, insurance, parking,
and the biggest variable—gasoline.” And that directly translates into a
cost savings for Rock Dove clients of up to 75% less than car-based
Same roads, same rights
All talk of cost savings and mass transit aside, the truth is Detroit
is still really slow to accept bikes as more than just a needs-based
way to get around. "The big thing is that there's a gigantic
'cyclist-by-default' culture here,' says Chodoroff, who is also one of
the founding members of the Back Alley Bikes collective in the Cass
Corridor. "Whether economically or just because they hate the bus
system, people will ride bikes." It's why he's tapping into that
unorganized community and helping educate them (and others looking to
ditch a car-based life) about bike safety (not wearing a helmet
accounts for 90% of fatalities) and the ease of bike repairs (a few
simple tools will handle 90% of repairs).
He hopes that in terms of systemic change, the city starts to focus on
educating public servants, including DDOT drivers, about bike laws.
"There has to be a change in the public's perception of bicycles," he
says. "More bike lanes would great. But they don’t really mean anything
if there's going to be cars driving in them or parking in them." Buetow
pipes in with his two cents about public perception. “I live in
Hamtramck and I get yelled at out there more than anywhere else. People
just don’t know how to contextualize a bicycle on the road."
But that’s exactly where a group like Rock Dove comes in and starts to
become the context. They’re literally working in the space where the
rubber meets the road. They're two-wheeled agents of change. And
they're showing a city built on cars that not everyone needs a pretty
hunk of sheet metal to work and be happy. "We get to ride a bike for a
living," Buetow says with a smile as he takes another guilt-free bite
of his dinner. "We see parts of the city and get to do things here that
no one else gets to. The city—that’s my office."