By Erika Cederlind
Daily - University of Washington , February 12, 2008
Driving in Seattle sucks. It’s pouring rain and traffic is terrible.
Cars speed up to intersections only to slam on brakes, honk horns and
wait bumper to bumper. Weather conditions, road construction and
commuters only compound the problem.
On a bike, these problems disappear. Bike messengers can weave in and
out of traffic, avoid construction and get from Pike to Pine in a
matter of minutes, while driving through downtown Seattle can take
upwards of an hour.
In a city like Seattle , bike couriers are a necessity. Legal
documents, architectural drawings, business proposals and more must get
from point A to B as soon as possible.
Washington Legal Messengers is one of several bike courier companies in
Seattle . Like many other delivery services, its base is nondescript
(like its riders) and unmarked by any sign or logo that would explain
At 5 p.m., couriers are finishing their workday. Wet and wind-burned
from the January weather, the bikers recline in chairs and on desks,
drinking beer and laughing at the events of the day.
The couriers bond over their common problems: frustrations with
drivers, the weather, or an annoying customer. Their commonalities
create a unique community. They all know each other and many of them
are willing to help out another courier.
“There’s an unspoken bond between messengers,” said Matt “Face”
Nascimento, a Washington Legal messenger Nascimento has worked as a
courier for two years; by messenger standards, he’s still a rookie. He
moved to Seattle from southern California , and like most, fell into
the job by accident.
“I was just riding my bike around the city,” Nascimento said. “I’d just
gotten out of school and wasn’t ready to go back. I went around, asked
a couple of messengers and eventually landed a job at ABC Legal.”
ABC Legal is the biggest legal delivery company in the area.
Now Nascimento considers himself a “lifer” — a career messenger. Many
lifers start as messengers in one city and move to other cities later
in their career.
When courier Chad Strand moved to Seattle from Reno he experienced the
positive impact of the community.
“The first week I met another courier, and she already knew everything
about me,” he said.
Couriers are a mix; some do it while they’re in-between jobs — others
are lifers. Many are college educated and have worked elsewhere. All of
them love the outdoors, cycling and can’t imagine working in an office.
“I can’t tell you how many offices I walk into where they’re counting
down the hours,” Strand said.
“They say they can’t picture doing my job,” he continued. “But I can’t
imagine doing theirs.”
Many people can’t imagine dealing with the risks that many of the
messengers face. Most couriers shrug any danger off.
“People think we’re stupid,” said Jonathan Tamesue, a Fleetfoot
courier. “But we’re playing on a level that people don’t understand.”
Courier consensus: fear is for rookies. Safety is about confidence.
“The moment you doubt yourself, you fall. Any hesitation means you get
hurt,” Nascimento said.
Just don’t try it at home. As Strand explained, “We are professionals.”
Although the occupation seems “macho,” Nascimento explains that quite a
few women work as messengers, too.
“There are a lot of girls who do it who don’t get the respect they
deserve. It’s not a total male-dominated sport,” he said.
The messengers know the city like the back of their hand. They know
which intersection lights change slower and how many seconds you have
before a car 20 feet away will hit you. Traffic patterns are instinct.
“I knew it (being a messenger) finally clicked when I saw holes instead
of cars,” Strand said.
The risks aren’t important to the couriers. Despite the dangers of
getting hit by a bus or wrecking on early morning ice, they love their
“You get into it,” Nascimento said. “Your endorphins are going and you
Independent courier Roy Wilkie describes his job as an adventure.
“It’s a daily road trip. … It’s a challenge, you have to keep so many
Balancing the route, dealing with paperwork, time, and external factors
can all complicate a simple route. Getting a package to a company on
time, Tamesue said, is ridiculously epic.
“You have to get from the [Denny] Regrade to south Seattle in six
minutes, and you got it there with 30 seconds to spare… You can’t
explain how good it feels,” he said.
With all the hills in Seattle , people often wonder what kind of bikes
couriers favor. For many messengers, it’s all over the board.
“It’s what suits you,” Wilkie said. He explained that some people
prefer mountain bikes for heavier packages, track bikes without brakes
for going uphill or just a good solid road bike.
“Track bikes are hard, though, for going downhill,” he said. “You have
to pedal with the speed of the wheel or you’ll crash. But right now
single-speed, fixed gear bikes are really fashionable. As soon as they
go out of style, I’ll work with one.”
Historically, bike messengers have been around since the invention of
the bicycle. The United Parcel Service (UPS) was started by a couple of
guys delivering on bikes in Pioneer Square . Seattle bike delivery
companies began in the late 1970s as the city grew.
“Bike deliveries are the most logical,” said Gary Brose, owner and
president of Fleetfoot Messenger Service. “Traffic is terrible and
people want to get things done in an hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes.
What we’re selling here is time.”
Time is a valuable resource valuable enough that Seattle couriers can
make a pretty good living.
“I don’t have to worry about having to eat Ramen because I’m worried
about making rent,” Strand said.
Some companies pay hourly, but most pay on commission, plus extra for
wait time, rushed deliveries and extra weight.
“You really make as much money as you put into it,” Tamesue said.
Couriers manage several jobs a day, riding miles up and down hills and
all over Seattle . They ride from the U-District to Ballard, through
the downtown core and farther south. Some ride to Bellevue and Issaquah
if the need arises.
“It’s usually from 30 to upwards of 80 jobs on a busy day. I average
about 40 miles,” Fleetfoot messenger Brant Waldron said.
Despite weather, traffic or construction, messengers do their job.
“It’s a total unsung hero thing,” Nascimento said. He laughed and then
added, “I have a good quote for it from Thoreau: ‘The most wild is the
most alive.’ And I think, yeah, we’re pretty wild and pretty alive.”