Mess Media

monitors, analyzes and corrects media reporting errors and bias concerning messengers and couriers.

Mess Media




Messenger Welcome Journalists to 1991 - again

It's a new year and that means it's time for the annual end of bike messengers article.

The media is obsessed with promoting the myth that bike messengers are disappearing. They have been  predicting the demise since at least 1991.  Messenger numbers go up and down with the economy. The effect of the internet on the messenger industry was felt almost 10 years ago yet journalists make it sound like it just happened.  In 1999 we had the bump which temporarily increased the number of messengers. It's not just messengers everything in America was healthier before the selection of George W. Bush in 2000.

There was an AP story about the Internet ruining the messenger industry  in at least 75 publications in May 2005. It was also on the front page of Yahoo as one of the top stories. The article is basically the same with different headlines like "Bike messengers fading fast", "Bike messengers ride into sunset", "Message is bad for bike couriers", and "Bye-bye to bicycles"

The USA is about to go into a recession so expect more artilces like this when it does. Fortunately for messengers it's print journalism that's likely to disappear long before bike messengers do.

Number of messengers in the US: according to the US department of Labour
1996 – 138,000 2002 - 132,000
1998 – 120,000 2004 – 147,000
2000 - 141,000

The End of Bike Messengers

The Decline of the Messenger Industry

History of the Messenger Industry - Transportation Alternatives' "Bicycle Blueprint"

Bike Messengers: A Vanishing Breed – MCW, Winter 2007

Bike messengers lose business, not hope - Colombia Chronicle, May 31, 2005

Messenger Troubles Afoot - Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2003

Lean Pickings - Bicycle Trader, September 1996

Economic cycle flattens life for NYC bicycle messengers" - Boston Globe, May 6 1992

Fax Displacing Manhattan Bike Couriers - New York Times, March 19, 1991

Messenger Boys Fading Away - New York Times, December 2, 1959

Bicycle messengers are pedaling uphill against the Internet - San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 2007

And now for the latest:

The plea of a dying breed: Don't kill the bike messengers

By Vanessa Ho

Seattle Post –Intelligencer, February 26, 2008

There was a time when it felt like you couldn't drive downtown without almost mowing down a bike messenger, or take a courthouse elevator without squeezing next to one or two or five of them. Or open a magazine without gazing upon their urban coolness, which got out of control when Jessica Alba played a lip-glossed messenger in "Dark Angel."

Bike messengers were ubiquitous; they epitomized brash, scruffy youth; they were tattooed relief in corporate cityscapes across the country.

But that was the '90s.

These days, bike messengers are a dwindling breed, vanishing with the rise of high-speed Internet, digital imagery and electronic court filings. Ten years ago, an estimated 150 messengers worked in Seattle. Today, the number is 50 to 75. Other cities have experienced similar declines, with The Economist reporting that New York has lost more than 1,000 messengers since the dawn of the new millennium.

Courier companies have shrunk or morphed into more lucrative niches -- from grabbing lost luggage via car to shuttling club sandwiches via bike, which, as it turns out, isn't as cool as moving documents on deadline, even with the tips.

In one of the starkest signs of looming obsolescence, the national company that bought Bucky's -- once perhaps Seattle's best-known bike-courier business -- eliminated its entire bike fleet last year. It now focuses on car and truck deliveries.

"Last year was not our most profitable year ever. A large portion was due to lack of bike work," said Randy Bennett, owner of Seattle Legal Messenger Services, which employs four bicyclists. "Within three to five years, we're certainly not going to have four bike messengers."

But don't expect any laments from Seattle's pedal haulers, a close-knit group that still works hard for a starting hourly wage of $10, if they're lucky. Between delivering blueprints, artwork, hard drives, cell phones, legal papers, eviction notices, subpoenas, cookies and flowers, and meeting friends for beer after work, few have time to worry.

"I'm definitely not doing it for the money," said Mark Pilder, 38, a legal messenger for 10 years. "I like the job more than all the other jobs I had. Or I dislike it less."

It was supposed to be a summer gig between college and grad school, where Pilder had been accepted to study education. But like many messengers, he relished the job's freedom, camaraderie and physicality. He tried to quit four times.

"I went into this cage," he said of a stint in a bike shop. "My friends would ride up, say hi and ride away, and I was stuck in this little cage."

Bike messengers have a reputation for being surly misfits, with a penchant for lane-splitting and light-running. But many say they're misunderstood.

On a recent chilly morning, a gaggle of them hung out at their usual pit stop between deliveries, Monorail Espresso on Pike Street, surrounded by cigarette smoke and an armada of wheels. Their dark, tough clothes repelled any hint of rain, cold and friendly overtures.

"I have friends afraid to come say hi to me at work, because they're intimidated to come here," said Monorail barista Addie Harrington, speaking of the messengers. "But they're really polite and friendly."

Some messengers say they feel disrespected by, well, lots of people: drivers who can't drive; office workers with superior airs; pedestrians who think bicyclists have no legal right to be on a sidewalk (they do).

"I've been cut off, flipped off, honked at. It's 'Get on the sidewalk! Get off the street! Stay off the sidewalk!' " said Nick Dale, 27, a longtime messenger who dispatches for Indy Stealth, which he co-owns.

He recalled a driver who flipped him off, then boarded the same elevator as his minutes later, never deigning to make eye contact. "People think you're lower than subpar," Dale said.

Despite that and other pitfalls -- physical danger and little health insurance among them -- many messengers love riding their bikes.

Rookies often struggle with getting lost and tired, and quit within their first year. But veterans, many on lightweight, skinny-tire bikes, become fast, brazen, intuitive road warriors. They barrel down hills, squeeze between cars, hop curbs and dodge buses.

"I picture a salmon going upstream is how I ride in traffic," said Dale. "There's flow in it, no jerky movements."

Even after messenger Greta Garber, 24, broke her foot and suffered two concussions in accidents, she refused her boss' offer of an office job. "I can't picture myself at a desk."

Friendship is another perk, forged over parties and street races. When a Seattle messenger was hospitalized last year, co-workers raised thousands of dollars toward his medical bills. They also recently held a remembrance for three messengers killed snowboarding at Crystal Mountain.

"The community is really tight," said legal messenger My Nhung Pham, 24, who had been roommates with two of the snowboarders. "It's one of those jobs where you can go to any other major city and you have a couch to sleep on."

Sometimes she marvels at the dichotomy of carrying records for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit or a skyline-rearranging project in the crudest form of transportation: muscle and grit. "I'll be broke as hell and delivering a $700,000 check," Pham said.

Pilder, a writer with a pointed blog, has honed his outlook on the polar glimpses the job provides, from Columbia Center's 72nd floor to Third Avenue's homeless men. And from spending as much time in elevators as in the saddle, listening to absurdly intimate conversations or countless versions of the same question: "Is it raining?"

"That's the worst question you can ask a messenger that's soaking wet," he said. "Just because you don't have windows in your work, you ask me if it's raining. Of course it's raining."

But lately, work has been slow, with some companies doing about half as many deliveries as they did a decade ago. Messengers say they can make 10 deliveries an hour, or none. One of the city's largest messenger companies recently cut wages by paying employees per delivery, rather than per hour.

The trade began to suffer in the 1980s with fax machines, but the culprit now is broadband Internet. Why hire a messenger when you can e-mail PDF files, music and photos? The introduction of e-filing in federal, state and local courts in recent years hastened the decline.

With mixed feelings, Pham is planning to become a welder soon. Garber sees another job eventually, maybe union organizing. Pilder says he's going to quit -- this time for real.

As messengers vanish, some people see fading human contact.

"Losing interaction with these guys is quite sad," said Rhonda Ayala, a legal assistant at Davis Wright Tremaine. "They've saved our bottoms more than many times."

For years, she's enjoyed the breeze they bring in, the whiff of freedom from the outside. "We're envious of them. We're locked in a building. We're in a fish bowl. These guys are breathing fresh air."

Others see a loss of character for the city.

"It is going to suck," said Bennett of Seattle Legal. "It is kind of cool when you're downtown to see them whizzing by."




Send comments or suggestions, to:



CMWC 2008 Toronto