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
we had the dot.com 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
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
expect more artilces like this when it does. Fortunately for messengers
it's print journalism that's likely to disappear long before bike
of messengers in the US: according to the US department
The End of Bike
The Decline of the Messenger
of the Messenger Industry - Transportation Alternatives'
Messengers: A Vanishing Breed – MCW, Winter 2007
messengers lose business,
not hope - Colombia Chronicle, May 31, 2005
Troubles Afoot - Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2003
Lean Pickings -
Bicycle Trader, September 1996
cycle flattens life for NYC bicycle messengers" - Boston Globe, May
Bike Couriers - New York Times, March 19, 1991
- New York Times, December 2, 1959
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
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
"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
Bike messengers have a reputation for being surly misfits, with a
penchant for lane-splitting and light-running. But many say they're
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
"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
"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."