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Pace picks up for city's bike couriers

With rising gas prices, businesses are turning to a two-wheel solution

By Rick Barrett

Millwaukee Journal Sentinel,  May 22, 2008

Bicycle couriers are thriving as rising fuel prices persuade more people to use two-wheel delivery services instead of putting their cars on the road.
 
For a little more than the price of a gallon of gas, bike couriers will deliver a letter or small package anywhere in downtown Milwaukee. It saves their customers fuel, parking fees and time.
 
Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, the average price for a regular unleaded gallon of gas in the Milwaukee area jumped to $4.04 by Thursday afternoon, according to MilwaukeeGasPrices.com. Many stations are charging $4.19 a gallon.
 
Bike courier Steven Feih of STS Delivery Co. streaks through downtown Milwaukee while on a delivery Thursday.
 
"We do well over 100 deliveries a day," said Eric Von Munz, co-owner of Breakaway Bicycle Courier.
 
"It's much cheaper than using cars, and companies like going 'green' " with their deliveries, he said.
 
Bike couriers carry a wide variety of documents and packages. Much of the business comes from court filings and legal papers that require signatures.
 
Hupy and Abraham, a downtown Milwaukee law firm, uses the couriers rather than firm employees to deliver many documents.
 
"In the past, we would send a law clerk or other employee to the court house. But now we are more likely to call the bike messengers," said Ann Marie Langan, a paralegal at the firm.
 
Milwaukee has a handful of bike courier services in what's become a competitive field. They make deliveries even when the post office and government offices are closed, and they can race their way through busy streets faster than cars.
 
Some couriers ride as far north as Good Hope Road and as far south as Cudahy. They also make regular runs to Harley-Davidson Inc., Miller Brewing Co. and other businesses on the near-west side of Milwaukee.
 
"But once you get out of the downtown area, which we call the sand box, then it's probably more effective to use a car," said Trevor Danielsen, co-owner of STS Delivery Co., a bike courier that also uses cars for some trips.
 
With their road warrior tactics and willingness to ride through the winter, bike couriers are a tough breed.
 
Most ride fixed-gear bikes, or fixies, that are single-speed machines with few frills, including hand brakes.
 
As the bike moves forward, the rider is forced to pedal. To slow down, the rider presses backward on the pedals against the forward motion of the bike.
 
Couriers in Milwaukee and other cities have been ticketed for not having brakes on their fixed-gear bikes.
 
It's an ongoing issue, Danielsen said, as one of his couriers was ticketed a couple of weeks ago for a traffic violation and for not having a brake.
 
In Portland, Ore., police were ticketing people left and right for not having hand brakes, said Casey Fitzpatrick, president of the Portland United Messenger Association.
 
Milwaukee's ordinance was adopted from a state statute that reads in part: "No person may operate a bicycle . . . upon a highway, bicycle lane or bicycle way unless it is equipped with a brake in good working condition, adequate to control the movement of and to stop the bicycle."
 
Couriers say they have a brake, their legs, and it's the simplest and most effective way to stop.
 
But it depends on how a judge interprets the law, said Jack Hirt, project coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
 
"It could be argued that your legs are the brake" on a fixed-gear bike, he said.
 
"I have never heard of a crash involving a bike messenger who couldn't stop. I know a lot of them break traffic laws, but they're not taking so many chances that they're causing crashes on a daily basis by any means," Hirt said.
 
Fixies can be outfitted with a hand brake, but many are not. Some riders attach fake brake handles on their handlebars in an effort to avoid tickets.
 
Unless the law is changed, there's not much riders can do to fight the $65 traffic tickets, according to Danielsen.
 
"It's kind of a 'turn the other cheek' situation," he said.