Mess Media




Bad to the bike

Messengers dodge traffic—and peril—in the streets of Chicago

 By Leonor Vivanco

Red Eye, July 8, 2008

They are the road warriors of Chicago streets.

Bike messengers slice through traffic, clashing with drivers, battling buses, sometimes yelling at cabbies and dodging pedestrians who dare to cross their path. Broken bones and scars are their badges of honor. Their armor: simple, speedy bicycles, messenger bags large enough to hold a 30-pack of beer, cargo straps to carry boxes, dispatch radios and, most important of all, helmets.

More than 300 bike messengers in Chicago work year-round to accomplish one important mission: delivering packages as safely and quickly as possible. They make an estimated 1.1 million deliveries a year, mostly downtown, according to the city's 2015 Bike Plan, which was implemented in 2006. The more runs they make, the more money they earn.

But, as they buzz along city streets, bike messengers ride a fine line between adventure and risk. Some drivers and pedestrians who share the road see messengers as reckless riders who follow their own set of rules.

Messengers admit to breaking traffic laws and riding aggressively.

"A lot of times it's very likely the messenger who just broke the traffic law you saw is delivering a document that directly affects your life," said Augie Montes, 34, co-owner of 4 Star Courier Collective and a bike messenger for eight years.

"It's not really about trying to be the biggest badass downtown. It's trying to get the job done and trying not to break your neck in the process," he said.

The job has its occupational hazards—including the risk of injury or even death.

More than 6,000 crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles were reported in Chicago between 2001 and 2005, with 30 bicyclists killed, according to the city's Transportation Department.

City officials are trying to make roads safer for all cyclists. In March, the City Council approved fines ranging from $150 to $500 for certain driving violations, including turning left or right in front of a bicyclist, passing a bicyclist with less than three feet of space, opening a vehicle door into the path of a bicyclist, and parking in a bicycle lane.

Some bike messengers doubt the new laws will be enforced. Even so, the fines are a positive step, said Amy Polcaster, 20, of Humboldt Park.

"It sends a message there are bikers in Chicago. We're not trying to hurt anybody, but we're here, and we'd like a little room in the street," said Polcaster, who delivers food for Freshii catering on her bike, often hauling 50 sandwiches and 50 cans of pop to businesses.

Even though the job can be dangerous, bike messengers brave blistering cold winters, wet springs and humid summers because they say they love the job.

"You don't have someone looking over your shoulder. You're not stuck in a cubicle all day," said Rene Cudal, 40, a messenger for 13 years who lives in Noble Square and a co-owner of 4 Star Courier Collective.

On an average day, a bike messenger makes roughly 30 deliveries and clocks at least 30 miles, messengers say. They can take home an average of $100 a day, Cudal said. Some messenger companies pay commission per delivery, while others pay an hourly wage plus commission.

The messengers defend their job, saying it's not an easy one. Instead, it's a balancing act in a race against time.

"A lot of people do not really realize how hard it is. [They think] 'Oh, you're just riding your bike,' " Cudal said. "But let's see you cut through this traffic and get to North Avenue [from Superior and Wells Streets] in seven minutes."

The need for speed

Bike messengers' skills will be put to the test Labor Day weekend in the 11th annual North American Cycle Courier Championship in Chicago. The sanctioned event, which crowns a working bike messenger in North America as the winner, will be held on a closed course in Garfield Park, where checkpoints and assigned pick-up and drop-off locations simulate a day of work.