traffic fierce for city's bike messengers
Not just anybody can do the work
By Jamie Gumbrecht
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 4, 2008
Atlanta's bike messengers count about 10 of their kind on the roads.
They ride Downtown to Midtown sometimes a dozen times a day to deliver
documents with the urgency of e-mail and the gravity of paper. Some
couriers say they expect business to go up to keep gas costs low. Some
say their workload will shrink as more businesses and government
agencies figure out how to do their work online.
For now, this is their job security: cars can handle the long haul and
fragile cargo, but in Atlanta traffic, a bike gets there faster.
The OGs, or Old Guys, remember the 1990s, before e-mail was universal,
when fax machines were still novel and maybe 30 couriers roamed
Atlanta's streets. Not anymore.
The competition for jobs toting legal documents and blueprints is so
fierce, the balance of work so delicate, that one courier company
adding just one rider will affect the workload for all of them.
The messengers describe it this way: "super-competitive", "cliquish",
"passionate", "pretty nasty" and "fun."
On one bad day, Dean Handley, an Old Guy (he's 37) with 13 years on the
bike decided he was through, even said it out loud as other couriers
listened. Four people turned in applications for his job. He'll quit
someday, when his knees make him, but he hasn't yet.
Anybody that rides a bike could do the work, if they're comfortable
earning maybe $500 a week skimming between car lanes and bolting
through red lights delivering, say, thousands of MARTA cards strapped
to their backs.
Which means this: not just anybody can do the work.
Turnover is frequent. Traffic is too heavy, the threat of bodily injury
too great. The OGs and rookies don't talk much. Friendships fizzle when
one edges out another for the bulk of one company's deliveries. As
independent contractors, they sometimes work for several outlets at
once. When one rider starts getting more calls than another, when the
wind changes, they know.
"The better relationship you have with your dispatcher, the more work
you get," says courier Jon Curtis, 23, who rode BMX and delivered pizza
before he was hired as a car courier two years ago. He switched to a
black fixed gear bike about eight months ago.
"Some days, it's too busy to eat," he says. "Some days, you're sitting
here all day."
"Here" is The Slab, a giant, circular hunk of black granite outside
Peachtree Center. It's the perfect hangout between jobs, a central
point between Downtown and Midtown with a lot of places to stow a bike.
But couriers spend down time anywhere there's a string of restaurants;
most claim to have a metabolism running wild. If it's not too hot,
they'll eat all day without gaining an ounce of weight.
Where couriers wait has something to do with experience.
Antonio Miller, age 34 and a courier for more than a decade, says he
delivers mostly Downtown, and often heads home to wait out the time
between. He put in years of double-digit miles and speed, but travels
around six miles a day now.
Robell Awake, 23, with about a year of experience on the bike, says he
rides about 30 miles a day if the work is good. He straps a lot of
packages to his back, and he'll take them anywhere except Buckhead.
(Every courier interviewed for this story agrees: it's a death sentence
for bikers, no matter how daredevilish.)
If good dispatcher relations will keep them working, it's their job to
stay healthy enough to do it. An independent bike messengers doesn't
have health insurance through the delivery company. After that first
hit or fall, plenty quit. Some can't stay, even if they'd like to. If
you're not rolling, you're not getting paid.
Liz MacFarland gave it up a few weeks ago, after her first trip to the
hospital. Her confidence — her fearlessness — was rising, but she can
be clumsy. It was only a matter of time until she was injured, she says.
She doesn't really remember, but she thinks she flipped forward, landed
on her right shoulder, then rolled out of the fall. Unlike most
couriers, she wore a helmet. Still, she sustained a common injury among
riders, a broken collar bone.
She can't ride her bike for three months, can't even scribble with her
right hand. She's working as a cocktail waitress for now, and has no
plans to work from the back of a bike in the future.
"I knew where I was, I knew what was coming, I ride that street every
day," says MacFarland, 28. "Then five minutes later, I fell."
Atlanta's not so cut-throat that a fallen comrade won't get the
attention of others. After MacFarland's fall, other couriers picked up
her bike and checked in on her. They'll offer up an air pump or tube in
a maintenance emergency, and gladly pick up deliveries for a messenger
who is shaken after a spill, or just too busy.
There are a few perks to the gig: no boss looking over their shoulder.
Decent pay, although some months are busier and some companies are
better. A utilitarian style so unique that it's replicated among bikers
and non-riders. ("Posenger," would be a word for it, but Atlanta's
couriers seem OK with being fashion icons.) Dodging traffic, feeling
the adrenaline, riding a bike to, from and at work. They have to love
Says Miller: "They're really into it, deep into it. They think it's
really cool. It's cool till you get hit."
Says Handley: "Everybody wants to be a messenger, but nobody's parents
want them to be a messenger. They don't want their daughter dating a
Says Awake: "I can feel the seasons change. I'm super comfortable on my
bike. I can beat a car. I've always been kind of a skinny, lanky dude
but there's stamina, endurance. You're more in touch with how far you
can push yourself."
They can push themselves, but it's that bumper-to-bumper Atlanta
traffic that keeps pushing them. Speed gets easier.
"I used to stay to the right, stop at red lights. Now I hate stopping.
Never stop, gotten a couple tickets," Awake says. "That's the only way
you can make it in this industry. You can't stop at a light."