Mess Media




Competition, 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.

Bike Atlanta bike messenger Robell Awake rides with a banker

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 it.

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 messenger."

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."