Mess Media




Unburdened by Gas Costs, Bike Couriers See a Chance

New York Times, September 2, 2008


New York City’s bike messengers remain a fixture on the streets, having weathered the advent of the fax machine and, of course, e-mail. Now, with the cost of gas pummeling courier companies that rely on motorized vehicles, a few enterprising cyclists are using the opportunity to generate more business.

A small but growing number of pedal-powered messengers are outfitting their bicycles and, in some cases, tricycles, with boxes and flatbeds on which they can load hundreds of pounds of cargo.

Checker Courier

“Eighty percent of the jobs done in a van I can do,” said Hodari Depalm, the owner of Checker Courier, a cargo messenger company in Manhattan that says it can move up to 200 pounds of documents by bike. Mr. Depalm said his two-man messenger business had increased by 20 percent within the last year.

Gregg Zukowski has had similar success. A couple of years ago, Mr. Zukowski, the owner of Revolution Rickshaws, a fleet of pedicabs in Manhattan, replaced the passenger seats on a few of his tricycles with flatbeds and lockable cargo boxes capable of carrying up to 550 pounds of goods. He started using the tricycles to make deliveries for bakeries and catering companies and was even hired last month to help a man move into a one-bedroom apartment.

“We’ve joked about doing funerals,” Mr. Zukowski said. Mr. Zukowski’s business is catching on swiftly enough that he hopes to have as many as 30 of his tricycles on the road in the next 18 months.

The messengers can appeal to customers by charging less than couriers who use cars or vans, and to their consciences by pointing out that they are not hurting the environment.

Meanwhile, car and van couriers in New York City are struggling with mounting fuel costs. Local companies are passing the cost of gas on to the customer. Some apply a flat fuel surcharge, while others try to negotiate delivery rates with each of their clients.

“Some clients refuse to pay a surcharge,” said Charles F. Chiusano, vice president of Avant Business Services in New York City and Connecticut. About 15 percent of Avant’s business is with state and county agencies, whose rates were established in contracts signed years ago. When fuel prices soared, and agencies refused to alter their terms, the company had to cover the extra costs or risk losing the contracts.

“If the contract goes out to bid, other companies are willing to underbid, hoping things will get better,” Mr. Chiusano said.

As much as courier companies feel the pinch, those hit hardest by fuel costs are the drivers. Almost all car and van couriers are independent contractors responsible for their own operating costs: gas, parking, vehicle payments and insurance, health insurance and taxes. When gas prices rise and customers like the city or state refuse to pay a fuel surcharge, the money comes directly from the driver’s pocket.

“It hurts,” said Ken Moody, a courier from the Bronx who makes deliveries for Breakaway Courier Systems in his Honda Fit. “Things have been very tight for me lately.”

Mr. Moody, 57, said he needed to make $1,000 a week to cover all of his business and living expenses. That often requires working seven days a week. But during the usually slower summer months, he has been earning only $600 to $700 a week.

“I’m here from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but that doesn’t mean I’m working the whole time,” he said as the movie “Alien 2” played on a DVD player behind him at dispatch headquarters.

Mr. Chiusano said he negotiated better pay rates for his drivers with fuel-efficient vehicles, and he tries to adjust delivery routes to be more fuel efficient.

But other drivers have quit because of the tough economic circumstances. Lucky Singh, a dispatcher for N.Y. Minute Messenger and Trucking in Manhattan, said three drivers left the company in recent months to drive taxis. Mr. Depalm said a few of his friends working as couriers sold their vans and are now bike messengers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Depalm’s cargo bike company is doing fine, he said. “The more they keep raising gas prices, the better it is for me.”

Mr. Zukowski has not only been getting more accounts for his delivery services, he’s also been making money by renting or selling the cargo tricycles, which are manufactured in England, to local businesses. “Green Apple Cleaners bought a work trike from us so they could move their dry cleaning,” he said. “The manager of Stuyvesant Town is interested in purchasing a trike to move office supplies.”

He said the director Wes Craven rented one to film a scene for his next movie, and Nike borrowed one for a photo shoot.

“We’re mobile and agile,” Mr. Zukowski said, ticking off the tricycle’s selling points. “You never use gas or fuel, parking is never an issue, you don’t get tickets and maintenance is low.”

Still, courier companies that rely on gas-powered vehicles say they expect to remain in business for a long time. “Until someone figures out how to transport things like they do on ‘Star Trek,’ I’ll be fine,” said Rick Katz, a partner at LightSpeed Express Delivery Systems in Manhattan.