by Gas Costs, Bike Couriers See a Chance
New York Times, September 2, 2008
By APRIL DEMBOSKY
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.
“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
“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