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Bicycle-messenger business is on a roll on Eastside

by Alex Fryer

Seattle Times, April 12, 1999

If a city is like an ecosystem, bike messengers could be considered a good indicator species, pointing to the economic health of the community.

After all, the sight of a bike messenger huffing and puffing down a city street is a sign of a vibrant and economically active downtown, where firms do business with each other as much as the outside.

Bellevue is no urban jungle, but it supports a half-dozen bike-messenger companies, proof the city's decades-old goal of becoming an independent, thriving metropolis has, in some ways, already been achieved.

And what the bikers say about traveling Eastside streets underscores some of the qualities of the area's infrastructure and traffic problems.

Companies such as Fleetfoot Messenger Service, Bucky's Courier Systems and ENA Couriers have been running messengers in the Bellevue market since the first glass-skinned towers began reshaping the skyline more than a decade ago.20

All three run couriers from a head office in Seattle and communicate with riders via pagers and cell phones. It costs about $7.50 to deliver an envelope within an hour or two in downtown Bellevue's 98004 ZIP code.

Business is booming, the messenger services say.20

Jason Fosnaugh, 27, a courier for Bucky's, is on his bike pretty much from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for the hour he takes for lunch.20

"The stress level is real low, and most people are glad to see you," he said of his job. "It's light on your soul."

Banks, title companies and mortgage brokerages constitute the bulk of his deliveries, Fosnaugh said. Law offices use couriers relatively infrequently, which indicates that most major firms have not significantly expanded their Seattle-based operations to nearby cities.

Most of his deliveries are picked up and dropped off on the Eastside, Fosnaugh said. He sometimes travels to Kirkland three times a week and pedals once in a while to Mercer Island. Around Bellevue, Fosnaugh said, the farthest east he has ridden is Main Street and 156th Avenue Northeast, more than three miles from Downtown Park. On average, Fosnaugh logs about 90 to 100 miles a week.20

Traveling Bellevue streets by bike isn't easy. Almost from its inception, Bellevue has embodied car culture.

In the 1940s, city planners laid out a downtown grid pattern with huge blocks, "superblocks" as they called them, along four- and six-lane roads. When they looked out their windows, the planners saw lots of cars but few pedestrian or cyclists and designed their city accordingly.

There are no established bike lanes downtown, but about 1.6 miles of streets in the central core are wide enough to accommodate bicycles, said Leah Greenblat, associate planner for the city Transportation Department.20

Cars are always a menace to bike messengers, but there are few pedestrians, Fosnaugh said.

Only the pedestrian-only corridor between 108th Avenue Northeast and Bellevue Way Northeast is too congested with foot traffic to ride along, he said, an observation sure to bring smiles to city officials who created the cross-town walkway in 1996.20

The sidewalks around the Metro transit station on 108th Avenue Northeast are bustling with foot traffic and present the biggest "pedestrian threat" to speed-hungry couriers, Fosnaugh said.

Although messengers have termed the intersection of Northeast Eighth Street and 116th Avenue Northeast the "Tunnel of Death" for its confluence of cars entering and exiting Interstate 405, most of Northeast Eighth has wide outside shoulders.20

Bike messengers often take advantage of the fact that riding on Bellevue sidewalks is legal. Legal, said Greenblat, but not encouraged. "It's a high accident location," she said.

For bike messengers, the real enemy is hills. Bellevue is relatively flat, but there are some hills most motorists don't even notice. Bellevue Way Northeast, for example, is a gentle slope, but it's two miles from Bellevue Square to Highway 520, and that can take the wind out of even the fittest courier. But exercise is what being a messenger is really all about, Fosnaugh said.

"It's a great job. The rain gets you down, but you get a lot of sympathy from people in offices. When it's nice, everyone is envious."


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