One year ago, a pair of severe bicycle messenger crashes in Boston and San Francisco shook the courier communities in those cities. A year later, the difference in consequences afforded to each provides a startlingly honest view of how American transportation really works.
In August 1997, San Francisco bicycle messenger Casey Moe was run down while trying to dodge an errant pedestrian. He was hit by an unlicensed driver working for the enormous JCDecaux company, and no one involved received so much as a ticket. Local newspapers exonerated those who killed him, minimizing the incident as a ripple in business-as-usual. (See story, page16).
Three months after Casey Moe was run down in San Francisco, a courier crash again made news_in a vastly different way. When William J. Spring, vice president of Boston's Federal Reserve Bank, strode into the path of bicycle messenger Jonathan Gladstone on October 30, cycling safety was given a different spin entirely. Mr. Spring was seriously injured, and the Boston messenger community soon faced the harshest police crackdown in its history (See story, page17).
The contrast between these two incidents brings into stark relief a double-standard that bicycle messengers the world over have known for some time: while cyclists maintain a vastly superior safety record, the carnage wrought by drivers carries a special sort of immunity.
Cycle messengers are alternately characterized or romanticized as scofflaw punks. Yet episodes such as these render such hypocrisy paramount: messengers work in the city, and they exist within a context.
While the messengers upon whom Boston professionals rely heavily are required to move quickly for their livelihoods, the very same professional class handily removes itself from the equation when problems occur. The Boston Chamber of Commerce was principal among those demanding a harsh and immediate crackdown on the bicycle workers its members depend on. As noted by messenger advocate Joe Hendry, this crackdown now "forces bicycle messengers to carry greater insurance than both taxi drivers and automobile couriers." It also grants local police the power to arbitrarily suspend, deny or revoke the driving licences of bike couriers - automobile couriers are curiously exempted from this sanction. Similarly harsh sanctions already exist in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Many in the bicycle messenger community have long noted that the context with which to view bicycle crashes is in relation to the carnage wrought by automobiles. In America, that would be over 40,000 deaths and 3.5 million injuries in 1996 alone. The size, speed and insulation of the automobile renders it inherently more dangerous than a cyclist could ever aspire to be. Studies show that pedestrians are 250 times more likely to be hit by a car, bus or taxi than by a bicycle.
While pedestrians and bicyclists are 16% of road fatalities, they are allocated one percent of the safety budget for American surface transportation. It is usual for such truths to be ignored. Despite the occasional liberal lip-service, entrenched autophiles in urban planning departments reign supreme - the larger trend sees cyclists of all sorts considered last in matters of road safety.
The death rate for cyclists in San Francisco has increased since that city was shocked by the deaths of Casey Moe and fellow cyclist Paulina Calunya last August. Meanwhile in Melbourne, Australia, Premier Jeff Kennett vowed in June to bring forth fines or force to address "kamikaze" bicycle messengers. The drivers in his district presumably conduct themselves as pristine, lily-white angels.
A cynical professional class collaborates here, preferring bikers as subordinates in both wages and safety concerns. Bicycle messengers routinely perform tasks that no gridlocked car could attempt, yet they are somehow held to absolute standards absent elsewhere in transportation. Judgements of couriers - springing from tired stereotypes come before any simple appreciation of their willingness to perform a vital and dangerous job in an ecologically sound manner. San Francisco, Toronto and the City of North York have all issued proclamations declaring October 9 as International Messenger Appreciation Day (10-9 is radio for "say again?").
The next time you encounter a bike courier in traffic, don't panic. It becomes harder to know how you will move when you do so. Instead, understand that this person must know how to ride safely in order to make it home through auto traffic, and proceed accordingly.
Just as couriers provide an essential service to the professional class, they can show us all the beauty of life by bicycle. What is the potential of this mode? Pay a visit to the next Freight Bike World Championships and find out.
While not everyone across the spectrum of the bike messenger community will consider themselves ecologists first, the daily example of sustainability they provide should be recognized.
We should all be taking any available steps to decrease the incidence of road crashes. Sincerity in such an effort will demand that if we are to condemn the one, we must condemn them all.