Here at the high noon of holiday shopping in Manhattan, the future of the e-commerce revolution is increasingly dependent on a low-tech, often-despised grunt: the bicycle messenger.
Newly belted with two-way radios and data pagers, tracked by sophisticated routing software, these two-wheeled deliverers are more in demand, more highly paid, better trained and, well, better uniformed than ever before.
They call themselves riders, and only they can prevail on an island where gridlock is the black hole of the traditional delivery van, in a time when an exploding number of dot-commerce customers want service in less than one hour.
And the riders know it. "They need us, all these people that want things faster than ever," said William Hightower, 33, a courier for Kozmo.com who was poised to hurl his 21-speed Trek mountain bike on yet another dangerous delivery run. "And now we ride all day."
Idealized in the 1980's for their rebel glamour, bicycle messengers found themselves superseded in this decade not only by the fax machine but also the ubiquitous e-mail attachment. They have also been excoriated in the City Council, singled out by the mayor's quality-of-life crackdowns and stigmatized by terrorized pedestrians.
But now the city's couriers are enjoying a renaissance as new Web-based retailers -- including Kozmo.com, Urbanfetch.com and Barnesandnoble.com -- are employing them as shock troops in a struggle with traditional brick-and-mortar video outlets, food purveyors and retail stores. (Even those merchants are going virtual, and employing more messengers.)
"No matter how high-tech these companies are, their products are still going to be delivered in Manhattan on the back of the guy on the bike," said Denyse Barbay-Burgess, vice president for marketing at the Earlybird messenger service in Manhattan, which is delivering book orders for Barnesandnoble.com.
"New Yorkers are the busiest people in the United States, and we're catering to their needs for convenience and instant gratification," said Joseph C. Park, the chief executive of Kozmo.com, which employs 300 messengers in Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights.
And so at Earlybird, "we're up 15 percent thanks to e-commerce," Ms. Barbay-Burgess said. "In the last few months, we've been bombarded by dot-com companies that want to crack the New York market."
Earlybird has dedicated more than 100 of its 300 messengers each day just to deliver 600 to 800 Barnesandnoble.com orders that used to be schlepped by postal or parcel delivery trucks.
"It is not more expensive to us," Jonathan Bulkeley, chief executive of the online bookstore, said of the New York pilot project, "and it's a way for us to stand out from the crowd" of competitors that ship by snail mail.
At first, the Internet challenged the messenger business "because every time someone sent an e-mail document attachment, we lost a delivery," said Robert Kotch, owner of Breakaway Courier Systems in Manhattan, which fields 120 messengers serving 3,000 city accounts, many of them dot.companies.
"But e-commerce was a godsend to us," Mr. Kotch said. "It came just at the right time."
More than 300 New York messenger companies compete for business worth about $700 million, estimated Bill Goodman, director of the New York State Messenger and Courier Association, a trade group. Cruising the city is an army of as many as 10,000 unlicensed bicycle, van and foot messengers. (The vans are for bulky items like DVD players.) About 5 percent of couriers are women, Mr. Goodman said.
The going messenger rate is $6 to $10 per delivery, at least $5 less than it was a decade ago, because of severe competition, Mr. Goodman said. Full-time bicycle couriers can log more than 30 miles a day on shifts that last 8 to 10 hours. They are paid $300 to $800 a week.
Those employed by Kozmo.com and a few other e-tailers are allowed to accept tips, and can make $15 to $60 a night.
Thanks to Internet commerce, "We've been pulling our hair out to find people to work for us," Mr. Kotch said.
Nate Kretzschmar, 26, a Kozmo.com supervisor who paid his dues as a bicycle messenger, agreed. "It's definitely a messenger's market now," he said, adding that the Internet companies "are beginning to take all the best riders."
Unless the e-house of e-cards collapses, the demand for messengers will keep surging. Earlybird is recruiting more Manhattan couriers, and Mr. Park said Kozmo planned to expand its pool to 1,000 riders by the end of next year.
These days, seasoned street warriors are getting benefits unheard of a few years ago. Earlybird offers a 10 percent bonus for trips on rainy days, a $500 bonus for six months of perfect attendance, and 401(k) retirement accounts and contributory health insurance.
In delivering a 50,000-item inventory, Urbanfetch.com "has a strictly enforced no-tipping policy," said Ross L. Stevens, the company's chief executive, "because customers are uncomfortable about how much to tip on a DVD player," he said.
To compensate for its no-tipping ukase, the company offers a cornucopia of incentives to its 100 couriers so "they can make more than $800 a week," Mr. Stevens said.
Urbanfetch.com, like a growing number of competitors, uniforms its couriers (in green, white and black). And many companies now put messengers through intensive delivery training sessions "because that one moment of interaction makes or breaks the experience for our customers," said Mr. Park of Kozmo.com.
The training strategy reassures many customers. "Usually bike messengers are kind of a crazy crew, pierced and tattooed, but Kozmo.com has some very good guys," said Jarom Fawson, 26, a computer consultant who lives in the West Village and places Internet orders every other week.
The courier industry hopes that the city's newfound need for riders will upgrade their image. "Messengers have been stigmatized, but to make the city work, you have to have them," Mr. Goodman said. "It's a tough job, it's a big city, and it's crazy out there."
The streets they ride are indeed mean. So far, 34 bicyclists have been killed this year in the five boroughs. Although the Police Department cannot say how many were messengers, most are believed to be.
Riders are also under intense pressure from the police. Responding to citywide complaints about bicycle messengers, the Police Department doubled its Manhattan Traffic Task Force last year from 10 to 20 mountain-biking officers. The heightened enforcement came after a man was struck and killed on a sidewalk by a food deliveryman on a bicycle in 1997.
Mr. Goodman drew a distinction between couriers and the riders who deliver takeout orders for tips on wobbly balloon-tire bicycles with wire baskets. Those riders provoke "the No. 1 quality-of-life complaint by the people who reside and do business in our community," said Capt. Michael E. Shea, commander of the 20th Precinct in Manhattan.
Not long ago, messengers had a transgressive chic that was mainstreamed by entertainments like "Quicksilver," the 1986 Kevin Bacon film, and "Double Rush," the 1995 CBS series about a Manhattan bicycle-messenger service. Despite Hollywood, plenty of New Yorkers seem to prefer not to share an elevator with a messenger.
"If you want to know how discrimination feels to minorities, just be a bike messenger," Mr. Kotch said. "The guy at the front door takes one look at you and tells you to go around to the back."
But some veteran messengers cannot get enough of the riding rush. "It's a thrill riding on the streets; you're addicted," said Andrew Terrelonge, 38, a messenger for 10 years, the last 2 at Earlybird.
For others, the romance, such as it is, lies in their pay envelopes. "For me, it's quick cash while I'm going to school," said Danny Barrera, 24, a part-time business student at Queensborough Community College.
But for a majority of riders, the glamour fades after five years, said Mr. Kotch, 42, who spent a couple of years as a messenger himself. "Then you get tired of sucking down diesel exhausts."
These days, he is content to lug a folding bicycle onto New Jersey Transit for his trip to work so that he can pedal to Canal Street, where his courier company plays its part in keeping the new Internet economy clicking right along.