Respect Rides A 2-Way Street

New York Forum About Town

By Richard Rosenthal. Richard Rosenthal has his own advertising agency.

Newsday, July 28, 1987

I AM A BICYCLIST. Biking in New York frees me from reliance on an unreliabletransit system and saves me MTA and taxi fares and an hour a day.

I have contempt for bike messengers who jeopardize lawfully proceedingpedestrians and vehicles. These two-wheeled terrors not only endanger meand treat me with hostility when I bicycle, they assume that
if I'm cycling, I'm a two-wheeled terror myself   - even as I gently roll to a stop well in front of them and behind the crosswalk.

However much bike messengers deserve our contempt, though, somethingmust be said on their behalf.

First, all cyclists make the city a better place. After all, more cyclistsmean fewer cars  -  and better air, less noise, easier and cheaperparking, cheaper gas and less traffic.

Second, the bike messengers are working. And working bloody hard tomake their day's wage. (The average daily pay seems to be around $65, withan upper limit of about $120.)

Bike messengers are obliged by their firms to work as independent contractors. They receive no health insurance or other benefits. They must buy theirown bikes and pay for their maintenance and repair.

The messengers are true laissez-faire capitalists: They are hard workerswho rely on their own initiative and seek nothing from the government -  no subsidies, contracts or protective rules or laws.

Good bike messengers are masters of street confrontation: They can lookyou in the eye and in a second determine whether you'll yield to them orthey'll have to back down. And the best of them know the limits of theirmachines as few other cyclists do.

They perform an important service. Businesses, law firms and physiciansrely on them to perform duties abdicated by the postal service, whose unreliabilityalmost begged for the creation of the bike messenger industry. At the sametime, the messengers' customers, spoiled by the revolution in instant telecommunications,expect the messengers to use their street smarts and 19th-Century machinesto make inhumanly fast progress through our choked streets.

Their work is grueling and their work environment dehumanizing. Theyseldom last even two years in this job; they are constantly breathing health-threateningexhaust and they ride in bitter cold and snow, pelting rain and searingheat. They work in constant danger as they negotiate our mean streets chockfull of potholes, illegally crossing pedestrians, passengers entering andexiting taxis, cars going through red lights or turning abruptly and withoutwarning from other than turning lanes, and buses challenging the messengers'right to the road. They bike about 40 miles a day in these wretched conditions.

If you're a bike messenger, you're going to be injured   -  no matter how good a cyclist you are. In 1985 there were 2,629 reportedinjuries in motor vehicle/bicycle collisions. There were seven fatalities,none of them motor-vehicle passengers. In this same period there were 617reported injuries to pedestrians from bicycle/pedestrian collisions, andone fatality.  These weren't all messenger incidents, however. Anestimated 50,000 people use bicycles every day in Manhattan.

When messengers charge along sidewalks, go the wrong way on one-waystreets, transgress the rights-of-way of lawfully crossing pedestrians,they do so in order to maximize their income.

The solution to this irresponsible cycling is to pay messengers dailyinstead of piece-work rates.

If a day rate were established, the messenger companies could stillretain the right to dismiss those whose productivity was too low. Messengercompanies that demanded an unreasonable number of deliveries per day wouldlose messengers.

Irresponsible bike messengers richly deserve our wholehearted contemptand an attache case or umbrella plunged into their spokes. But they alsodeserve a certain admiration and respect they are often denied. The mayor,by ruling all cyclists off three midtown avenues instead of enforcing thelaw, has penalized an entire class of people because of the danger posedby a few.

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