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Media Myth #1:  The End of Bike Messengers


Mess Media, May 6, 2005

by Joe Hendry


There was an AP story about the Internet ruining the messenger industry  in at least 75 publications in May 2005. It was also on the front page of Yahoo as one of the top stories. The article is basically the same with different headlines like "Bike messengers fading fast", "Bike messengers ride into sunset", "Message is bad for bike couriers", and "Bye-bye to bicycles"

The problem is, the numbers don't back it up. The messenger industry felt the effects of the Internet in the late 1990's and early 2000's and it's now growing again.

It's easy to look at a few companies and say because there are fewer messengers then it must be the same for all. But competition has increased and some companies have suffered (usually established ones) but there are many new companies and indies that have surfaced.

Not one of these stories looks at industry statistics. The fact is the messenger industry is growing not shrinking. It did go through a period of decline but so did the entire US economy after a former-president's son started managing it.

Over the years there have been many articles predicting the death of messengers. The Chicago Tribune did a similar and timelier article in 2003.

At the time the US department of labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) predicted a decline of 1% in the number of messengers through 2010. However things have improved and the latest OOH is now predicting small growth in the number of messengers through 2012. 

While there are no stats on the number of bike messengers, overall employment in the messenger industry has increased.

According to the USDOL there were 138,000 messengers in 1996, 120,000 messengers in 1998, 141,000 messengers in 2000 (although the classification changed so comparison to prior years is unreliable.)

The most recent numbers in the OOH (for 2002) put the number of messengers at 132,000, a 6% drop from 2000. However in 2002 the US economy was in the middle of a recession and the huge impact of 9/11 was still being felt in the industry. That's probably why the OOH is now predicting growth for the industry. The messenger industry's decline bottomed out in late 2003 and has been growing ever since.

In the first half of 2004 the industry added 21,000 jobs and in January of this year the messenger industry added about 17,000 jobs (after losing 9,000 in December due to seasonality.)

So as usual the media is way behind on the story. They are reporting now on a situation that existed 2 years ago and has already changed for the better.

The problem with the messenger industry is not demand for the service it is price-cutting. Revenues and volume are up but the average price per unit has declined.

The media and industry now refers to the late 80's-early 90's as a boom time yet during that time these same types of articles were common. It was also during a recession. They were used to create an environment of insecurity among messengers to prevent them form exercising their rights.

One of the sections on messengers in Transportation Alternatives' "Bicycle Blueprint" is called the History of the Messenger Industry

Here is an excerpt:

Finally, as the 1980s ended, the recession hit, along with the proliferation of fax machines, making it difficult for the companies to pass these extra costs on to customers. This led to a significant shake-out, with many small companies going out of business or merging. (There is little data available on current numbers of companies and individual bicycle messengers. [1])

Despite a perception that bike messengers are becoming obsolete, the industry has stabilized somewhat in the early 1990s, but with incomes and profits significantly lower than during the boom times of the 1980s. "Three or four years ago you could make $500 to $700 a week, but most make more like $200 to $400," says J.P. Lund, a messenger for the past five years. (The going rate for an average run is around $7, of which the messenger receives about half, with higher rates for rush and oversized packages. Messengers also earn bonuses for working in bad weather, and messenger company dispatchers often favor senior riders with more lucrative runs.)

NOTES:
1. The Mar/Apr 1991 City Cyclist and the March 19, 1991 New York Times both reported on shrinkage in the bicycle messenger industry resulting from the recession and the spread of telefax communication; the Times cited no statistics and appeared to overstate the extent of the decline.


Next : The Decline of the Messenger Industry

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