Are Bike Messengers Gearing Up For a New Chapter?

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The internet disrupted the bicycle messenger industry. In the age of the pandemic, can technology revive the need for couriers?

 

Kevin Bolger knows New York City better than most. Since 1992, Bolger—call him ‘Squid’—has jockeyed the asphalt as a bicycle messenger. That’s nearly 30 years of riding—usually for five hours a day, six days per week—delivering parcels through snowstorms and heatwaves, weaving between gridlocked lanes of honking traffic, dodging delivery trucks and potholes and pedestrians. It can be a tough line of work, but it’s all Squid has ever known.

“It’s a high-turnover profession,” says Squid, who owns and operates Cycle Hawk. “A lot of people don’t do it more than six months. Someone that does it for a long time, I don’t know, you fall in love with it. The city is always showing me things that I haven’t seen before.”

There was the time Squid saw circus elephants walking down Seventh Avenue. Or the time he pedaled past a bank robbery in progress, narrowly avoiding police officers rushing the bank.

Working as a bike messenger is never dull, not in New York. Squid has delivered advertising materials for a high-end fashion company, maternity dresses for a supermodel and confidential documents to a former Cabinet member.

Cyclist standing behind bike in street.

Kevin Bolger, known as ‘Squid,’ has jockeyed the asphalt as a bicycle messenger for nearly 30 years of riding. (Photo Credit: Jennie-Jo Marine)

In many ways, working cyclists like Squid help keep a city’s heart beating. When COVID-19 forced cities and states across the country to effectively shut down earlier this year, bike messengers and food-delivery cyclists in places like New York suddenly found themselves in a critical role.

While many—including me—have turned to bike delivery work to compensate for lost income during the pandemic, the number of messengers and couriers has declined in recent decades. In 1999, there were 120,000 couriers and messengers in the country, compared to just under 75,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Blame the internet, in part, for disrupting the messenger industry. Why hire a courier on a fixie to deliver your legal brief when you can zip it across town electronically with the press of a button? Technology—including email and fax machines—reduced business-to-business (or B2B) clientele for couriers, who were no longer needed to dash paper documents between firms, obtain signatures on contracts or file legal papers before courts closed.  

But the age of this urban icon may not yet be a thing of the past. The widespread use of smartphones has enabled a surge in online shopping. This booming business-to-consumer (or B2C) market is also growing the demand for same-day delivery, the bike courier’s forte. Technology, it seems, is reviving the need for bike couriers in new ways.

Business for food-delivery apps, already rising in the on-demand age, has exploded during the pandemic. Densely populated cities like New York teem with delivery cyclists sprinting from restaurant to high-rise and back again, their unwieldy messenger bags sagging from the weight of pizzas and burgers stacked deep. Though food-delivery cyclists are not technically considered couriers, many bike messengers who once delivered parcels are now switching to food. Some 50,000 cyclists work for food-delivery apps in the city, according to a 2012 estimate by the New York Department of Transportation.

Delivery Biker During Covid-19 Pandemic

A delivery biker in downtown Manhattan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, online retailers like Amazon and freight companies like United Parcel Service (UPS) and DHL are eyeing cargo bikes—and couriers—with the aim of reducing delivery times and carbon emissions from vehicles in congested urban areas. For bike messengers, these new opportunities might mean the industry is gearing up for a new chapter.

The heyday of bike messengers

Bike messengers have been making deliveries since the dawn of the bicycle. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, telegraph companies employed young men and boys to deliver telegrams by bike. UPS was founded in Seattle in 1907 as the American Messenger Company. The company made all of its deliveries on foot or by bicycle until it acquired its first Ford Model T in 1913.

The bike courier remained a fixture in cities even as cars became ubiquitous. As populations grew, so did the demand for speedy deliveries. The period between 1980 and 2007 is largely considered the heyday of the messenger industry. Films like the 1994 documentary The Need for Speed glamorized the bike messenger subculture, painting couriers as adrenaline seekers and exalting their nonconformist way of life. During the ’90s, the Cycle Messenger World Championships and North American Cycle Courier Championships—still hallmarks of the courier culture—were established. Many messengers remember that time as the “paper” era. Anything that needed a signature—advertising proofs, legal briefs, court filings, paychecks, rent checks, visa applications—needed a bike courier.

“When you’ve got kidneys on dry ice or somebody’s retinas on your back, there’s no margin of error. You cannot be late.”

Gary Brose, owner of Fleetfoot Messenger Service in Seattle, often had 32 bike couriers on the clock during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. “Even though there were peaks and valleys, generally speaking, we got busier every year,” he says.

In Washington D.C., Realcourier, Inc., owner-messenger Patrick Riggin remembers hundreds of bike messengers darting through the nation’s capital on Friday afternoons. Riggin regularly delivered to every government building, from the Department of Justice to the White House, until security tightened after 9/11.

“I was doing between 45 and 75 miles per day back then, carrying a big heavy radio, delivering to all of Capitol Hill, every congressman and senator,” says Riggin. “There was a lot of good money to be made.”

In those years, messengers could make a modest living delivering full time. Though pay rates vary widely depending on the company and the volume of deliveries, in general, couriers are paid on commission, by package or distance. The quicker or farther the delivery, the more a courier makes. Even so, many couriers still juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. In New York, Squid has raised two children piecing together messenger work with other odd jobs. When the courier work is there, he pulls in anywhere between $700 and $800 per week.

When Congress passed a law in 2000 validating the use of electronic signatures, many predicted the demise of bike messengers. By then, email was no longer a novelty. Sending digital files as attachments and communicating via instant messaging had become interwoven into the fabric of society. But bike couriers still found work delivering what electronic scans, digital signatures or email couldn’t: small packages and large paper items like blueprints.

In Denver, Jason Abernathy, or J-Bone, who has worked as a bike messenger for over 40 years, survived by specializing in medical products.

“My big money makers were x-rays, blood, body parts, real stuff that really needed delivering fast,” he says. “When you’ve got kidneys on dry ice or somebody’s retinas on your back, there’s no margin of error. You cannot be late.”

Couriers like J-Bone who were dependable, fast and could adapt to changing demands had no trouble finding work, even as clients continued to digitize and modernize their processes.

We’re still here’

Not every courier survived the changing times, especially when the Great Recession hit in late 2007.

“Some of my clients just went bankrupt and disappeared altogether,” recalls Austin Horse, a three-time North American Cycle Courier Champion and two-time Cycle Messenger World Champion.

But the history of messengers has been littered with predictions of the industry’s demise, he says. “If you go back in time, you’ll see people saying the fax machine and the telegraph were going to destroy the bike messenger scene, but they didn’t,” says Horse, who started riding as a messenger in 2004. “We’re still here.”

And now the internet, which undoubtedly disrupted the messenger landscape, is proving crucial in keeping some cyclists on the road as more people work from home and restaurants operating under pandemic restrictions switch to take-out and food delivery. Food-delivery apps employ tens of thousands of cyclists across the country, many of whom deliver for multiple apps to make a living.

Meanwhile, others like Horse are working with e-commerce giants to provide last-mile cargo bike deliveries in densely populated urban areas.

Cyclist carrying cargo

Photo Courtesy: NY Department of Transportation

Cargo bike deliveries

In December 2019, New York City launched the Commercial Cargo Bike Program aimed at reducing congestion and carbon emissions from delivery trucks. At least 90 cargo bikes are delivering grocery orders to New Yorkers from Whole Foods Market locations, according to Amazon.

UPS is also involved in the New York City cargo bike program. The company has been testing the use of electric-assist cargo bikes in the U.S. since 2016 and in Europe since 2012. Between the pilots in New York and in Portland, Oregon, UPS is embracing its roots as a means of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent by 2025.

Carriers like UPS are looking to e-bikes as a cost-effective solution to delivering in high-activity areas that have constrained parking, says Anne Goodchild, the director of the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. UPS received $33.8 million in parking fines in 2019, according to the New York City Department of Finance.

“In dense urban areas, a bike can actually move more quickly than a car,” says Goodchild. You can often park them on the sidewalk or ride in bike lanes to beat traffic, she adds.

Cyclist pedaling a three-wheeled cargo delivery bike.

Photo courtesy of UPS.

Still, cargo bikes are limited in how far and how much they can deliver. E-bike legislation also varies state by state, making it hard for freight companies to scale e-bike delivery programs.

Until recently, e-bikes, which are used by thousands of food-delivery workers, were illegal to ride in New York City. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio cracked down on some models with throttles, calling them dangerous. (City data suggests otherwise according to one analysis: In 2018, e-bikes were responsible for only nine out of more than 11,000 pedestrian injuries.) Cycling advocates believe the e-bike crackdown unfairly targeted food delivery workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color. Many immigrant food-delivery workers favor e-bikes, according to a paper by Do Jun Lee; their faster speeds allow riders—considered gig workers—to deliver more orders and increase their earnings.

In March, De Blasio suspended enforcement of e-bikes during the pandemic because of increased delivery demands by New Yorkers in lockdown. (The city legalized e-bikes in June 2020 after the state passed a law.)

Survive the drought’

Being a working cyclist—especially during a pandemic—is still far from stable. Couriers risk workplace exposure to the coronavirus at almost the same rate as nurses, according to recent government data analyzed by the New York Times. These thousands of couriers, mostly independent contractors, have no health insurance or hazard pay. Couriers already suffer greater injury rates than the average American worker. A 2002 study on Boston’s bicycle messengers found an annual incidence rate for injuries to be 47 out of 100 couriers, as opposed to the national average of 2.8 out of 100.

In New York City, Squid is proving that he can adapt to an ever-changing climate—just as the messenger industry has done for the past decades. He has replaced lost clients with new ones. He’s still able to pay his bills without needing to pick up food-delivery work. Time on the bike has helped keep his immune system strong.

“Everyone wants their stuff yesterday,” he says. “If you’re not moving fast, somebody else is. [The messenger industry] has definitely taken a big hit, but for little people like me, I think we’re going to benefit if we can survive the drought. We’re gonna come out stronger.”

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