Long hours, low pay, but lots of love – for bike messenging

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Michael Malone, photographed by Alex Weaver

Ed. note: This article was contributed by Alex E. Weaver, a grad student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The piece also appears on the Medill Reports website. Alex covers transportation issues facing Chicago commuters, with a focus on cycling and car culture.

It’s not every day that practitioners of a low-paying, service industry profession become fodder for major motion picture action thrillers or speak of their daily routine in terms of pride, competition and creativity. Then again, Chicago’s bike messengers are not your everyday delivery service. “Bike messengers get attention because there is something very romantic about the job,” said Jeffrey Kidder, a former bike messenger who has studied them. “It’s fast-paced, it’s physical, and it’s risky.”

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) last estimated that 300 bike messengers are operating in the city, completing more than 1.1 million deliveries annually. And while those numbers may have declined since the recession and the advent of e-mail, Chicago’s streets are still teeming with these daredevil bikers – third only, industry veterans say, to New York and Washington, D.C.

“When contrasted with other types of service workers, bike messengers are granted a rather large amount of cultural capital,” said Kidder, an urban sociology professor at Northern Illinois University and author of the book, Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City.

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As with many service jobs, bike messengers operate largely behind the scenes. Ferrying legal forms, architectural blueprints, bank documents and, in increasing cases, food to downtown buildings and beyond, they provide an on-demand service on a timeline and consistency level that no car could hope to compete with.

“The bike messenger service plays a critical part in the success of our business,” said Jacqueline Carlis, an account manager with the law firm McDermott, Will and Emery, at Monroe and Franklin. “Without them, someone would have to go back and forth to have our documents signed. With bike messengers, we can focus on the clients.”

For bike messenging to flourish, Kidder contends, a city must have an international finance focus and a dense downtown core. It’s only natural, then, that the very environment that necessitates the need of bike couriers is the one in which they thrive the most. Big business and heavy traffic congestion are a bike messenger’s two best friends.

“The access to businesses and information in the loop is constantly being re-evaluated,” said Charlie Short, Safety and Education Manager for CDOT’s bicycle program. “Biking is just without a doubt the way to get around.”

Many bike messengers speak of their job in terms of reverence and gratitude – as if they just can’t believe someone is paying them to do what they love for a living: ride their bike, their way.

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4 Star Courier’s Jeff Perkins getting ready to race at the Northbrook velodrome
Photo by Edmund White.

Tom Willett is the general manager of Service First Courier, which employs four full-time messengers. Demand is down, said Willett. More than a decade ago, he managed twice the bikers he has now. But judging from the non-stop crackling over his dispatch radio, business seems steady. “There is a romantic style to it,” Willett said. “But it is a nasty, cold job.” Just then, another call came through, and Willett chuckled in response: “Flat tire? Well at least it ain’t raining.”

Inclement weather is a constant impediment. Coupled with unpredictable traffic and often-difficult building security guards, the job’s appeal starts to lose some of its luster. It also pays little. Willett said a good rider should make at least $10 per hour, and the goal is typically $100 per day. Jeff Perkins, a rider/owner with the 4 Star Courier Collective said a good day’s haul is around $80 for as many as 50 deliveries.

“The pay is no good and bike parts are expensive,” said Michael Malone, a messenger with Advanced Messenger Service for nearly four years. So what gives? Why does messenger culture breed such a sense of intrigue? And why do the riders put up with the little pay and high pressure?

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2008 North American Cycle Courier Championships (NACCC) in Chicago’s Garfield Park. Photo by Steven. See the full photo set.

“Messenging provides a huge amount of autonomy,” Kidder said. “It’s a creative set of choices that results in a desired outcome. This is something very different from other low-wage service type jobs.”

Perkins agrees, adding: “There is a sense of adventure to it. I often think it’s a sort of real-life video game.”

Messengers gripe about low pay and long hours, just like with any other service job. But they ride with a sense of determination and passion – and a swagger – that is all their own. They are competitive and proud of the service they provide and the city where they provide it. The 20th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) are scheduled for Chicago in August. “You don’t have fry cooks traveling around the world competing to be the best fry cook,” Kidder said. “But you do with messengers.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

3 thoughts on “Long hours, low pay, but lots of love – for bike messenging”

    1. I messengered for much of the Nineties and a bit of the Oughts, and it was an incredibly fun job – constant exposure to new places, people and awesome views out the windows of skyscrapers. However, that was in the golden age of messengering, before the Internet explosion, 9/11, and the Great Recession, when it was much easier to make a good living and security was not quite as tight as it is today. Folks who are making a living at messenging nowadays must really be working hard to earn their cash.

  1. I worked as a messenger for a couple of years a few years back, and I have to say I’ve never had a job I enjoyed more. You have so much freedom, you’re outside, you meet people, you get exercise. I’ve never been in better shape (which is kind of ironic …). I’m an architecture nut, and I got to wander parts of iconic buildings I never would have been allowed to see. I’ve been in all kinds of dark little corners of the city people don’t realize exist. And the money’s not as bad as you might think, at least if you’re willing to work. I did eight or nine hour days, and I made about the same money I made when I wrote for a daily newspaper in Western Kentucky. White collar professional writer job = bicycle job … not an equation most would understand.

    But there are very big downsides to the industry. This article–as good as it is–focuses more on the romance of it, but it’s a cold and dirty business, and not just because of the rain. (Though I did learn there is no such thing as a waterproof shoe.) This is why turnover is so incredible and why a guy who’s been riding for six weeks is considered a veteran. A lot of your money goes toward maintaining your bike, which takes abuse you wouldn’t think a bike could survive. There’s a lot of competition, which means companies are cutting prices to survive, and a drop in price per delivery means a drop in pay for the biker. It’s dangerous … no matter what you do, at some point you will get hit, and if you’re unlucky enough, you’ll wind up like Ryan Boudreau. Add to that the fact that most companies (I can only think of one exception 4 years ago, and it may not be an exception any more) don’t actually emply the messengers. They hire them as independent contractors, which means there are no workplace protections, and there are no benefits. They can fire you at will, and if you get hurt on the job, it’s not their problem. Most messengers don’t have health insurance of any kind. This ultimately is what bit me.

    There used to be a messengers union that was trying to build into a movement and make things better for the riders. I don’t know their status now, but it might be something Mr. Weaver could look at for another article. And good job to him.  

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