Bike Messengers Branch Out

The bike messenger business is changing. Electronic document transfer — especially for legal documents — has cut into the business. But now, high gas prices and new bikes that can carry bigger loads mean that bike messengers are branching into bigger deliveries.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And next, let's report on a species that seems to be nearing extinction: the bicycle messenger. With businesses and courts accepting more documents by electronic transfer, the need for messengers has been shrinking. So bike messengers want to reinvent their business with larger bikes. Cyrus Farivar reports.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CYRUS FARIVAR: If you spend any time in San Francisco's financial district, you'll quickly see scruffy bikers whizzing by. They're part of the fabric of the city, like taxis in New York. But they're a dwindling breed, and three courier companies here have gone under in the last two years.

But since January, there's been a new bike-messengering company that's bucking the trend: Cricket Courier.

Wendy LaReese(ph) is one of the founders of Cricket Courier, a new cooperative bike-messengering service. She says that while she's mostly just carrying business envelopes these days, she has big ambitions.

Ms. WENDY LaREESE (Founder, Cricket Courier): You can carry a bed. We just need the right kind of bike to get it done.

FARIVAR: While no companies here are delivering beds by bike just yet, Whole Foods is currently considering using bicycle deliveries in two of its Bay Area stores. And while carrying big bags of heavy groceries may not be easy, the company believes that a bike delivery service could work, says Adesina Stewart of Whole Foods.

Ms. ADESINA STEWART (Whole Foods): It's fun for the team members that work in that store. And then for customers, it really raises the awareness that your groceries have a carbon footprint, whether you come and pick them up or we bring them to you. If it's on a bike, that footprint is reduced.

FARIVAR: Stewart says Whole Foods is looking at a cargo bike to make this work. It's got a longer and sturdier heavy steel frame and a rear rack to carry more stuff. The bike is designed to carry over 400 pounds of weight.

Another company that's incorporating bikes is Zipcar. The car-sharing company is now using bikers here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other markets nationwide to check up on its fleet of cars. Apparently, the company is saving gas so you can burn more.

In the end, bikes are largely getting more attention because of those pesky gas prices, and that just might have a renewing effect on the messengering industry. Jeremiah Steele(ph) is a bike messenger in the San Francisco.

Mr. JEREMIAH STEELE (Bike Messenger, San Francisco): With fuel prices going the way they are, for inner-city deliveries, bicycles may start becoming a more economical option for a lot of shorter-distance things.

FARIVAR: But until the industry gets that kick-start, Steele remains part of a small but proud legion of couriers that will do whatever it takes so that they can be out on the street instead of holed up in an office. For NPR News, I'm Cyrus Farivar.

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Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Internet Thins the Ranks of Bike Messengers

As businesses send more information through the Web, they're making fewer calls to bike messengers. Cyclist Austin Horse says that has taken a toll on his livelihood.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

When a bike messenger shows up at your door with that final signed document you've been anxiously anticipating, the guy or gal's a hero. Now, when a bike messenger nearly wipes you out by buzzing by you and screams at you in the process, that guy or gal, not your best friend.

But bike messengers face a bigger problem than your wrath. It seems to be e-mail, and according to a recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, there are fewer face-to-face deliveries going on in that particular city. It reports that in the past 10 years the number of messengers has declined by about 50 percent. The piece also quotes an Economist article that says New York has seen a drop-off as well. It's a story we ripped off...

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STEWART: ...from the headlines of the Seattle paper, but we're going to add this little bit of information. We did a little digging ourselves. The news might not be so grim for the 134,000 cycle careers out there. According to the Bureau of Labor's Web site, while, quote, electronic transmission of many documents, forms and other materials is replacing items that have been hand-delivered, for items that are unable - unable to be send electronically, such as blueprints and other over-sized materials, securities and passport, couriers and messengers will still be needed. Messengers like Austin Horse(ph), who's been pedaling the streets of New York for the past three years and peddled himself up to Bryant Park and is sitting in our studios. Hey, good morning.

Mr. AUSTIN HORSE (Bike Messenger): Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Good morning.

STEWART: You rose your bike here, right?

Mr. HORSE: Yeah, of course.

STEWART: Okay, just had to ask.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Do you work independently, or do you work for a company?

Mr. HORSE: I work for a company. That's more the norm. Maybe as people get more experienced and pick up their own clients, they can work independently. And then there's also something called independent contractor status, which you have at some companies.

STEWART: Yeah, get a little closer to the mike. Or - don't break it, hon. So can you give us an idea of your average day? How many deliveries do you make?

Mr. HORSE: A good day is 30. I think most guys are pretty happy if they do that, but it's also not so much about how many deliveries you make, but how much they're worth. Some deliveries are worth - I mean deliveries are worth more, more money is charged to the client if we have to go further, if it's heavier, if it's a rush. So if you do a bunch of stuff like that, then it's going to be - then you'll make more money than if you do a bunch of just cheap runs.

STEWART: So if you look at your docket, and you see like, wow, I have to from Battery Park all the way up to, let's say, Bronx, you put on your...

MARTIN: That's pretty good, right? That's a decent ride?

Mr. HORSE: I mean, that's unusual for a biker to get - a walker would probably get that because they could just hop on the train.

STEWART: Explain what a walker is.

Mr. HORSE: So there aren't just bikers that are used by courier companies in the city. They also have guys who take the busses and trains, and they're called walkers, and then there's also van drivers for stuff that's too big to go with a walker or a bike.

STEWART: So when I see you - say later on today, and I see you whizzing by me on your bike, and you've got your messenger bag, which a lot of us just carry for fashion, but you carry it for real - what kind of things have you been carrying around?

Mr. HORSE: It depends, a lot of CDs and DVDs, stuff that I guess it loses its quality when it goes over the Internet. So that. Hard drives I've carried, payroll, clothing, all sorts of random stuff that just people like have to get over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: When you're carrying something like payroll, did you carry the payroll for "The Sopranos," or is that just a rumor?

Mr. HORSE: Yeah, it's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For real?

STEWART: Did you ever want to look at James Gandolfini's check?

Mr. HORSE: No, no, we don't do that, you know?

STEWART: Have you ever been nervous because you've been carrying something that's quite valuable?

Mr. HORSE: Not particularly. Maybe something that's fragile that I'm worried about, so yeah, like art stuff. There's documents, like, get printed, you know, printing companies, and if you crease that, then that's bad. You know, the packages say, like, do no crease. So I worry about that, or getting a package wet, like on a rainy day.

STEWART: Now, I got to imagine safety is a big issue. Sometimes when I'm driving in the city, or if I'm walking in New York and some of these guys get dodging through and in and out of traffic. First of all, do you do that kind of stuff, honestly?

Mr. HORSE: If it feels safe.

STEWART: If it feels - what does that mean?

Mr. HORSE: Just from experience, you know, you sort of get an idea of, you know, the velocities of things, their trajectories, and maybe you get comfortable with navigating through that. So yeah, coming down Fifth Avenue, I'll be right amongst the cars as they come down, and I'm comfortable with that. I won't be, like, on the left side waiting for them all to go past.

STEWART: Have you ever been hit?

Mr. HORSE: I've been hit a few times, you know, but nothing serious, luckily. But it does happen. Like a guy I know got his yesterday, and I hear he's in Bellevue, so...

STEWART: I hope he gets better.

Mr. HORSE: Yeah, Eddie Wonka(ph), I hope you feel better.

STEWART: Feel better, Eddie. Have you ever hit anybody?

Mr. HORSE: A pedestrian?

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. HORSE: It happens. People...

STEWART: It happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORSE: What's really - what's actually really common, and if, you know, pedestrian listeners are out there, what they should pay attention to - be really careful when you're crossing mid-block between, like, vans, because when you pop out from that, it's pretty hard to stop, you know, unexpectedly.

That's, like, the most common time that people will, pedestrians will get hit, when they're just not paying attention and they step out and the biker's not expecting them. Really, it's actually random things like that that are the biggest hazard as far that. So cars doing random things, like illegal U-turns that get pulled, stuff like that. Or car doors, car doors are another big hazard.

STEWART: Oh, I've seen that happen. That's ugly.

MARTIN: It's not pretty.

STEWART: Now, are you guys - have you ever seen a messenger get ticketed by police for the way you were riding?

Mr. HORRIS: I've seen it happen, yeah. Oh, the way they were riding? That's arguable, because it's not really - it's hard for the cops to actually stop a riding messenger, someone who's like on a bike going away from them. They just don't do it. But what they do do is they target people who are stopped at red lights, and so I have the seen the cops like just make up tickets for people who are at red lights.

STEWART: For something they saw five blocks back or something?

Mr. HORRIS: No, just something they made up on the spot.

STEWART: So says Austin. He doesn't know that for sure. He's like, yes, I do.

Mr. HORRIS: Well, I mean, there are laws that don't - like there's a law in New York State you have to stay to the right side of the road, but it doesn't apply to New York City. New York City is different. So cops will write tickets for that. Or they'll write a ticket saying that you have to ride in the bike lane, when actually the bike lane laws are in so that cars aren't supposed to be in the bike lane, which is interpreted as bikes have to be in the bike lane by the cops when it's convenient to them.

STEWART: Do you have to learn all these different laws, or did you choose to learn all these different laws, bike laws?

Mr. HORRIS: Bikes basically have to follow the traffic laws, so you're pretty much set if you follow - if you know to follow traffic laws.

STEWART: Now, you heard the top of our story. Out in Seattle, they're having a problem with bike messengers. I mean, it's a big Internet town and people are sending their documents via email. Do you think there's still a future in bike messengering? Have you seen any sort of slack-off? Do you guys talk about this at all?

Mr. HORRIS: It's always a concern. You know, you think, did I - how much money did I make this week if it compared to the same time last week? It could be getting worse. It's hard to say. If it is getting worse, maybe people are - there are less people in it, and then you just don't realize that. Or they move on to other things.

In New York, particularly, though, we have so many other types of business here.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. HORRIS: So there's all the clothing, big clothing the companies. There's so much stuff that the Internet doesn't really affect because we carry things beyond what you can send via e-mail.

STEWART: Austin Horris, New York City bike messenger, thanks for taking the time. Please be safe when you go out there.

Mr. HORRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Be safe. Keep your head down.

Mr. HORRIS: Yeah, look both ways, you guys, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Wear your helmet. Do you wear your helmet?

Mr. HORRIS: It's actually a law in New York City for working cyclists to wear helmets.

MARTIN: Okay, good. There you go.

STEWART: I was rescued by a bike messenger once.

MARTIN: Really?

STEWART: I had a really bad flat up underneath the George Washington Bridge, pulled over, fixed my bike for me. I tried to get his name and like send him a gift certificate or something. No, he said, hey, glad I could help you out, rode on down the street.

MARTIN: The culture of the bike messenger. Good people. Thank you.

STEWART: Bye, Austin.

MARTIN: Take care.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

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