Friday, July 07, 2006

The Economist and Bike Messengers

The Economist has a short article about the declining business of bike-messengering. Bike messengers of course are big on the fixed-gear bicycles the Wall Street Journal just wrote about and are one of the celebrated cultures in the Bicycle Film Festival going on in Minneapolis right now. Here's what The Economist has to say:
Jun 29th 2006 | PORTLAND, OREGON
From The Economist print edition

Now even more of an endangered breed than they were before

GRAPHEON, a graphic design firm in Portland, is kind enough to keep a bowl of sweets in its reception area, not for peckish clients but for the ravenous bicycle messengers who dash to the front desk bearing deliveries. These days, however, the bowl is dusty and the Tootsie Rolls stale. Most of Grapheon's clients prefer to e-mail their artwork.

Look around: bike messengers, the freewheeling mavericks whose tattooed calves and daredevil stunts once defined urban cool, are slowly vanishing from America's streets. In New York, the hub of the messenger world, the number has skidded from 2,500 during the dotcom frenzy in the 1990s to an estimated 1,100 today, according to Joel Metz, who runs, the website of the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations.

The reason is straightforward. High-speed internet, PDF files, digital photography and digital audio have been eroding bike-messenger revenues by between 5-10% a year since 2000, or so reckons Lorenz Götte, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich (and a former bike messenger himself). The revenue slump has sent wages tumbling. In 2000, messengers in San Francisco could make $20 an hour. Now the average is closer to $11.

Bike messengers have survived dire prophecies before. In the 1980s, doomsayers had predicted that the fax machine would push the profession into oblivion. Faxes did indeed carve a big chunk out of the business, but messengers hung on, thanks both to the poor quality of faxes and to new technology, such as pagers, which allowed prompter dispatch.

Keeping up with the download-and-print world will be trickier. One strategy is specialisation. The legal system still relies on original documents, so some messengers cater to lawyers by offering benefits such as serving subpoenas and filing papers in court. “They are almost paralegals on bikes,” says Mr Götte. Others focus on deliveries that cannot be made electronically—architects' blueprints, for example, or take-out meals.

Paradoxically, although their long-term prospects look wobbly, the messenger subculture has never been stronger. Their grimy allure is celebrated in books, films, festivals, and even trading cards. Last year's Cycle Messenger World Championship, held in New York, drew 700 competitors from 30 countries. Perhaps this signals a resurgence. More probably, it reflects the urge to honour a tradition that is beginning to slip away.

The Paris porteurs slipped away, and now their culture and bicycles are celebrated by just a few cognosceti, one wonders if the same will happen to bike messengers.


gwadzilla said...

I am going to steal this
saw it in print
my wife put it aside for me
she is good that way
as she knows I hardly have the attention span for captions
so she picks out stuff she knows I will like

Anonymous said...

This article is pretty good too, though they get a bit full of themselves with the speculation at the end. How is the CMWC a resurgence when it's been going on since Berlin 1993? And I don't think that the messengers showing up to that party are doing it with the attitude of honoring a fading tradition. Having been to a couple of CMWC's and having helped organized one in San Francisco in '96, it's clear that other than the too-serious Danes, most everyone is showing up to party.

That said the article is right that there are less messengers on the streets (though they really should have tried to compare numbers further back to a time pre-dotcom). We did a census in '96 in Sf and I think the number was around 350, and today I'd be shocked if it were over 150. And communication technology has a lot to do with it. Fortunately there are still some things that you can't fax or email because the messenger biz pays my rent.

Anonymous said...

Seen this yet?
Great video of a bike messenger.

Travis Culley said...

I work for the sun. There are many who would wish that couriers would just leave the streets alone, and find someplace else to be, but couriers are only a reflection of an economy. They are a way of increasing the efficiency of the economy, the tightness of the leaness (and that is what we ought to represent). Our work depends upon how well-oiled our companies and industries are. If couriers are NOT in the streets, it is not because of fax machines (as so many stuck up drivers would like to believe), it is because the integrity of American industries are becoming unstrung and disorderly. time to get a grip.

I say: to correct serious misuses of capital...hire a courier immediately. But that's just what I think.