Like everything cycling-related in NYC, opinions of bike messengers range from distant admiration to outright contempt.  To some, couriers are pedestrian-terrorizing scofflaws.  Others are jealous that messengers get to roam the city on an endless scavenger hunt.  A few look to couriers for fashion cues, while enamored outsiders hope to break into their famously cliquish subculture.  And, sure, most people just want someone to haul a package across town.

Despite the variety of opinion, the lovers and haters have something in common: Few have any clue how the business works and what it’s like to be a bike messenger.  As a former courier, allow me to clear up five common misconceptions about bike messengers in NYC:

Myth: Messenger culture is the same as the courier industry. 

Fact: NYC is teeming with hipsters in tight jeans, rolling around on neon fixed-gear bikes with cavernous messenger bags hanging from their shoulders.  They race in alleycats, drink PBR at messenger bars and pour over internet forums discussing the merits of their anarchist-vegan lifestyle.

The author, Neil Bezdek, is a former NYC bike messenger and now a professional racer with Team Mountain Khakis/SmartShop. Read his Rambling Man blog at Bicycling.com.

But few members of this subculture actually earn their livings as messengers, and few messengers fit the stereotype.  Contrary to what the subculture claims, messenger work attracts largely the same crowd as any other manual labor job.

(Case in point: I didn’t even make friends with other messengers or infiltrate the subculture until I stopped working as a courier and entered some bike races.)

Myth: Being a good messenger is about riding fast.

Fact: Bike messengers could aptly be renamed building navigators, package hunters or elevator riders.  Though most work on commission (based on the value of the runs they complete), the difference between a rookie and seasoned pro is borne out in the confusing maze of mail rooms, freight-elevators and back alleys that become a courier’s true work environment.

Pausing for a red light or moving a couple of miles per hour more slowly through traffic has little effect on a messenger’s productivity.  But missing a pick-up or spending a half-hour searching for a well-hidden messenger center (you wouldn’t believe how well they disguise those things) can disrupt an entire day’s work flow.

The best messengers know the security protocol of every building, when they can save time by calling ahead to pick up a package and how to communicate with their dispatchers to maximize each trip across town.  They also ride their bikes slowly.

Bike Messenger - Neil

Fully loaded: Neil Bezdek in his NYC bike messenger days.

Fact: Bike messengers work for a courier company that provides pick-up and delivery service to their clients.  Messengers ride their own bikes and carry a variety of packages – everything from envelopes to Christmas trees (yes, I’ve done it).

Food-delivery guys, on the other hand, work for restaurants and ride a restaurant-owned bike that’s shared among their coworkers.  Not surprisingly, much of the recklessness attributed to cyclists in the transportation industry actually occurs in the restaurant business.

Myth: Messengering is a hazardous occupation. 

Fact: Ok, so this one is sometimes true.  Messengering can be dangerous, for obvious reasons.  On my first day on the job, I was greeted with a work manual that devoted its entire first page to a list of recent staff injures.  While I contemplated these, horrified, my boss read aloud through a foot-high stack of paperwork from a decade’s worth of lawsuits.

Still, the job is only as dangerous as a messenger makes it.  I know couriers who have worked for years without an incident, and if you pay attention to news stories about serious accidents on the street, couriers are rarely involved.  Moreover, those with more than six weeks of experience and over the age of 25 are dramatically less likely to get injured on the job.

Myth: The courier industry is dying.

Fact: Granted, electronic communication has supplanted much of the demand for courier services.  But most of the damage is already done.  Countless industries still need to move hard goods (e.g. clothes for the fashion industry or material samples for architects), and courier companies have adapted by offering errand-running services to anyone too busy or lazy to leave home.

Urban-dwellers will always need someone to haul stuff around the city, and bikes will always be the fastest, greenest and cheapest tools for the job, regardless of your opinion of the people who ride them.

Top photo: Bryan Derballa

6 Responses to 5 myths about nyc bicycle messengers

  1. Tommy Benoit says:

    Hey I really enjoyed reading your insight into the bike messenger business and was wondering would it be hard to get a job with no real expierence with nyc or mailrooms. The only attributes I would have on my side are a physically fit body, a sharp mind.

    • Albert West says:

      Just Google Map ‘bike messengers’ and call each one about filling
      an application. If you know things like the Broadway address system
      and street addresses in the City, you won’t need a nav aid (the employer
      might provide one). Have a sturdy, simple ride, a mirror (helmet mirror,
      dot/eyeglass mirror, or one on the handle bars), and a couple of U-locks
      for the brisk market in hot bikes. Bring your balls and money for lunch, and your
      In business.

  2. Erich says:

    #6: All messengers ride fixed gear bikes. Though you touched on that a bit in #1

    Thank you for this article !

    • Charles says:

      Noticed the article. I am actually one of the 1st real bike couriers that operated in downtown Toronto for several years.It’s important to note the word “real”. Even in 1985 there were “fair weather friends”.They just showed up for a couple of months in the summer.They were the smart ones! Those who rode to pay for LIFE they rode for anything and everything they needed and wanted. It was the chosen living for a few. A very few. We did not live live with our parents. Often we lived with ourselves. Renting squalid places. We rode in the winter….yea all winter. That was normal. I rode 4 winters myself. I got out of it and turned to a more normal occupation.

      • Charles says:

        And I’ll Say that it seems that being a bike courier now has perhaps some sorta’ “glamour2 it” no matter what the “New Guys” are saying. It’s very difficult to make a half way decent life as a Bike Courier. I have very fond memories of the years I spent and wound NEVER trade them for anything. I enjoyed it sometimes…..and sometimes I DID NOT ENJOY IT! Sounds like allotta peoples opinon about their work….hmmmm but they will NEVER KNOW what I know about living on the edge having adventurers

      • Susi says:

        Charles, thanks for reading and for sharing your experience as a bike courier. I agree with you regarding the “glamor” factor — some aspects of courier culture where appropriated into what became an “urban hipster” meme in fashion. Do you agree? Curious, what’s your field of work now?

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