NOTE: I should probably be bludgeoned into unconsciousness with an old Silca frame pump for even attempting to wade into this. Like the helmet morass, into which I also sloshed foolishly, here is another issue mired in strongly-held assumptions that happen to be false. To be honest I would much rather write about history, or some strange technical or esoteric aspect of bicycling, or any number of things going on in our increasingly interesting universe right now, but more and more lately I've found myself having to try to explain what I'm about to try to explain below. So I figure let's just get it over with, once and for all. Then whenever anybody asks me about this I can just throw 'em back to this freaking essay. It won't be quick and it won't be easy, but it must be done. Buckle up, Jud.

 

FROM YOU, OKAY! I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU! -- Kid in public service announcement

It's amazing how confused most people are about what bicycle messengers do and why they do it. Perhaps the most persistent and widely-held mistaken assumption about messengers is that they run lights, ride on sidewalks and take other liberties downtown for the sake of personal convenience and to pad their paychecks, rather than as a necessity of the job. This fundamental mis-apprehension leads naturally to the belief that messengers are arrogant and selfish beasts, stomping all over the fabric of the city and taking advantage of innocent road users for their own personal gain. This of course makes them the object of no small amount of seething resentment. But this resentment is based largely on a simple misunderstanding.

When an article about the ongoing decline of industrialized cycling appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last month [1], the paper's website attracted a number of anti-messenger comments in which the usual misunderstanding and accompanying resentment were on grand display. Good riddance to these selfish bastards! people cried (many of them sounding suspiciously like the same person). And then, like the proverbial ginsu knife of hope, came a sudden bright flash of reality from an exasperated poster named 'lug.junky:'

I just love all these comments against messengers, and imagine a lot of them are from people who work downtown and use messenger services. The fact is, it's YOU who are creating the situation where messengers are running lights and doing things you consider reckless ... YOU are the ones who need physical documents to go from Lower QAN to SODO in 15 minutes, and YOU are the ones who refuse to pay when it takes 16 minutes to get there...

That is absolutely correct. The service bike messengers provide is relied upon much more than people realize, and it's a service that can't be provided in any other way. You can't get 'er done in a car, and you can't get 'er done on a bike if you sit at all the lights in car traffic. No bicycle messengers carving traffic, you kiss the service goodbye as well. That may sound fine to many folks, but it would cause nervous breakdowns in highrise office buildings throughout the land, where some of the most demanding and freaked-out customers imaginable are literally running around their offices trying to get their deliveries ready just in time to hand to a bike messenger at 4:52. It's not just lawyers we're talking about here, desperate to get their paper filings to the courthouse before the doors slam shut. Architects, designers, planners, engineers, investigators, accountants, bankers, brokers, doctors, all manner of government agencies ... They all seem to face critical deadlines that can only be satisfied in one way. Expedited delivery service benefits a wide swath of society, including many people who don't exactly realize it. Who's going to tell the cancer patients that the doctors over at the diagnostic center will have about thirty fewer minutes to examine their endless piles of PETscans because the fastest possible courier services are no longer allowed to operate, and the cars they now use are stuck in traffic? I didn't think so. Ridding the world of bike messengers would eliminate an entire class of deliveries and cause significant changes in the way cities function.

Personal convenience? Messengers do not run through highrise lobbies for the sake of personal convenience. Messengers do not work all day without a break because it's convenient, and they don't break traffic laws for the sake of convenience either. I would hazard a guess that to most messengers (especially those working on a fixed hourly or daily wage) the idea of personal convenience would include having the luxury of choosing to ride at a conservative, restful pace whenever they feel like it. But that's not how it works. They say jump, you jump. It's true that clients will watch the clock and refuse to pay for their rush 15-minute delivery if it is one minute late. What if the messenger has more than one of these clock vulture deliveries on board at the same time? What if it takes seven or eight minutes just to get into a building, wait for and ride the elevator up and down and get out again? How will the dispatcher or uptight hovering company owner react if the delivery is late and a critical account is jeopardized or lost? The successful messenger must consider all the unholy demands emanating from multiple sources, take responsibility for his or her own safety and actions out on the street, because nobody else will, and, ultimately, get every package to its destination on time. It's a tricky matter that doesn't leave much room for stopping at lights just so folks' feelings don't get hurt.

To his credit, one of those who had been critical of messengers on the P-I site heard what 'lug.junky' was saying and changed his tune:

Ouch! Good points ... As a lawyer, I have indeed used messengers (some of which involved bikes). And you're right, it ain't right to both use (and even rely on) their services on the one hand, while complaining about them on the other.

Aah, enlightenment! That's one down, only about 80 million to go to turn the tide of ignorance. Yes We Can!

If the public could see the Big Picture and understand the nature of the service that messengers provide, the demand that they alone can meet and how they must meet it -- I'm certain the resentment would fade away. At the very least, folks would understand the uselessness in blaming the messengers for the market's creation and maintenance of the industry that employs them. But I won't hold my breath -- there are serious complicating factors that stand in the way of the public's grasping the Big Picture. Not the least of these is the fact that the vast majority of bicyclists out there in North American cities today who are assumed to be messengers are in fact not. That guy you just saw with the overstuffed messenger bag, riding that track bike with his janitor pants rolled up, talking into his cell phone or radio or whatever? Yeah. He's probably more likely to be an architect than a messenger. But for whatever reason he's dressed like that and wrapped himself in cartoonish symbolism associated with messengers, circa 1997 -- he looks more like a messenger than the messengers do, honestly. He's like an anime messenger action figure.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for people getting out on bikes for whatever reason and dressed however they want. The problem here is not the way he looks or his messenger bag, it's that he's out there riding in a fashion he's copied from a drunken alleycat on YouTube. Unlike an actual on-the-job messenger, this guy has no responsibility or accountability to his clients, dispatchers, employers or fellow messengers. And he doesn't seem to understand the messenger's unglamorous obligation to his or her fellow citizens either, and rides accordingly. The working messenger has to come back and ride the same intersections in front of the same people all day every day, but this guy blazes his trail of psychological destruction and retreats into a cubicle or loft apartment or college campus for the rest of the afternoon, leaving the real messengers to pick up the pieces. He's giving the working messengers a bad name is what he's doing. Amazingly, there are now far more of these 'posengers' rolling dangerously around your city than there are messengers -- no matter what city you live in -- and it's become a serious yet fascinating PR mess for the ever-decreasing number of genuine industrialized cyclists still out there.

Of course not every 'fakenger' rides like an idiot. Many of them are really quite wonderful ambassadors for cycling and even for the messenger community with which they are commonly and mistakenly associated. And let's not pretend that all the messenger's problems stem from the 'posenger' phenomenon. Messengers were the object of resentment long before there was a coffee shop art school messenger scene with a dress-code. It's always been one of the more unfortunate by-products of this unique vocation, to have the requirements of the job mistaken for unnecessary hot-doggery. No messenger is surprised to receive static for doing what needs to be done. But for so long it always seemed like the working messengers were able to get the general point across through familiarity and repetition that they weren't reckless lunatics and were just trying to get along without hurting themselves or anyone else. Over decades they had developed a sustainable technique and carved out some measure of legitimacy and acceptance among downtown citizens. But in recent years the wheels have kind of come off the wagon in terms of public perception, and this seems to correspond with the explosion in messenger look-alikes on the streets.

So where do we go from here? I see continued confusion and identity crises on the horizon, perhaps an unavoidable by-product of the increasing popularity of urban cycling but to no party's benefit. I see the messenger's task becoming increasingly delicate and difficult even as the business continues to contract. What I don't see is the extinction of the bicycle messenger any time soon. At least, not until we figure out some way to throw packages around downtown as fast or faster than they can be delivered on a bike. Teleportation, anyone?

 

[1] Thanks to Dan for the link: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/352640_bikemessengers26.html?source=mypi

Photo by Reid. Courier: Pat

 


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