[messengers] Fast technology, slow economy are killing the messenger

Date: 11 Oct 2010 00:08:33 +0200
From: Joe Hendry <messvilleto@xxxxxxxxx>


Fast technology, slow economy are killing the messenger

 

By: Will Reisman


San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 2010

 

 

Rough road: Bike messengers in San Francisco have fallen on harder times
since the dot-com boom, but the industry is still hanging on. (All: Mike
Koozmin/Special to The Examiner)

 

 

City streets used to be clogged with fleet-footed bike
messengers, but in an age of digital communication, digital friends and digital
entertainment, the courier industry has shrunk considerably in the past decade.

 

With its dense urban layout and traffic congestion issues, San Francisco presents a
unique opportunity for bike couriers to thrive, but a decade of uncertainty has
threatened the industry.

 

“Since we started, bike couriers have moved from being a
necessity to being a luxury,” said Abel Fuaau, vice president of Pelican
Delivery, an independent courier service founded in 1985 by Fuaau’s mother.
“We’re basically surviving now on our reputation alone.” 

 

The for-hire messengers, with their fixed-gear bikes and
ubiquitous presence on the plazas of the Financial District, have long been
employed by downtown businesses and legal firms to quickly move important
packages around The City.

 

Despite the dual threats of digitization and a down economy,
local bike couriers remain a resolute bunch, insisting that their old-fashioned
and reliable services will always be needed, even in tech-crazy San Francisco.

 

Internet startup firms and their innovative technological
advances fueled the economic growth of San
  Francisco in the mid-’90s, and the comparatively more
traditional industry of bike couriers still benefited as a result.

 

At the height of the dot-com boom, there were more than 400
bike messengers in San Francisco,
with many of them carting around floppy discs containing information too big to
send over the incapable networks of the fledgling Internet, according to Chris
Myron, a 13-year veteran courier.

 

“Back then, it wasn’t a problem of finding work, it was a
problem of finding an affordable place to live in The City,” Myron said.

 

When the dot-com bubble burst and the Sept. 11 attacks
further damaged the economy, many bike messengers were forced to leave the
business, and courier companies were either consolidated or dismantled. The
latest recession compounded those woes.

 

Tallying an accurate count of The City’s current fleet of
bike messengers is difficult, since there is scant information on the industry
other than anecdotal evidence among couriers. According to Myron, some 150 to
200 bike messengers remain in San
  Francisco, although other couriers placed the number
closer to 100.

 

“The recent economic meltdown really affected us,” said the
42-year-old Myron, who currently works at Free Wheelin’ Attorney Service, a
group that specializes in legal documents. “A lot of our clients, especially
the firms representing the big banks and mortgage companies, went under.”

 

The advent of e-mail and online communication, which sapped
the need for hard-copy document transfers, further detiorated the industry.

 

“Print advertisements used to have to be hand-delivered; now
they can be sent over e-mail,” Fuaau said. “Contracts used to have to be signed
in person; now they can be faxed over. A lot has changed.”

 

With the industry struggling to adapt, bike messengers have
become more and more marginalized.

 

“We get paid by commission, and our rates are going way
down,” said Mike Holcomb, a bike messenger with King Courier. “Our pay is way
worse than it was five or 10 years ago. Clients are willing to pay a lot less,
and our employers are allowing it because they’re still making a profit.”

 

Brandon Correia, co-owner of Godspeed Couriers, said most
bike messengers currently earn between $20,000 and $35,000 a year, an annual
rate that is about half of what they made 15 years ago. Fuaau goes even
further, saying annual income among messengers has been slashed by one-third.

 

Holcomb, who has also worked as a courier in Philadelphia, New York
and Houston, said San Francisco is unique because employers
actually offer bike messengers health insurance. However, the rates are often
too high for the couriers, so many of them opt to traverse the busy streets of San Francisco without
coverage.

 

While Fuaau wouldn’t cite specifically how much couriers
make annually, he said it’s about one-third of what they were making at the
height of the dot-com boom. Even with the dwindling pay, and lack of benefits,
couriers are still eager to work — and that’s the problem, Fuaau said.

 

“When we first started, we were putting out ads constantly
in the help-wanted section,” Fuaau said. “Now I get some every day asking for a
job, and we just don’t have anything to offer them.”

 

While the industry’s outlook may be bleak, many couriers
remain optimistic that the worst of times is behind them. They cite legal
documents, architectural blueprints and material items like new clothing
designs as evidence that groups will always need the exchange of physical
items.

 

The courier groups are also branching out, taking on more
one-day delivery duties of larger packages that corporations like Federal
Express and UPS charge much higher rates for. For messengers, a burgeoning
movement by local businesses to act greener by delivering goods on bike instead
of by automobile is presenting more opportunities for work.

 

“There are still plenty of things that need to be
hand-delivered,” Correia said. “The situation is not ideal right now, but we’re
confident we’ll find a way to survive.”

 

wreisman@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

 

How San Francisco’s
bike courier service works

 

Most San Francisco
courier companies use both bicyclists and drivers to deliver packages, with the
businesses charging more for perks such as quicker service and drop-offs
outside the downtown core.

 

Depending on the company, delivery routes in The City are
broken down into about five or six separate zones, with the service charge
rising the further the package has to travel from the Financial District, which
is the hub of the courier industry, according to Abel Fuaau of Pelican
Delivery. Other modifiers, such as weight of the package and the urgency in
which it needs to be delivered, add to the price quote.

 

A package that is in no rush to be delivered within the
perimeters of the Financial District could cost as little as $7, whereas a rush
job to the outer rims of The City might run higher than $50 (again, depending
on the company). Bike couriers get a commission on each run, with a typical day
consisting of 20 to 25 jobs, according to messenger Mike Holcomb.

 

At the height of the dot-com boom, couriers charged much
higher rates, but the charges have dropped significantly as clients have become
more frugal. According to some couriers, bike messengers earned three times as
much in the 1990s as they do now.

 

With whizzing taxis, inattentive tourists and multiple forms
of transit vehicles competing for road and sidewalk space, being a bike
messenger is a notoriously dangerous job. While most courier companies offer
health care insurance, the monthly rates are usually too high for messengers to
afford, so most bikers opt to take their chances without coverage, Holcomb
said.

 

In 1990, a group of couriers formed the San Francisco Bike
Messenger Association, with raising money for injured riders a main objective
for the organization. The organization eventually became part of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and helped win several
class-action suits against courier services that undercharged for services.

 

Although no longer part of the ILWU, the bike messenger
association continues to advocate for the right of couriers in San Francisco.

 

— Will Reisman

 

 

Hollywood hills: SF’s
bicyclists make it big in film

 

Anyone who has seen “Bullitt” or “The Rock” knows that San Francisco’s steep
hills and narrow streets offer a perfect template for the standard action-movie
car-chase scene.

 

The same attributes that allow cars to fly through the air
at top speeds also provide for some pretty nice shots of daring bicyclists, a
phenomenon that has carved San Francisco bicyclists a nice niche in American
pop culture.

 

Although it’s set in New York City,
“Quicksilver,” Kevin Bacon’s delightfully cheesy ’80s paean to bike messengers,
employs San Francisco
for many of its dramatic high-speed scenes. One particular battle, pitting
Bacon against Laurence Fishburne, uses San
  Francisco’s treacherous hills as little more than a
launching-pad playground for the two characters.

 

A little less than a decade after “Quicksilver,” San Francisco bike
messengers were once again in the pop-culture nexus thanks to the boorish
mannerisms of David “Puck” Rainey, a cast member of MTV’s “The Real World.”
Although Puck garnered the most attention for his outrageous antics, his litany
of injuries sustained on the job as a bike messenger drew attention to the
dangers of the profession.

 

Unless San
  Francisco’s topography undergoes a major shift in the
near future, The City’s bike messengers are likely to remain in the public eye,
despite the economic threats to their industry.

 

— Will Reisman

 

 

Messenger blues

 

20-25 Typical number of runs a bike messenger takes each day

 

5 minutes Average length of trip in downtown corridor

 

400 Estimated number of bike couriers in San Francisco during the dot-com boom

 

150-200 Estimated number of bike couriers currently in San Francisco

 

$20,00-35,000 Estimated salary range for current bike
couriers

 

$40,000-105,000 Estimated salary range for bike couriers
during dot-com boom

 

Sources: Couriers and messenger companies

 


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