Fast technology, slow economy are killing the messenger

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.”

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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