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The few, the proud, the sweaty: Philly’s bicycle messengers try to beat cars, the clock and technology

The red light ahead of Joel Barnes at 20th and Market might as well be green or yellow. Or hell, it could be purple. The lights never matter. He sees pedestrians walking in a direction that generally indicates oncoming cars won’t hit him and decides to go for it.

As bicycle messengers like Barnes zip across the city delivering memos, briefs or whatever else is time sensitive and small enough to fit in a courier’s bag, they pay attention to traffic patterns, to individual cars and to people. Not to lights. In a perfect world, Barnes says, maybe they would obey stop signs and red lights — and maybe cars would share the road and people wouldn’t mindlessly jaywalk across the street. But they don’t, and so Barnes and I pedal through the red light without hesitating. Sure enough, no Ford F-150 plows into us.

Barnes is one of an estimated 30 to 40 bicycle messengers in Philadelphia. Every weekday morning you’ll see him pedaling down Market Street. His pre 9 a.m. jaunt follows a straight line from the innards of the 30th Street Station post office to the sky-high offices of buildings like the BNY Mellon Center and One Liberty Place, where clients like Goldman Sachs and Duffy & Partners need their mail earlier than a postal worker can deliver it.

It’s cool to see a young guy hop off his bike and then take an elevator to some of Philadelphia’s most opulent real estate and realize couriers have been doing this for decades, an ancient form of art. Problem is, something more menacing than cars and swifter than a no-brakes track bike is threatening their livelihood. That something, of course, is technology. E-filing. Philadelphia’s court system switched to it not long ago, and business plummeted — leading to far fewer courier jobs and slimmer paychecks for those who still ride.

So yes, bike messengers are in a hurry for many reasons. If they obey every stop sign and red light, that would be problem.

“You wouldn’t make any money,” Barnes says. 

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Doing 10 things at once

The average bike messenger request doesn’t call for lightning speed. Most require delivery within an hour and come with a payment of about $3.50 for the rider. But good messengers don’t settle for one ride in an hour. They wait a while after getting one assignment and hope the dispatcher for the courier service they work for as an independent contractor calls out for another delivery nearby. One job turns into three, $3.50 an hour turns into $10.50 and a leisurely ride turns lightning-quick.

“That’s the idea,” says former messenger Jorge Brito, now the with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Always be doing 10 things at once.”

The busiest times are the late afternoons, when clients contact messenger services at the last minute. This when it gets fun. If a delivery has to be made in 30 minutes, the messenger gets more money, maybe an extra $1.50. If it has to be made in less than a half hour, the regular rate could double. A delivery like this is called a dedicated rush or, as One Hour Messengers dispatcher Josh Alsup says, “if we’re feeling creative, a helicopter rush or a face-melting rush.”

The major courier companies in Philadelphia, like Heaven Sent, Rapid Delivery and One Hour Messengers, employ a handful of bike messengers and can also dispatch automobile drivers to complete deliveries. If a request is made out in the suburbs, a driver will probably be assigned. But if it’s Center City, companies call on cyclists.

“Nothing beats a biker downtown,” says Alsup, who does the occasional delivery, too. “Unless you’re talking about (something big like) 16 boxes. But even that — honestly, if I put two or three bikers on it we might still be able to beat a driver.”

Most deliveries are court documents, things like subpoenas or motions that the courts or firms want disseminated quickly. On occasion, though, being a bike messenger gets even more interesting. Barnes used to pick up blood vials at a hospital in Camden and take them to hospitals in Philadelphia. One Hour Messengers has a deal with a biomedical group where its messengers transport specimens. Once, Barnes delivered a trophy to the Philly Phanatic. He’s also picked up tickets from the sports complex to deliver to fans.

“I see where they’re sitting,” he says. “Always first row or something.”

Philly bike messengers are largely male, largely young — 20s and 30s — and they love bikes. Some are college students. Alsup says couriers have told him they’re taking time off to play with their bands, follow anarchist book tours or just go train-hopping.

These days they often congregate near Rittenhouse Park at a place they call “The Wall.” Previous hangout spots included LOVE Park and an outdoor spot around The Turf Club on 16th and Market.

“You’re literally just kind of sitting there with the other ne’er-do-wells,” Alsup says, “and you get a call and then head to a multinational law firm and then send it to some zillionaire’s penthouse in Society Hill.

“It’s a mix. Almost being like part journalist, part homeless person.”

 

Trash gets talked at “The Wall.” Stories get told. And most every messenger will have some harrowing tale to recount if he or she does the job long enough.

These yarns become badges of honor for those who stick around and a pain for those who don’t. It’s the chaotic roads, poor winter weather and the low pay that cause rookie messengers to quit. The best messengers aim for 25 to 30 jobs a day, hoping to make $500 to $600 in a week. Many aren’t nearly that lucky.

“There’s kind of like this romantic value to it, like ‘oh man bike messenger, that’s cool,’” Barnes says. “But then they’re going to find out they’re making $150 to $200 a week and think it isn’t worth it.”

The market crashes

Lines used to swell at the prothonotary of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas during mid-afternoons. Couriers from every company would be there via some law firm waiting to drop off civil case motions at the last-minute filing deadline.

Everything changed in 2009 when Philadelphia essentially mandated e-filing for civil cases. Parties could still file papers the old-fashioned way, but it would cost them $1 a page.

The court started saving $7,000 a month on postage for not having to send orders. Lawyers could wait until 11:59 p.m. the day of a deadline to hit send and know the necessary parties received it from an electronic receipt. But for bike messengers, the switch was nearly lethal.

“When that happened,” Alsup says, “it was like, ‘boom.’”

Brito says before e-filing came around Philadelphia had around 125 bicycle messengers. Now Alsup estimates the current number at 40 — about a third of what used to be.

Work might not be as plentiful, but it hasn’t stopped. Subpoenas still get served in person at times. Law firms still want their early mail. Some medical forms need to be hand-delivered to a particular person. Layout plans for architecture or construction work best the old-fashioned way.

“There will always be a market,” Alsup says.

A few months ago, local messengers reactivated the long-dormant Philadelphia Bicycle Messengers Association. They plan to raise funds by organizing races and selling swag and hosted a winter formal at the South Street watering hole Tattooed Mom in March. Last week, a messenger from Toronto contacted the Association because he needed a place to stay while visiting UPenn. Barnes let him crash at his house. If a rider gets hurt — on the job or off — and can’t work for a while members try to help him or her financially.

Every messenger must find ways to stretch their paychecks. Rather than buy his own rubber bands to better transport his early morning deliveries, Barnes made inroads with employees at the postal service who let him take as many rubber bands as he wants. He also has such good rapport with one of the firms he delivers to that he received a Christmas bonus.

On the morning I ride with Barnes, his last stop is the 55th floor of One Liberty Place. Before we get back on the elevator, I point out the beautiful view. There’s a glass-enclosed room with a table for meetings overlooking all of Philadelphia.

Barnes brings up the odd yet everyday scene his work brings. A messenger like him making $3.50 a delivery takes a message to the office of “million-dollar lawyers.” The messenger is wearing a hooded sweatshirt or a shirt soaked with sweat if it’s the summer while the lawyers are wearing suits.

He’d rather be the guy sweating. Every time.

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