Dying Breed

The economy and image take a toll on Dallas' bike messengers

Ten or so bicyclists gather around an outdoor table in downtown Dallas with bicycles of many varieties leaning against chairs or a nearby post. It's late on a Friday afternoon, and they are sweaty and tired from another day's work. But, they are not as sweaty and tired as they have been in years past, they say.

In fact, the city's little-known bike messengers have fallen on hard times. Business dropped off after 9/11, and the dot-com bust and subsequent unrelenting recession made things worse. Now, the handful of independently contracted messengers say, motorized delivery services have stepped up competition. The result is that the number of messengers in Dallas is shrinking along with their pay.

"We are dying slowly," says Matt Armstrong, a sort of spokesman for the group and an independent contractor for Wingtip Couriers.

Before the bust, messengers such as Armstrong could have expected to earn up to $150 a day, mostly delivering legal documents and parcels to and from downtown law firms and downtown government offices. Now, he and the others say, they might pick up enough "tags," or delivery assignments, to earn a paltry $30 in a day. Sometimes there is hardly enough work to keep them busy, he says.

"As of like two or three years ago, Wingtip had the most bike messengers downtown. They were kind of like the core of the whole messenger community. I think we had 10 or 12 people," he says. "As an example of how much things have begun to die, we're down to three full-timers and one part-timer, and still we're the biggest group of bike messengers for one company."

In Dallas, as in other cities, the bike messengers are paid per assignment. Companies such as Wingtip Couriers rent messengers the paging and communications equipment they need and pay the couriers a cut of each delivery, which can cost a customer as little as $5. Messenger companies typically pay no benefits.

In most big cities in the United States, bike messengers can navigate through traffic-clogged streets far more quickly than a car and driver, and that makes them particularly attractive to law firms trying to get something to a courthouse in just a few minutes.

Typically, a bike messenger job holds an allure to the free-spirited because it offers an alternative to the drudgery of office work, the flexibility afforded a private contractor and a lot of exercise. The messengers are actually considered professional athletes by the Internal Revenue Service, which lets them write off such things as their bicycles and repairs. But, as the Dallas messengers have found, the job is subject to each hitch in the economy.

"When I first started we wouldn't get out of bed for less than $150 a day, but now we'll have days where we're making $30 a day," Armstrong says. "It just goes up and down really severely."

In large cities, the speedy bicycle messengers are sometimes loathed for the way they dart in and out of traffic. But at least the messengers are known to exist there. In New York, for instance, some 2,000 messengers work for 400 companies. In Seattle, between 120 and 150 messengers work for about 15 companies, according to a messenger group that identifies itself as the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations. The fact that bike messengers from about 10 companies are so little known in Dallas makes the diminishing business even harder to take, they say.

"There's not much of a knowledge of bike messengers in Dallas, because people think of messengers as being in cities like New York or San Francisco or Seattle," Armstrong says. "I've actually had that response where I've been in an elevator with somebody and they see my bag and they say, 'Oh, are you on a bike?' and I'll say, 'Yes,' and they'll be like, 'Oh, really? Wow. That's just like New York.'"

Not only are they little known, but the Dallas messengers say they are being denigrated and undercut by the well-organized, uniformed and motorized delivery services. Although the bicyclists offer an environmentally friendly service that they claim is up to twice as fast as cars, the motorized competition offers what Dallas business craves more than good service--image.

"They think that we are grimy, like gutter punks on bicycles that are running into cars and flipping people off and throwing sticks of dynamite over our shoulders, and that's just wrong. That's how they undercut, the companies that have messengers, is that they cut under the rates...and they have an army of drivers," Armstrong says. "I think they have over 50 drivers now that are all wearing the same khakis and the same blue shirt and same badges, and they have the same haircut and they are all white guys with a bad haircut."

The bicyclists believe that one of the motorized delivery companies has a poster that depicts a bike messenger with a beat-up package in a basket mounted to the front of the bicycle. None in the group has actually seen the poster, they say, but they know it's there. At any rate, the image is a false one foisted upon them by competition that knows the messengers are faster and capable of delivering goods undamaged.

"We can get anywhere in six minutes in downtown. We know every alleyway, every one-way street that it's safe to go up, just every shortcut you can possibly take," Armstrong says. "We know how the flow of the city goes. It's like every city has a bloodstream. We know how to ride that, to flow to the right place."

Mark Finn, vice president of the motorized Special Delivery Service of Dallas, saw the picture the messengers described at a now-closed office several years ago, but he does not agree that his company is trying to run the bike messengers out of business. He admits, however, that his drivers are trying to portray a certain hygienic image that is incongruent with sweaty bikers.

"We cater to kind of a high-end client, and we just feel like the Texas weather in the summer is not conducive to us presenting a professional appearance with a guy walking in after riding a bike several blocks into a multimillion-dollar law firm," he says. "Part of our sales pitch is that we have professional, uniformed, very clean-cut-looking drivers. If a guy is on a bike, then we just don't feel like they would live up to what our salesmen are selling our client."

Bike messengers "have their advantages," such as being able to find a parking place, he says, but between the image problem and the difficulty of getting insurance for them, his company decided against using bicycles for deliveries.

"If it works for them, that's great. We just don't think it works for us, but we definitely do not have anything against bike messengers," he says. "They are some of the hardest-working people in the industry."

Myk Frazier, one of the group at the table at what they call "courier corner" Friday afternoon, says he's been working as a bike messenger for four years. Though no one, even clients, is jumping up to say it, the messengers are good for Dallas, and the city's ambivalence toward them is disappointing, he says.

"It's almost like Dallas could do without us, which I know is absolutely not true," he says.

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