By Rodrigo Hernandez
Bicycle Messenger Day, an annual national day of tribute to bicycle messengers, is Saturday, Oct. 9. To commemorate the holiday, two bicycle messengers shared their stories and experiences with Gazette Chicago along with tips for car and truck drivers when interacting with bicyclists and bicycle messengers.
Couriers and the economy
Leonard, who asked Gazette Chicago not to use his last name, is a Marine Corps veteran. The longtime messenger is 41 years old and grew up near 91st Street and Bell Avenue. He started earning money making deliveries by bike when he was 16 and continued off and on in some capacity (delivering paperwork, food, and other essential items) when not in the military.
Leonard emphasized that bicycle messengers play an important role in business. “Although couriers tend to live on the margins of mainstream capitalist society, they are a vital part of the economy,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of better organization and support for couriers, expressing the wish for “a workers organization for couriers to unite under for better conditions, as it is hard to maintain a decent livelihood without overworking oneself, as most couriers are woefully underpaid. I can go on and on about corporate takeover, income gaps and wealth distribution, and lack of benefits for essential workers.”
During the pandemic, Leonard did not work for his current employer, a local courier service. Instead, he served the public by delivering medicinal marijuana via bicycle to customers all over the city.
He delights in his work, emphasizing his enjoyment in bike riding, helping others, and learning about the city.
“Being a courier allows me to get paid to ride a bike, which has always been one of my favorite things to do,” he said. “I get to interact with lots of different people every day, see the sights of our beautiful city in all seasons, and help people get through their day by bringing them whatever it is they need.”
Christopher Valentino, a 19-year-old bike courier, agreed he and his colleagues are vital to the economy.
“Bike couriers are a very important asset for all different types of businesses in metropolitan areas,” said Valentino. “While what they do may be on a small geographical scale, they benefit a lot of local businesses and even some corporations.” He added bike couriers currently contribute greatly to the food industry in all the world’s major cities.
During the time of coronavirus (COVID-19) couriers have been vital, Valentino noted. “Couriers played a large role during the pandemic because we were some of the people who were still out there having to do our jobs in person,” he said, emphasizing how the public generally does not notice couriers. “I feel like couriers are overlooked in general, but especially during the pandemic when people were deciding for themselves which workers were ‘essential,’” he added.
Bike riding and reflections
With bike messengers working outside, Leonard shared his perspective by saying, “Sometimes, the weather is your biggest enemy out on the bike. But over the years, I have accumulated the proper gear so I can dress reasonably for all types of conditions.” He emphasized safety is “paramount” when riding in the streets and among vehicle traffic and advised bicyclists to “Always make sure drivers see you, make eye contact when you can, and use hand signals.”
He hopes the City improves conditions for bicycle messengers. “Although things have gotten better over the years, infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians in Chicago still has tremendous room for improvement and growth,” he said, noting he would like to see bicycle couriers unite in solidarity with transportation advocates and City planners.
“Couriers have the most intimate knowledge of city streets, where there are problem areas, and where there are safety concerns,” said Leonard. “Yet, despite this, either because of lack of outreach on the City’s part, or lack of interest in the bureaucracy on the courier side, there has been no type of solid working partnership in this planning.”
Valentino also likes his job. “Being a courier is a great job for me because I simply love the act of riding a bicycle,” he said. As a labor intensive profession, “It is a rather dangerous, hectic, mentally and physically strenuous job, which is why veteran couriers see many people come and go from the scene in their careers,” added Valentino, who has been on the job for nine months “with no intention of stopping.”
Like Leonard, Valentino commented how the weather can prove challenging. “Many full-time couriers are outside during the winter from morning to night, and by the time they get home, they haven’t felt their feet for three to four hours, socks and boots have been soaked through, and the numbing starts to turn to a stinging pain,” he said. He started working as a courier the previous winter before the snow hit Chicago and said, “I am glad I started in the worst conditions so that I would be prepared for the future winters.”
Summers, on the other hand, “aren’t so terrible if you stay hydrated and don’t consider the heat coming off vehicle engines, the continuous sweating through your clothes and mask, and of course, the foul smells,” he said. “Other than harsh conditions and safety risks, working outside all day is great!”
The profession continues to change “The use of email and the development of technology made the use of paper documents pretty obsolete,” said Valentino. “There are still paper courier services in many major cities around the world who do similar if not the same work that the romanticized bike couriers did in the 1980s to 2000s, but many of those services are small and collectivized.”
He also stressed his position as a food delivery bike courier contributes significantly to the restaurant economy. “A couple of the many reasons restaurants choose to deliver through us are because they cannot find enough in-house delivery people to accommodate every order and because we are faster and more reliable than companies like Uber,” said Valentino.
Leonard offered tips for car and truck drivers when interacting with bicyclists. He stressed drivers should slow down and always observe their surroundings. Drivers need to stay aware of the lanes cyclists use in traffic.
“Too many drivers are unaware that bicycles are entitled to the full use of the lane while keeping with the flow of traffic,” said Leonard.
Valentino noted safety of pedestrians and cyclists should be any motorist’s biggest priority. “There are countless instances every day of ignorant drivers that we have to deal with that put our safety and lives at risk that I can’t even begin to explain.
“I would advise people to just be friendly whenever they interact with a courier and show them respect. They will most likely do the same to you,” Valentino added.