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Couriers in Seattle

Ah yes another article on Bike Couriers. This one is from my old hometown of Seattle.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing really new here but I like to include all the articles I can, for the archives.

Thanks again to Joe Headry of Messmedia.org for his constant diligence in finding articles about couriers.

Seattle street racers: Ride along with Seattle bike couriers

By Erika Cederlind

Daily – University of Washington , February 12, 2008

Driving in Seattle sucks. It’s pouring rain and traffic is terrible. Cars speed up to intersections only to slam on brakes, honk horns and wait bumper to bumper. Weather conditions, road construction and commuters only compound the problem.

On a bike, these problems disappear. Bike messengers can weave in and out of traffic, avoid construction and get from Pike to Pine in a matter of minutes, while driving through downtown Seattle can take upwards of an hour.

In a city like Seattle, bike couriers are a necessity. Legal documents, architectural drawings, business proposals and more must get from point A to B as soon as possible.

Washington Legal Messengers is one of several bike courier companies in Seattle. Like many other delivery services, its base is nondescript (like its riders) and unmarked by any sign or logo that would explain its presence.

At 5 p.m., couriers are finishing their workday. Wet and wind-burned from the January weather, the bikers recline in chairs and on desks, drinking beer and laughing at the events of the day.

The couriers bond over their common problems: frustrations with drivers, the weather, or an annoying customer. Their commonalities create a unique community. They all know each other and many of them are willing to help out another courier.

“There’s an unspoken bond between messengers,” said Matt “Face” Nascimento, a Washington Legal messenger Nascimento has worked as a courier for two years; by messenger standards, he’s still a rookie. He moved to Seattle from southern California, and like most, fell into the job by accident.

“I was just riding my bike around the city,” Nascimento said. “I’d just gotten out of school and wasn’t ready to go back. I went around, asked a couple of messengers and eventually landed a job at ABC Legal.”

ABC Legal is the biggest legal delivery company in the area.

Now Nascimento considers himself a “lifer” — a career messenger. Many lifers start as messengers in one city and move to other cities later in their career.

When courier Chad Strand moved to Seattle from Reno he experienced the positive impact of the community.

“The first week I met another courier, and she already knew everything about me,” he said.

Couriers are a mix; some do it while they’re in-between jobs — others are lifers. Many are college educated and have worked elsewhere. All of them love the outdoors, cycling and can’t imagine working in an office.

“I can’t tell you how many offices I walk into where they’re counting down the hours,” Strand said.

“They say they can’t picture doing my job,” he continued. “But I can’t imagine doing theirs.”

Many people can’t imagine dealing with the risks that many of the messengers face. Most couriers shrug any danger off.

“People think we’re stupid,” said Jonathan Tamesue, a Fleetfoot courier. “But we’re playing on a level that people don’t understand.”

Courier consensus: fear is for rookies. Safety is about confidence.

“The moment you doubt yourself, you fall. Any hesitation means you get hurt,” Nascimento said.

Just don’t try it at home. As Strand explained, “We are professionals.”

Although the occupation seems “macho,” Nascimento explains that quite a few women work as messengers, too.

“There are a lot of girls who do it who don’t get the respect they deserve. It’s not a total male-dominated sport,” he said.

The messengers know the city like the back of their hand. They know which intersection lights change slower and how many seconds you have before a car 20 feet away will hit you. Traffic patterns are instinct.

“I knew it (being a messenger) finally clicked when I saw holes instead of cars,” Strand said.

The risks aren’t important to the couriers. Despite the dangers of getting hit by a bus or wrecking on early morning ice, they love their job.

“You get into it,” Nascimento said. “Your endorphins are going and you get addicted.”

Independent courier Roy Wilkie describes his job as an adventure.

“It’s a daily road trip. … It’s a challenge, you have to keep so many things together.”

Balancing the route, dealing with paperwork, time, and external factors can all complicate a simple route. Getting a package to a company on time, Tamesue said, is ridiculously epic.

“You have to get from the [Denny] Regrade to south Seattle in six minutes, and you got it there with 30 seconds to spare… You can’t explain how good it feels,” he said.

With all the hills in Seattle, people often wonder what kind of bikes couriers favor. For many messengers, it’s all over the board.

“It’s what suits you,” Wilkie said. He explained that some people prefer mountain bikes for heavier packages, track bikes without brakes for going uphill or just a good solid road bike.

“Track bikes are hard, though, for going downhill,” he said. “You have to pedal with the speed of the wheel or you’ll crash. But right now single-speed, fixed gear bikes are really fashionable. As soon as they go out of style, I’ll work with one.”

Historically, bike messengers have been around since the invention of the bicycle. The United Parcel Service (UPS) was started by a couple of guys delivering on bikes in Pioneer Square. Seattle bike delivery companies began in the late 1970s as the city grew.

“Bike deliveries are the most logical,” said Gary Brose, owner and president of Fleetfoot Messenger Service. “Traffic is terrible and people want to get things done in an hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes. What we’re selling here is time.”

Time is a valuable resource valuable enough that Seattle couriers can make a pretty good living.

“I don’t have to worry about having to eat Ramen because I’m worried about making rent,” Strand said.

Some companies pay hourly, but most pay on commission, plus extra for wait time, rushed deliveries and extra weight.

“You really make as much money as you put into it,” Tamesue said.

Couriers manage several jobs a day, riding miles up and down hills and all over Seattle. They ride from the U-District to Ballard, through the downtown core and farther south. Some ride to Bellevue and Issaquah if the need arises.

“It’s usually from 30 to upwards of 80 jobs on a busy day. I average about 40 miles,” Fleetfoot messenger Brant Waldron said.

Despite weather, traffic or construction, messengers do their job.

“It’s a total unsung hero thing,” Nascimento said. He laughed and then added, “I have a good quote for it from Thoreau: ‘The most wild is the most alive.’ And I think, yeah, we’re pretty wild and pretty alive.”

10 comments to Couriers in Seattle

  • Anonymous

    Hey, it’s Joe Hendry.

  • Matt

    Wow, that would just be the most fabulous job I could imagine. (Okay, second most, first would be to work at a microbrewery.)

  • Kevin King

    I cut through the Seattle every day on my bike commute and I continue to be amazed by these guys (and girls!). I learn a lot just by watching them, even if I’ll never have the skill to do what they do.

  • The intrepid biker

    I really like this article. It gives a good profile of the often underappreciated job of a bicycle courier.

    I work in montreal downtown and I see a great deal of couriers. Where I live the winters can pretty harsh with lots of snow!!! but I see the always manage.

    I myself fantasize having the job of a courier. However, I work in a bank and the hours are from 9-5. Nevertheless, I commute with my bike almost everyday..

  • Bike Blog NYC » Couriers in Seattle great article thank you.

  • Bike Blog NYC » Couriers in Seattle great article thank you. ne

  • Bike Blog NYC » Couriers in Seattle great article thank you.
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  • Handy Andy

    Love & Respect

    Im new to the messenger world. I started on a single speed because I liked the thrill of zipping in and out of cars in downtown seattle. Ive never liked cars, a true unecessary necessity. I once thought this, I thought I was less than equal because I walked or took the bus to dates, but I refused to conform.

    I love to commute now. I love when the light turns green, and I leave the driver of the car next to me starring in amazement.

    I love to ride my bicycle.