Article on state of bike meessengers in Ottawa

article, again from Joe Hendry of, on couriers in Ottawa.

Bike couriers cruising through changing times

Centretown News (Ottawa) December 1, 2009
By Mac Christie

It used to be common to see bike messengers flitting in and out of traffic on Centretown streets, but the rise of technology means that sight is getting somewhat rarer.

Increased use of e-mail and document transfer programs such as PDF files have meant that instead of sending small documents with bike messengers, the same files can be sent electronically.

The decline of bicycle couriers in Ottawa also has a lot to do increased security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, says Gary Watson, a bicycle courier in Centretown for 20 years.

“It used to be that couriers could go into any building, onto any floor, meet any government official and deliver a package into their hands,” he says.“Now most government buildings have scanners.”

“Clients quickly discovered that the deliveries were getting bogged down in the mail room and they found different ways of delivering their packages, like e-mail,” he says.

He adds the increased security had a large impact because Ottawa is predominately a government town.

Watson says the number of bicycle couriers have declined since 2001 at a rate of about 10 per cent a year.

Back in the early 1990s, there were thought to be over 100 bike messengers in Ottawa, but now estimates place the number at 20 to 30.

“I was right in the middle of it when it all happened,” Watson says. “I saw the decline immediately.”

However, some messengers say that government contracts still make up a large part of their business.

While there are not as many messengers around these days, Don Gratton, an Ottawa bike messenger for 10 years, says he is still pretty busy.

He says he does a lot of government business, but has had to diversify.

“Now we do deliveries for drug stores,” Gratton says. “I deliver medication for older people who can’t get around as well.”

Watson says he, too, has had to adapt. He got a cargo bike, designed to carry more weight than an average bike or backpack.

“We’re not carrying envelopes anymore,” he says.

“Now, I can carry up to 200 pounds. That has basically kept things alive for me.”

The industry has definitely declined, but there will always be a need for bike couriers, says Maureen McGreavy, an Ottawa bike messenger for 15 years.

“It’s just a matter of how much money you’re going to make at it,” she says.

“My average calls are less than they used to be.”

Mike Buckthought, of Ecology Ottawa, says he thinks that as the price of oil goes up and people become more aware of the impact of cars, they will be encouraged to use bike messengers.

In Ottawa motor vehicles produce 1.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.

“Anything we can do to reduce emissions is great.”

Watson says he doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

“I couldn’t have predicted what’s going on now. I’d like to think that we’re about as low as we can go.

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