Philadelphia bike couriers speak out

Philadelphia bike couriers feel singled out on proposed legislation.

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Bike Couriers Speak Out

Philly’s messengers say they’re no menace to society.

By Joel Mathis

Jeff O’Neill was bicycling up 16th Street Friday night when a man and woman materialized in front of him—two pedestrians in the middle of the road, standing still and staring up into the sky, oblivious to the traffic bearing down on them. O’Neill managed to execute a quick swerve, barely avoiding the pair, but he received no thanks for his efforts.

“That’s why you guys need licenses!” the man shouted as O’Neill pedaled off into the night.

Even when bike messengers avoid an accident, they still get a hefty portion of blame.

“Any courier you talk to will tell you gnarly stories,” says Jorge Brito, a 28-year-old messenger who has been working Philly’s streets for three years. “You’re a target when you’re on a bike.”

Bike messengers have been in City Hall’s crosshairs since October, when two pedestrians were killed in separate, unsolved hit-and-run accidents involving bicycles. Police began cracking down on bicycle traffic violations and Councilmen James Kenney and Frank DiCicco proposed new rules that would require licenses, increase ticket fees for riding on sidewalks and levy huge new fines for operating the kind of “brakeless” bicycles favored by messengers.

When Rachel Fletcher, a messenger, was struck by a car and badly injured on Thanksgiving morning, her colleagues had had enough. The following Monday they gathered in Love Park to rally against the new rules—and against the rising tide of anti-bicycle and anti-courier sentiment that seems to be sweeping Philly’s streets and Stu Bykofsky’s columns in the Daily News .

“We’re 45 people out of 11,000 (bicyclists) who commute each day,” O’Neill says. “But we’re singled out.”

The small bicycle-courier community in Philadelphia is overwhelmingly male and young, nearly everybody a dropout from school, career or some other mainstream obligation—the kind of people who enjoy spending a miserably wet fall day crisscrossing the city on bike. And couriers say Philly—with its relatively cheap rents—is one of the last, best places to earn a living.

Brito, one of the leaders of the Philadelphia Bicycle Messenger Association, came to town from New York, attended grad school and taught eighth grade in North Philly for a short spell.

“I hated it,” he says. “The only thing I enjoyed was riding for a living. So now I’m the most overeducated messenger in the city. Even though things are slow now and the economy sucks, I probably make as much as if I were teaching. I sleep better.”

The rise of fax machines and the Internet was expected to make couriers extinct. Indeed: Philly’s community of regulars has dwindled from about 80 riders a few years ago to a little more than half that today.

“The economy has affected us more than technology,” says O’Neill, though.

The remaining riders admit that they often ride aggressively on Philly streets and, yes, sidewalks. Part of it is economic: They get paid per delivery, not by the hour. And, often, time is of the essence to their clients.

“I can’t stop at every stoplight,” says Justin Swain, 22, a Philly native who’s been working as a courier for three years. “I’ve got to get there in 15 minutes or I don’t get paid.”

Brito adds: “A multimillion-dollar bid falls apart because you didn’t get there in time.”

They dispute, however, the idea that they’re any more of a menace on Philly’s streets than cars. All half-dozen messengers at Nodding Head on Friday say they’ve been “doored.” Brito is recovering from a broken collarbone. Several have stories of drivers deliberately trying to bump them off the road.

And if there’s an economic impetus to be aggressive, there’s a similar motivation to avoid accidents: “There’s no workman’s comp, no time off,” Swain says. “We lose money.”

Late last week, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reported that DiCicco was having second thoughts about his proposed rules, surprised by the intensity of public reaction. But couriers don’t expect the war between bicyclists and the rest of the city to ever end entirely.

“So many pedestrians seem to think we want to hit them,” courier Liza DeProphetis says. “We just want to get where we’re going.”

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