If you live in a big city, you've probably seen bike messengers riding recklessly.
They ride fast — really fast. They go the wrong way on one-way streets. They dart in and out of car traffic, and weave through it to cross busy streets when they hit a red light. In fact, some might argue that by committing a disproportionate amount of the reckless riding that goes on, they give all bicyclists a bad name.
But while their reckless riding might make bikers look bad, the truth is that the messengers riding this way are just doing their jobs.
That's because virtually all these messengers are paid per delivery, and in most cases, making enough deliveries per day to earn a decent wage requires breaking traffic laws — and at times, riding a bit recklessly. It's as if a waiter or waitress had to knock over customers to serve meals fast enough to earn a tip.
If you see a bike messenger riding like a maniac, your instinct is probably to grumble, shake your fist, and curse all bikers. But in reality, they're working a dangerous, low-paying job — and are victims of a bigger, systemic problem.
The hard job of a bike messenger
The BuzzFeed video above gives you a good idea of the nonstop, frenetic riding style most bike messengers employ. To get to their next stop as quickly as possible, they do all kinds of things that a casual biker probably wouldn't consider trying.
They squeeze between lanes of stopped or slow traffic, and frequently dart up one-way streets. The most characteristic bike messenger move occurs when they approach a red light with traffic flowing through the street they want to cross. Instead of stopping, they turn and briefly ride with the traffic. Then, when there's a break in it, they turn left across the intersection and proceed.
These maneuvers are all aimed at one basic goal: completing deliveries as quickly as possible. "When you're riding at a good pace, the last thing you want to do is stop," says Behzad Larry, a former messenger for New York City's Breakaway Courier.
Another Cleveland bike messenger who didn't want his name used in this article agrees: "My basic rule on jobs is limit time of possession to as short as I can." He adds that this means getting deliveries done "as fast as is safe to do so."
But ultimately, a mentality centered around speed is dangerous — to pedestrians, but more often, to bike messengers themselves. One multi-year survey of 113 Boston bike messengers found that, each year, 47 out of 100 suffered an injury that forced them to miss work — most often, bone fractures, followed by dislocations, sprains, and strains.
That Boston study was a small survey (and it's tough to conduct a big one given how small the bike courier profession is), but that injury rate is more than 15 times the national average for all jobs. It's even three or four times higher than injury rates for the most dangerous widely-surveyed fields, like meatpacking and construction.
They bike recklessly because they get paid for speed
Given this danger, why do messengers insist on going so fast? There's a good reason. Unlike cab drivers, messengers aren't paid for time they spend sitting in traffic. A messenger's wage is directly tied to the speed at which he or she makes deliveries.
"You're struggling against traffic, business hours (not many packages after offices close), and your body's ability to ride hard," Larry says. "So you want to fit as many deliveries as possible in."
What's more, in many places courier services are something of a dying industry. That means that wages are low and stagnant. "The rates? In Cleveland they haven't gone up in over a decade plus," the anonymous messenger told me. "I'd love to see an across-the-board rate increase, but it's never going to happen."
Larry, who delivered in New York City in 2007, recalls being paid $5 per delivery, and being capable of typically making 15 deliveries per day. That translates to $75 per day for a dangerous, physically demanding job that doesn't typically provide health insurance — if you hustle and take calculated risks as you ride.
If a bike messenger were to ride cautiously and follow every traffic law, he or she would risk making well under the minimum wage. As Larry puts it, "Not the best way to earn money."
So who's to blame?
It's tempting to blame the bike messenger you see riding dangerously. But the problem is much bigger than any one individual courier. It's the set of circumstances that provide incentives for riding fast and breaking traffic laws.
The main people responsible for these circumstances are the courier companies that employ these messengers. If they paid an hourly wage — or at least provided a pay floor for messengers for the times they aren't able to safely make enough deliveries to meet it — it'd dramatically reduce the incentive to ride recklessly.
That said, it's fair to note that a company opting to pay more might have difficulty competing with companies that don't. But this isn't a good reason to give a pass to an entire industry that requires its workers to break laws and endanger both others and themselves.
Of course, unsafe working conditions and a sub-minimum wage are the sorts of things that government regulations are supposed to prevent. But most courier companies aren't bound by many of those regulations because they designate their messengers as independent contractors.
This allows the companies to avoid paying payroll taxes, worker’s compensation insurance, and a minimum wage, among other things. And they do this even though few bike couriers actually fit the IRS' definition of an independent contractor: someone who provides services to a number of clients, rather than an employer, and has autonomy over how and when work will be done. Because messengers are typically required to stick to a regular schedule, can't subcontract out deliveries, and usually only deliver for one company, this designation has been regularly struck down in court cases where messengers sue for compensation due to an injury.
Still, it remains the norm unless it's tested in court, and that's one of the key reasons why couriers need to bike recklessly and break laws to earn a living. Next time you see a bike messenger doing this, try to channel your indignation to the right place. Remember: they're just doing their job. Blame their bosses.