Finding a bike messenger used to be easier than hailing a cab at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver.
Until recently, at any given time, at least 10 grunged-out, pierced, tattooed and fit emissaries could be spotted hanging out outside the HSBC Bank tower at Georgia and Hornby, waiting for their next mission to be broadcast over two-way radios. Today, the radios are gone, replaced by BlackBerrys, and bike couriers are few and far between. They are headed the way of the typewriter as high-speed Internet eradicates the need for their services. The number of couriers swerving through Vancouver’s streets is deflating as fast as a popped tire. In 2006, the number of licensed messengers fell to 115 from 334 in 2000, the first year the City of Vancouver stopped funding the licensing program. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. In New York, the hub of the messenger world, the number of couriers skidded from 2,500 in the 1990s to an estimated 1,100 today, according to the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations (IFBMA). In Victoria, one of the city’s six courier companies closed its doors this year (the city only licenses companies, not individual couriers). Even high gas prices, which make car and van couriers less attractive, aren’t helping reverse the trend. The numbers are falling thanks to the proliferation of high-speed Internet and email. It’s easier and cheaper to press “send” for PDF files, digital photography and digital audio than to call a courier. But some courier companies in Vancouver are fighting the Internet age, staying alive by going after niche markets and finding an edge to beat out the competition. Take Jeff Power, manager of Richmond-based Progressive Messenger Ltd. He’s been forced to reduce his spoked fleet from 15 to 10 riders. To try to stall the decline, he changed his marketing strategy to focus on professions that need hard copies and signatures – law firms and architects – and on the booming online ordering business, which requires delivery of small packages. He hopes it will work, but he is concerned the courier business will shrink further. “The decline started with fax machines and it’s increasing rapidly,” he says. The advent of the fax had doomsayers preparing eulogies for the bike messenger way of life, but couriers wheelied through that orange alert and Power is confident bike messengers will survive the Internet threat, too. The question is: how many can tough it out? John Curry, an independent bike courier working in Vancouver, says he’s noticed a significant decline since he started riding four years ago. He says fewer deliveries only explain part of the decline in Lotus Land. “Vancouver is known to be the worst place to be a bike messenger, not due to the weather but to the pay,” he explains. Less business means companies are battling for customers by undercutting each other, lowering rates and giving discounts. The local business is dominated by three or four big players with more than a dozen riders each, 10 to 15 smaller companies and a handful of independent bikers who contract out their services. The big companies set the rates for downtown deliveries in Vancouver and owners believe volume is more important than service, Curry says. Competition is fierce and making money is getting harder. Messengers work on commission – they can earn rates ranging from 52 to 63 per cent for each delivery – so as the number of calls falls, so does their pay. Most messengers, he says, are as busy as ever but not taking home more. They barely make minimum wage when commissions are averaged out. The employers are also making less money. Joe Hendry, media advisor for the IFBMA and a Toronto courier, explains it like this: “A courier can only do so many calls per day. So, if a company has 1,200 calls per day and each [courier can] do about 40, the company needs 30 messengers. If demand drops and the number of calls falls to 1,000, then the company needs only 25 messengers but they are still doing 40 calls each.” Phantom Couriers is an exception. Mark Huggan, Phantom’s owner and a former courier, actually raised his rates this year to compensate for higher gas and business costs, and is further bucking the bike-courier trend by hiring more cyclists, increasing his total to five from three. Huggan says his secret is being good to his riders. “You treat them well and they’re going to do a good job for you,” he says, “and that means the customer is happy.” Phantom’s website has a long list of positive customer comments. Curry works for Phantom when Huggan gets swamped. He believes some of the bigger firms in town skimp on costs by cutting delivery prices, effectively cutting rates for couriers, and the result is poor service. (A direct comparison of rates between companies is tough. They charge different rates for each area of the city, and define those areas differently.) Huggan is confident his service focus will keep him immune to the decline. Plus, people like paper and warm bodies more than a mouse and a “send” button. “Customers don’t want to download tons of pages,” he says. “They don’t want electronic documents. They want something solid.” And, he adds, “messengers, with their tattoos and piercings, are a whole lot more fun than email. Secretaries want a guy to show up instead of pressing ‘send.’” But tattooed and pierced couriers may not be as welcome in buildings after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says John Galley, VP and GM for Corporate Couriers. That’s why Corporate, one of the biggest courier companies in town, makes its riders wear uniforms, present a clean-cut image and wear GPS trackers and identification cards. “Anyone could walk into a building looking like a courier,” he says. “Companies looking for security are looking to us.” Those are the kind of rules most couriers are trying to shrug off with their typical anti-establishment attitude. To compensate, Galley says, Corporate pays the highest commission in the city. (Companies wouldn’t release exact commission rates, but Phantom and Corporate officials say they pay at the top end of the 52- to 63-per-cent range.) Still, Galley guesses only 10 per cent of Vancouver couriers are interested in working for Corporate, which makes finding the three extra riders he needs hard. Corporate is growing from 16 bike couriers to 19 to keep up with growth in business. As one of the biggest firms, Corporate can fill huge orders others can’t, such as handling 80 simultaneous priority deliveries at 5 p.m. on a Friday for a condo pre-sale. With real estate booming and threats of terrorism still fresh, business is good at Corporate. Companies like Corporate and Phantom are helping to keep the bike messenger culture alive, but the job is still demanding and offers few benefits. So why do the bike messengers stick it out? They’re hard-pressed to put it into words, but things like community, lifestyle and friendship are always mentioned. Drop into the Cambie Bar & Grill on a Friday night, where the messengers congregate, and it’s obvious there’s something addictive about the job. Like soldiers back from the front, they exchange war stories from Vancouver’s mean streets: delivering diamonds, four-foot-long rolls of silk and backpacks full of pot. Until e-signatures and package teleportation become commonplace, there will always be a need for bike couriers – in Vancouver, anyway.