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Much is made nowadays of the “bicycle messenger culture”. So much so that the larger bicycle companies have started to take note and are introducing messenger bikes to the main stream. But messenger culture seems to attract derision and admiration in equal measure. The image of the classic messenger is the hipster on a bike. Tight jeans, narrow handlebars, fixie bike and no helmet. Items like messenger bags have been customized and consumerized from their humble PVC origins and are as popular as ever as students strive to achieve the full messenger look. Messenger bags used to be the preserve of the bike messenger and the kid with a paper route. Now companies like Specialized and Crumpler are in on the act and are producing high quality, high visibility bags to suit all tastes from touring cyclist to commuter.
But messenger culture is a lot more than that. To many, being a bike messenger means rejecting certain values while living and working among them. Messengers don’t drive cars, but they are a valuable commodity because they can operate in traffic, and get their parcels from A to B faster than a car in city centers that are clogged with congestion. While they reject motorized vehicles, they rely on them for their living, as the traffic that slows everyone else down, makes the bike messenger the delivery method of choice for so many companies.
Simplicity is the key for the messenger, which is why single speed bikes and fixies are so popular among them. Their bikes are simple to maintain, and they look simple so they are less likely to be stolen, when they are left outside offices and stores when a delivery is being made. Most messengers will take pride in how plain their bike looks – it is fit for the purpose for which it is intended, nothing more, nothing less.
But where does it all come from? Bike messenger have been around almost as long as the bicycle itself. Records show that bike couriers were used by the Paris Stock Exchange as early as the 1870s. In the 1890’s, Western Union employed bike couriers in New York and other big cities. Shortly after the Second World War, bicycle courier companies started to emerge in their own right. One of the first was founded by Carl Sparks, in San Francisco 1945. Sparkies went on to become Aero, and was bought out in 1998, later becoming absorbed into CitySprint. By the late 1970s, the huge growth in motorized transport and the exponential rise in the ownership of cars, meant that there were bike courier companies in most major US cities and most cities across Europe, where they continue to operate to this day.
But bike messenger culture is so much more than faux hipster messengers and running red lights. Go and hang out with some bike messengers and you will find that they have a passion for cycling. Many take part in cycling events and are actively involved in advocacy that benefits all cyclists. And they are a great source of information about where to take your bike downtown – the best routes, the safest roads, the best cafes with the best brownies – all crucial information every city dweller who turns a pedal should know. And the best way to get involved in messenger culture? Leave your car in the garage, and start to treat your bike as your primary method of transport. Many people would think that this would be a limiting, but you would be surprised at the feeling of freedom such a life change can bring. Go wherever your bike will carry you. Don’t be limited by traffic and congestion. Celebrate the joy of being on your bike as a tool for making a living, or just for the sheer fun of it.