Greater Greater Washington

The courier business changes and endures

You've seen bike couriers before, though you might not have known it. Clad in bicycling gear in a health-conscious city where such attire is ubiquitous, they blend in, embodying the notion of 'hiding in full view.' And that's the way they want it.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

This summer, I spent two days watching, interviewing and photographing professional couriers (or messengers) in DC for a school project. I came away with an appreciation for their profession and an understanding of why, early on, I was told they don't make for the best interview subjects.

The courier business is changing. For many decades, professional couriers made a good living. Most received "guarantees" from a large courier company, a weekly stipend which ensured they'd make a decent catch. No more.

"It's not fun like it used to be," said one courier I spoke with in front of the former Border's Bookstore on L Street NW. "I'm not making the money I was making back in the '80s. I used to go up on Capitol Hill and drop like 5, 600 envelopes and make like $1000. Them days are gone; you ain't never gonna see them days again."

The fax machine. Email. Both were absolute killers to the courier business, and every person I talked to told me so. They also mentioned the anthrax scare of 2001 and the 9/11 attacks, both of which lead to beefed up security at buildings and made delivery-making more difficult. The economy has also slowed, cutting demand for deliveries and forcing some couriers out of the business.

Now, many couriers are paid per delivery, upping the amount of trips they need to make on an average day and generally making their lives a little less secure. Even couriers who have guarantees generally do not receive health insurance, putting a strain on those with families.

Still, their day-to-day hasn't changed. In the morning, couriers head downtown and wait for delivery requests to come in. Law firms are still some of their biggest clients, making K Street NW a courier hotspot. When they get the call, off they go, on a bike, on a scooter, or in a car, often with an oversized, waterproof sealable backpack in tow. The hope, I was told, is to get a delivery request on the opposite end of town, allowing for several, smaller deliveries on the way.

Throughout it all, couriers remain a tight-knit, if prickly, bunch. Between deliveries, they congregate in parks, squares, and, coincidentally, in front of both Potbelly sandwich shops on L Street. They are are bound together by a sort of underdog mentality which came through in my interviews.

"Being a courier, you don't really fit in very well to the DC atmosphere," said a 20-something courier I spoke with in Dupont Circle. "The brotherhood comes in when you know that the other person's living their life as a courier. You don't make any money, you're outside 24/7, you're busting your ass, and you're not impressing anyone. The only thing we really have is each other."

He also spoke of a stigma associated with the profession. "I was kind of ashamed of it when I first started courying. Just f**king stunk, sweat everywhere. You just reek. Going into offices all the time with everybody dressed up really nicely. Pretty women everywhere. And you're just like 'Ah, Jesus Christ, I look like shit, I smell like shit."

But this sense of camaraderie and unity is also changing. "People now... are just more so involved with making money and not so much the socializing with everybody part," said a 10-year veteran of the business I spoke with as he awaited a delivery request in front of, you guessed it, Potbelly. "There's a lot of downfalls with it. You can get in the wrong crowd and end up doing a lot of bad drugs or drinking all day. Things that don't get you to make money."

But despite the tough economy, the dirt, the grime, the stares, and the occasional car accident, couriers stick with it. After all, they say, how many people can call the outdoors their office?

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Jeremy Barr is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland. He previously worked in non-profit communications and has interned in politics on several occasions. In the last year and a half, he has lived in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Mount Vernon Square. Email him at jeremy.m.barr@gmail.com. 

Comments

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"Back in the day" (21 years ago) I was a courier in Philadelphia. It was an awesome experience which I wouldn't trade for anything. Dangerous as hell too but the stories I've got! Oh the stories of the awesome things I saw, dangerous things I did, times I was lucky to be alive...

On slushy, rainy February days you knew where you fell on the totem pole as all the lawyers called the courier companies to pick up their take-out lunch. But on sweet days in May you truly were king of the city.

I hung up my bag after having one close call too many and realized that one was because *I* wasn't paying attention. The dispatcher (a former courier himself) gave me a very serious look when he said "you're doing the right thing. Too many people don't know when to give it up and they die."

by Former Courier on Nov 20, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

There is also the couriers who look and smell more presentable and those with clearances for transporting sensitive items. For many in this region, the idea is not for the person to easily look out of place.

by selxic on Nov 20, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Neat article, but barely scratches the surface of the industry. What was your school project about? As a current courier I always hope to read something that has not been written yet about the industry. Everyone knows the fax machine and internet took away a lot of the traditional work, but not many write about how the industry is evolving. Although you don't really see it in DC a lot of younger couriers are starting their own companies to meet delivery needs of local businesses and restaurants. It's not just about banks and lawyers anymore.

by Neil P. on Nov 20, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

There seems to be a pretty unhealthy level of stress involved with being a bike courier, because all of them I know are also drug addicts and/or alcoholics. And a little bit crazy.

by Ron on Nov 20, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

How is the courier lifestyle different from the pedi-cab lifestyle? Do they make more money? Take on more risk? But get tasered by the Park Police less? Is couriering people in pedicabs, rather than documents in shoulder bags, where the growth is in the industry? How does being a courier or pedicab compare to being a taxi driver?

by Falls Church on Nov 20, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

Nice article, Jeremy. Thanks for sharing. I used to know a really wild courier / messenger.

by John Muller on Nov 20, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

I was a courier for a short stint a few years ago. Loved being out and biking around, and meeting some interesting folk, both in and out of offices. Oddest thing: delivering to places I'd worked before or since.

by Petrus on Nov 20, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

My first job in DC was as a courier, over 30 years ago. We got paid by the delivery, no guaranteed minimum and no benefits at all. I was the last guy hired so I was the last one to get assignments, and because I was unwilling and unable to take the risks that other couriers took in traffic I couldn't make much of a living at it. But it was an awesome introduction to DC.

by jimble on Nov 20, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

The economics of the industry seems to put a lot of pressure on bike couriers to be seriously dangerous cyclists. (Makes me think of those "alleycat race" helmetcam videos where they seem to be almost trying to injure pedestrians as they zip through crosswalks and all.) As a pedestrian, I wonder how that problem can best be mitigated.

by iaom on Nov 20, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

Couriers in DC had a vibrant and distinctive subculture that is slowly fading. Those of us who used bicycles in and around DC during the height of the courier business regard that passing with equanimity. There were many fewer other riders then, and more couriers, so the public image of cyclists was heavily influenced by what couriers did. Let's just say it was not a positive image.

by Crickey7 on Nov 20, 2012 5:05 pm • linkreport

You only touch on a small part of the industry. The bicycle couriers are but one group of folks doing point to point rush deliveries.

Sand Box John has worked in industry for most of the last 35 years behind the wheel of a car or van.

Prior to the late 1980 a commissioned contract courier, which is how most of the folk are paid, doing rush work could gross weekly from $750.00 to $2000.00 a week depending how many hours one wanted to work and what type of vehicle used.

The enterprise I work for the late 1980 probably had more bicycle couriers under contract alone then the total plying the street of DC today. Back then there were more the dozen players competing in the industry employing more then a hundred bicycle couriers. Today there is only a hand full.

Most of the rush work is gone for reasons mentioned in the article. Back in those days most of the revenue in the industry was derived from rush work. Today the vast majority of the revenue come from scheduled routed work, that's the type of work I do today.

God how I miss those 14 hour work days and $900.00 a week commission checks.

by Sand Box John on Nov 20, 2012 11:49 pm • linkreport

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