A Short History of Bike Messengers (and Their Fixies)

By: Florin Costache

Even in our modern information age the bike messenger still has a job. You would think that in the age of the fax and email none but the most special of packages and documents would need to be delivered by hand.

Still, what saved the bike messengers' 120 year old profession is that inherent human mistrust of all that is new(ish) and the need to physically feel the things that are important.

From my findings it seems that the first bike courier company in North America appeared in the 1880's. H.T. Baily opened a non-stop delivery service that used couriers on bikes.

In the United States bike couriers got their start in 1894, when a railway strike had mail deliveries stopped in San Francisco. A Fresno bike shop owner got the brilliant idea to set up a route from Fresno to San Francisco, which had remarkable success.

Soon enough big companies also started using bicycles to do deliveries, at first including Western Union and eventually even the US Postal Office.

With the appearance of UPS and DHL and other big delivery companies messenger services started to suffer, but bicycle messengers still provide faster service for local deliveries.

In the 20's and 30's bike messengers. Even though most businesses called on specialized companies to take care of their needs some companies had their own messengers, Tamblyn Drug Stores being having one of the biggest messenger "fleets".

Due to the fact that messengers became more commonly used to transport pricier packages (and more than often even money) they became prey to thieves and muggers. At one point there were even gangs specialized in robbing bike messengers, making things so bad that in places like Toronto nighttime deliveries were stopped for some time.

The best known messenger company after the Second World War was founded by Carl Sparks in 1945, in San Francisco. Sparkie's later became Aero which was bought by CitySprint in 1998.

Today's bike messengers are as modern as they come: phones with internet access, state of the art walkie-talkies or even gps devices (though most use the good old paper maps), but the most important piece of their kit is often a throwback to the past - fixed gear bikes.

Though fixed gear bikes (or fixies) might be viewed by outsiders as an unnecessary headache bike messengers use them for a good reason: when you cycle 80 to 100 miles everyday for work, the more pieces your bike has the more chances there are for something to break down.

However, many messengers prefer to take it easy on their knees but still keep it simple so they use single speeds. For those who don't know the difference - a fixed gear is a single speed without a freewheel - on a fixie the pedals will always spin while the bike is moving.

Theft is a very serious issue for bike messengers, especially when you consider they have to leave it on the street and a suitable anchoring structure can't always be found. Most messengers wear thick chains around their waist and secure the bikes with U locks whenever possible.

Education
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 

» More on Education