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Lessons from Bike Messengers

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Bike messenger in New York City

by Jeffrey L. Kidder

Bike messengers work in the traffic-snarled business districts of major cities. Much of what they deliver is time-sensitive: A legal document signed at 11:45 uptown needing to be filed at a downtown courthouse by noon or an advertising proof frantically changed at the last minute and awaiting the client’s approval in an office building 20 blocks away. Cyclists can make these seemingly impossible deliveries because (with enough athletic prowess and steely nerves) they can weave in and out of gridlocked cars and dart through intersections against the light. Parking spots are easy to find and police officers looking to issue citations rare. This allows messengers to play in traffic and play with the rules and regulations that supposedly govern life in the post-industrial city. The messenger’s brand of urban cycling is risky and physically demanding, but it is also exhilarating. For their efforts, messengers make rather measly wages, are given few benefits, and most are one serious injury away from unemployment.

I spent over three years working as a bike messenger. As a sociologist and ethnographer, my research on the occupation stemmed from an interest in the ways paid labor can be enjoyable and feel meaningful to workers. I was particularly interested in the vibrant subculture that surrounded messengers and the way these bike couriers made use of the urban environment. Working and socializing as a messenger, it did not take long for me to realize that for many of these urban cyclists, their job was more than a paycheck. It was part of an all-encompassing identity.  Lifestyle messengers, as I would come to call them, not only work as couriers; they socialize almost exclusively with other messengers outside of work, and much of this socialization comes in the form of replicating their workday during their off-hours (for free). Many actually travel around the country (and even the world) to meet other messengers and compete against them in illegal bike races. In these “alleycats,” messengers speed through traffic in a frantic dash from one part of the city to the next.    

On the surface, there is an obvious answer to why bike messengers replicate their work in their leisure time: it’s fun. This is true, but why would this type of work be fun? For most Americans work is a four-letter word. It is something we do because we need money to fund the things we actually enjoy doing. There is an endless array of things we might want to do (sit on the beach and read a book, improve our tennis game, be better parents, etc.), but, generally, the things we want to do feel authentic. That is, in doing them we feel that we are expressing who we really are. Authentic actions tap into the core of our self-identity, and the sad fact is, for many of us—especially for those laboring in the service sector, in manual labor, or in lower-tier office employment—work provides few (if any) chances for authentic action. 

A second answer for why bike messengers seem to relish their labor so much is because it provides a sense of autonomy. The issue of autonomy provides a more complete answer. However, when most people think about autonomy in the workplace they tend to focus on managerial oversight. Unlike other low-paying, entry-level occupations, bike messengers are largely free from managerial oversight, but this sort of autonomy (in and of itself) cannot explain why messengering is extended beyond the workday into an all-encompassing lifestyle. After all, nighttime security guards have (or at least used to) this sort of autonomy, but security guards are unlikely to integrate their self-identity into their labor. They are even less likely to want to spend their free time travelling around for competitions mimicking their occupational tasks. 

If we extend the scope of autonomy to include the moment-to-moment choices bike messengers make as they are riding through traffic, however, we can really start to see why so many messengers find their labor meaningful. It is not simply having freedom from oversight; it is the freedom to act creatively and spontaneously as they navigate the city’s streets. Further, there are real, mortal consequences to the messenger’s actions. Cutting left or swerving right around a car can literally make the difference between life and death. When creativity and spontaneity are coupled with mortal danger, action becomes inherently authentic. Few things are (or quite possibly nothing is) more mentally engaging and emotionally engrossing than survival. This is why some people eat up their life savings to climb mountains and jump out of airplanes. Messengers are able to realize this sort of “edgework” (as social psychologist Stephen Lyng calls it) during their paid labor. Thus, unlike the fry cook at a fast food restaurant or the office assistant making photocopies, the messenger’s labor can feel profoundly meaningful.

For the lifestyle messenger, however, identity work does not stop at the close of the business day. In fact, the messenger lifestyle is far more about racing in alleycats than racing to make a paid delivery. Alleycats—those non-sanctioned, open traffic races that some messengers travel the globe to participate in—take the edgework of the messenger’s paid labor and intensify it. Most importantly, alleycats bring couriers together to enact (in exaggerated form) their occupation’s most thrilling and dangerous aspects. Almost a century ago, French sociologist Emile Durkheim, argued that religions’ powers lie in rituals that bring people together in celebration. He talked about rituals generating “collective effervescence,” and he believed that it was this emotional energy—not the discursive content of the ritual—that made rituals meaningful for participants. In much the same way, alleycats make messengering even more meaningful to couriers by taking the individualized excitement of the workday and turning into a collective emotional experience. While the authenticity of their labor is an essential precondition, the messenger subculture is less about the workday and more about how the creativity and spontaneity of their labor is transformed into rituals during their leisure hours.

At the same time, edgework and collective effervescence can only explain so much. We also need to consider the urban environment and the messenger’s place within it. This is important because looking at the messengers’ use of the city—what I call the affective appropriation of space—highlights a much larger lesson about the potential for liberation in all of our lives. As corporeal beings, we use physical space in every moment of our existence, and it is easy to lose sight of the agency we have over the built structures that surround us. Walls, roadways, and staircases can seem immutable because they are tangibly solid. It is true that their physical contours do not change through use (save for the slow erosion of wear), but the meanings and understandings we have for the material environment can be radically changed. This is one of the most valuable lessons that can be learned from the bike messenger subculture. 

When bike messengers speed through the city they are (at least momentarily) transforming it. Modern streets are designed almost exclusively for automobile traffic. Bicycles occupy a strange space; they are neither cars nor pedestrians. Bike messengers use this ambiguity to travel in ways never intended by urban planners. They squeeze between other vehicles and daringly propel themselves through red lights. Much of the exhilaration messengers feel in their labor comes from such appropriations of space. To turn streets into race courses, to turn gridlock into a maze of cars to careen through, to see opportunities where others see obstacles is to find a little piece of liberation. The messenger’s creative and spontaneous actions represent (at the micro-level) agency in the world—a power often denied to us by modern institutions. 


Bike messenger in Chicago

Ultimately, I believe there are several lessons we can learn from the bike messenger occupation and subculture. First, alienation and exploitation are not synonymous. Authenticity is the antithesis of alienation. Workers are alienated to the extent their labor feels meaningless and disconnected to their self-identity. It is undeniable that bike messengers, like most workers at the bottom rungs of the economy, are brutally exploited. In others words, they endure huge risks for little rewards while others profit unduly from their labor. Regardless, messengers, unlike most workers at any rung of the economy, are not alienated. The belief that our paid labor will be emotionally and mentally unsatisfying has become so expected (and accepted) that many people are cynical about non-alienated labor. To enjoy one’s work (and to want to work harder) makes someone a company man, a dupe, a victim of false consciousness. Reducing the exploitation of workers is paramount to living in a more just society, but higher wages and safer working conditions do not alleviate alienation. Real labor reform must not only strive for equitable wealth and safety, but also creativity and spontaneity of the workplace. Work—even low paying, physically strenuous, and dangerous work—does not have to feel like a four-letter word.

Second, looking at bike messengering as a form of authentic labor allows us to rethink the post-industrial city and our place within it. Global corporations and government bureaucracies have ever-increasing control of our day-to-day lives. At the abstract level, cities are massive entities organized around the pursuit of profit, and bike messengers (by offering services to the companies and agencies that comprise the global economy) help facilitate this. But, as they perform their job tasks messengers transform work into edgework and streets into playgrounds.  The city, for the messenger, becomes a structure that does not dictate life, but enables new and unique practices. Authenticity for the messenger, therefore, is about more than just their labor. It is also about how they confront the entire world around them. With their urban cycling bike messengers affectively appropriate the city, and, thus, realize their agentic power over the environment. In doing so, they highlight the small scale ways that, even under the crushing force of international capitalism, those at the bottom are not powerless, but can eke out spaces of resistance.

Photography by Keri Wiginton, reproduced courtesy of the Author.


About the Author:

Jeffrey L. Kidder is an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.  His areas of specialization include culture, qualitative methods, theory, and urban sociology. In addition to bike messengers, he has studied emotional performances by politicians, the moral values conservatives associate with taxation, and the emerging youth sport parkour. His new book is titled Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City (Cornell University Press).