Help a first time bike courier
May 30, 2007 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Help me be a bike / bicycle messenger / courier in San Francisco

I need a job, contract and freelance work is drying up, and I love to ride. In traffic, even. I used to ride 500+ miles a week for transport and fun. Getting paid for riding sounds a lot better than flipping burgers for minimum wage. Yes, I know it's a lot of time in the saddle.

I am getting old, though. I'm currently 34, and if I was any older I probably wouldn't be able to do this.

I can, however, still ride like a mofo. Yesterday I broke 23 MPH on fat, underinflated tires on a beat up, broken-rear-hub, soft-front-shock-fork, messed up drive-train soft aluminum mountain bike, without standing or leaving the saddle. I can still climb steep hills. Riding in the wet and cold and rain doesn't bother me - it just cools me off and enables more riding.

I can still ride real hard, and it feels good.

I'm going out to ride at least 25 miles today - and again tomorrow for as long as I can stand, and again the next day - to get my monster legs back. Legs and knees feel great. Old, familiar muscles are responding favorably, like they're hungry for much more.

I'm looking for first hand experience with messing and couriering - particularly in SF - what to watch out for, how to handle pay disputes, what not to do, and what to do. How to develop the mental street map, how to efficiently pull tags, how to maximize cash-money results, bike safety tips, bike hardware tips, etc.

I will be acquiring a better "work" bike shortly, one more suitable for urban courier riding - probably a custom hard MTB frame w/ 700c skinnies, chopped straight bars and lots of gears. (You can have your fixies, yo. I like to coast, and I like gears.)

To start, I'll probably end up riding for Speedway.

Help me hit the ground rolling!
posted by loquacious to Work & Money (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A Coder in Courierland is not SF-specific, but it's one guy's very detailed first-hand account of switching from programming to bike-messengering.

Messenger space, messenger body, messenger mesh is Mefite Adam Greenfield's lengthy, philosophical blog entry about his time as a messenger in SF. He says he wasn't very good at it, but he'd be worth talking to about mental maps. =)

SFFixed is other Mefite Atom128's forum for San Francisco fixed-gear cyclists. It's not messenger-specific, but I'm sure it contains loads of relevant information and people, and might be a great place to ask this same question.

I'm not a messenger, but sometimes I take the Caltrans bike shuttle across the Bay, and there are a bunch of messengers who do the same. Just from overhearing conversations among them, my impression is that the industry is on a serious downward slide right now, as the internet makes a lot of physical deliveries unnecessary. I think it's basically just lawyers and architects still moving atoms around, but even they are slowly transitioning to bits.
posted by migurski at 12:45 PM on May 30, 2007

Best answer: Dunno about much about SF, but I can't imagine it's that different than NYC. Here's my first-timer advice:

The most important thing is having a bike that you enjoy riding. There's no reason you can't ride a geared freewheel bike, but remember, there is a reason many messengers ride fixed: maintainance and repairs are much cheaper on a fixed gear, and they also handle much better in adverse conditions, which you will be expected to ride in. Whatever bike you ride, ensure that it is one you love, or else the job simply won't be worth the hassle.

Be nice to your dispatcher, and learn to hustle. Keep him updated on your position so that he's always thinking of you when new jobs come in.

Being a strong rider is much less important than you seem to believe. Going fast all the time is fun, but if you're busting your ass for any reason other than shits and giggles, you're wasting your effort. The majority of your workday will be spent in lobbies and elevators, with short, 10-15 minute max spurts of riding in between.

Thus, being smart and careful with your route planning is much more important to making money. Your dispatcher will usually try to send you runs that make linear sense, but that won't always be possible. Take the time to write down your jobs on your manifest when they come in, and number each location -- pick-up and drop-off -- in the order which they will be performed. I.e., pick-up job 1, then pick-up job 2, then drop-off job 1, then pick-up job 3, then drop-off job 3, then drop-off job 2.

As far as bike safety goes, learn patience and calm. There will be plenty of opportunities to get angry in this job. It will behoove you to avoid them. Incompetent receptionists, asshole cell-phone talking red-light-running honking motorists, oblivious pedestrians, learn to graciously wish them well, or else they will distract you from the task at hand, that is, staying alive. Ride outside of the range of opening car doors, ride slowly and carefully through stopped traffic, and the faster you ride, the further from the curb you should be.

Good luck. You might try searching's archives for advice on companies to work for.
posted by boots at 12:47 PM on May 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: boots gives good advice. I did the job for several years, although not in SF.

I'd add:

When starting, be willing to take sucky runs no one else wants. (This includes low-paying but consistent milk runs, like dropping off 50 press packets around town. At the very least you'll learn efficient route planning.) They may be given to you anyway, but you can also end up getting a rep as a go to rider and that will only help you later.

Look at the people who've done the job a long time. They predominantly ride smart and steady, making up for wasted speed with smart routes and relentless forward motion.

Wet sucks. You don't think so now, but it does. Good socks can go a long way toward making life more livable.

How well do you know SF? Spend some time with a map of downtown, just kind of poring over it. Everyone likes different routes to and through stuff, so you'll find your own, anyway, but it's good to have a general sense of where things are when you start.

Good advice for any job is to under-promise and over-deliver. Let the dispatcher worry about your place in the grand scheme of things--in other words, don't lie and say you're someplace you aren't to try to get a pickup, it'll go pear-shaped fast.
posted by OmieWise at 1:09 PM on May 30, 2007

Oh, and by all means get yourself a comfortable saddle.
posted by OmieWise at 1:10 PM on May 30, 2007

I know it's off-topic, but I'm interested to find out if any bike messengers use GPS navigation for their runs. I would think after a couple of weeks/months, a good messenger would know the area like the back of their hand, but until then (or after, even), do any of them use a small unit for navigation?
posted by Jim T at 3:06 PM on May 30, 2007

I'm sure you know this just from riding around town, but as the ex-girlfriend of an ex-SF messenger, I'd say: Get one of the bike maps that includes topography if you're going to pore over any maps. I used to get calls from my ex -- who had been a kick-ass courier in Boston -- as he waited until his legs stopped trembling so that he could finish the "shortcut" that looked good on a map but took him over Buena Vista or halfway up Twin Peaks and therefore was taking three times as long as going the long way.

Also, I know a lot of people told him "Oh, don't worry about the hills, you'll only be in the Financial District," and he ended having to go all over the city.
posted by occhiblu at 3:26 PM on May 30, 2007

Are you tattooed over every square inch of your body? 'Cuz in SF at least, that seems to be a requirement for bike messengers!
posted by mahamandarava at 3:32 PM on May 30, 2007

Response by poster: Back from riding. 20+ miles, a bunch of it between Castro and Embarcadero along Market and side streets. No problems. Traffic just gets me happily agro, though sucking exhaust whilst already scraping ones lungs for more oxygen is gnar. People here are actually courteous to cyclists compared to Los Angeles. I'm used to engaging in life-or-death battles of bluffing, speed and wit. Oh, and the (very) occasional display of superior airpower.

Man, it's actually kind of hard to line up more than 10 miles of road at once in this city. Ended up running out of road.

No, not tattooed at all, nor do I plan to be. I'm plenty freaky and intense without adornments. Please, do watch out for the quiet ones. ;)

I have been obsessively poring over the bike and street maps. I'm trying to memorize the crazy "split" grid that's on either side of Market. THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY. This is just going to be one of those things that's going to suck until I just go and do it and build my own mental map.

I use an older mapping GPS for riding/training and as a speedo. When I start couriering I might use it for logging miles, but in the skyscraper-canyons of SF's financial district it's mostly useless as a bicycle navigation aid. There just isn't time to be futzing with it on the road and in traffic. It's one more thing I have to unstrap from my bike to prevent theft. And it will probably be a great way to become roadkill.

However, I will probably have a small map taped to my bars for at least a month.

So, yeah. Boots offers good advice - patience and smart riding.

I do have a habit of wanting to go as fast and as hard as my legs my chainrings and cranks can stand - which just isn't smart riding at all. It's aggressive and dangerous for pure urban riding. It stresses my bike and my body. My legs and knees soak it right up, but I have a bad habit of breaking chains, folding chain rings and bending chainstays and rear skewers.

(My rear gear cassette, hub and bearing-cups are actually shattered in three places at the moment from said grinding. The only thing holding them all together is the skewer. From many years of carrying my fat ass around on bike, skateboard and feet, my legs are still freakishly overinflated monsters. They actually scare me sometimes.)

And patience is going to be key for riding in this city. Traffic, confused tourists, confused urban outdoorsman, distracted businessfolk, bad drivers, etc. Need to figure out how to foster that in myself and be less agro and figure out the flow of the area.
posted by loquacious at 4:46 PM on May 30, 2007

get yourself a fixie, goatee, dreadies, piercings & tatts.

probably wouldn't hurt to blow out the hardcore courier contingent wherever they hang out.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:09 PM on May 30, 2007

get yourself a fixie, goatee, dreadies, piercings & tatts.

Or don't. Because it's a job and not a clique. Like boots said, a lot of your time will be dealing with people at front desks, security people, file clerks, etc. The only power they have over you is wasting your time by making you jump through hoops to get or drop off a package. Looking clean and acting nice will save you time in the long run. It won't buy you much street cred from the other messengers, but they're generally a tight bunch and will call you a rookie and not be your friend until you have been at it for a year or two.

Something that hasn't come up yet is your communications needs. Call the places you are thinking of working and ask what their dispatcher uses. I don't know about SF, but in DC most everyone uses Nextel walkie-talkie for everything. This means buying your own phone and service or leasing it through your boss. Most of the DC messengers I know use one of the ruggedized Motorola phones with a full-coverage warranty. The ones I know break or lose two phones per year, and those Motorolas aren't cheap.

Make sure to include bike shops in your mental maps. Ask to see if they have a messenger discount (some in DC do).
posted by peeedro at 8:02 PM on May 30, 2007

Response by poster: get yourself a fixie, goatee, dreadies, piercings & tatts.

Yeah, fuck fixies. Hate 'em. Would rather ride down an entire mountain of babyheads with my seat post up my ass.

probably wouldn't hurt to blow out the hardcore courier contingent wherever they hang out.

Give me a few thousand miles on a decent bike, and maybe next year. I'm with peeedro. I just want a job - not a lifestyle. A job that's not going to coop me up inside all day, have me digging ditches or swinging a hammer. I'm not really concerned with impressing or fitting in with the hardcore messengers outside of doing my job and playing good politics.

But give me enough time to get my lungs and legs back and I'll hold my own, no fear. Fast and fearless and getting ever more so. (Just went for another ride, even.)
posted by loquacious at 8:19 PM on May 30, 2007

The single most important aspect to making a living as a bike messenger is your relationship with the dispatcher. The dispatcher has direct control over your livelihood. Whatever you think of them personally, love your dispatcher. Do what they ask uncomplainingly. Don't hassle them for more work, instead be the guy that's willing to do that last job on a Friday evening that nobody else wants. The further you climb up the dispatcher's behind, the more jobs you do without question, the more you complete your paperwork reliably, the more and more lucrative jobs you will be given. Remember that money is made from multiple packages going the same route, not pure speed, and waiting time on the clock can be very lucrative. Don't even think of developing an entitlement complex and understand that the dispatcher can be the difference between affording a night out at the weekend or starving. Be silently efficient, don't expect to make a fortune the first few weeks, and you'll do fine.
posted by normy at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2007

You should always have a cross-street directory, a map, dry socks, a
Clif bar, a pump, levers and a few different inner tubes in your bag.
A Park tool is nice, too. You never know when you're going to run
across someone else with a flat.

Grab all of the court tags you can. Get to know to the clerks. Make
friends with the legal couriers and the receptionists at law firms.
Unless you go independent, the best way to make money as a messenger
is by becoming a legal courier. I got grandfathered in, so I don't
know how one becomes a process server in CA nowadays, but seriously -
do it.

Don't hang out at 1 Post; hang out at the Wall, or Jackson Park, or
don't hang out at all. The stigma of hanging out at 1 Post will extend
your rookie period by six months or more. For that matter, don't hang
out on the far-right side of the Wall. A good book is far better
company than a bunch of junkies and fuckups. Speaking of books - join
the Mechanics Institute yesterday. It's nerd nirvana, and it's right
around the corner from the Wall.

Spend a few nights cruising around downtown when there's no traffic to
learn the best streets to take. SF isn't that hilly if you know the

Get in good with the dispatchers. Dispatchers, especially at
entry-level companies, are cranky as hell because 90% of the
messengers they work with are barely-functional jackasses who make
their lives hell. Don't make jokes. Write everything down so that you
never, ever, ever have to call in with a question. Take the shitty
tags that no one else wants.

Stick with it. The first six months are the hardest. There's a reason
rookies are held in such universal contempt. Most people who start out
quit within three months, because they thought that being a messenger
would be cool and it would be all keggers and blow jobs. Those people
fade away after the first rainy day or achy knee, and a new crop comes
in to take their place. The paradox of being a messenger is that no
one, no matter how worthy, gets a break when they're a rookie. Once
they've paid their dues, most folks are accepted as part of the
community, no matter how eccentric they are.

Don't ever, ever, ride by an accident or a dispute between a messenger
and a motorist. Most motorists will drive away when a witness shows
up. Messenger companies hire and fire people all the time. If you have
to choose between delivering a package on time and hanging out with
someone until the ambulance comes, choose the latter.

As for bikes: I'm not sure what you're riding now. Don't get a
fixed-gear as your primary bicycle, whatever you do. I've always been
happiest with a modded mountain bike. Cut those straight bars as short
as you comfortably can - you'll be much safer that way. Ditch the
knobby tyres; they collect glass and slow you down. Continental Top
Touring 2000 tyres plus toughies have carred me over 50,000 miles
without a single puncture.

And finally, make friends with the girls. We usually have our shit
together better and are tougher and smarter than the boys.

Good luck to you.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 6:45 PM on June 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

And finally, make friends with the girls. We usually have our shit together better and are tougher and smarter than the boys.

Truer words were never spoken.
posted by adamgreenfield at 1:46 AM on June 6, 2007

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