Since I’ve been riding and writing more in Boston, I couldn’t help but notice the couriers in the background. You may have seen them with intense cargo bikes that practically have truck beds in the front, or maybe just a brown paper bag or two in their basket. Either way, they’re there—an integral part of a growing bike-culture in Boston. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about them, it’s that they have a lot of stories.
Adam Brewster, co-owner of Right Coast Couriers out of Jamaica Plain, came of age as a messenger. He recognized the shift from a booming business to a more competitive one. “In the 90s, it was a very lucrative business—you could ‘move up’ to a better and higher paying courier company, or you could start your own business. But since the economic crash courier business has dramatically decreased.”
It seems like most bike messengers that’ve been in the business for awhile think of the 1990s and early 2000s as “the glory days.” Cathy Burns, freelance audio engineer and femcee, looks back fondly on her courier days in the late 90s—affectionately referring to Fly Over the City as the “best company in town.”
Couriers form a network for themselves naturally—as the brutal, physical work creates a need for someone to empathize with. “The strongest benefit is the sense of community between couriers… there’s always that solid bond of shared experience.
If you wipe out or have a flat, anyone close by on two wheels with a two-way radio has got your back.”
When Burns wasn’t delivering for Fly, she party-hopped with “a pack of weirdos on bikes… I provided the soundtrack. Blazing mixes pumpin’ out of my boom-box strapped to the handlebars of my Schwinn Predator.” Burns calls herself “mildly anti-social”, and the courier network opened her up.
“On top of the obvious physical dangers of the job… you have people yelling at you from cars, screaming how they want to kill you,” she explains. “I learned early… not to let other people’s road rage effect me. If you internalize that hostility it will make you an angrier person for sure. Easier said than done.” Like many couriers, Burns relied on that “sense of community” for comfort.
Colin Ryan, messenger at Fly Over the City wouldn’t be alone in thinking,
“What to do, what to do, what to do? Well there’re a couple of guys drinking beer down the end of that dodgy alley. And they’ve got bikes too. Perhaps they’re onto something?”
Over the years, the partying messengers became a “scene.” Couriers became unattractive to professional businesses. “The only people who want to talk about their experiences as messengers hype up the ‘action’ of it,” says Brewster. “They want to talk about accidents they’ve been in, car chases, not following traffic rules… and these self-proclaimed belligerent ‘badasses’ make a shitty reputation for couriers.”
The dynamic for couriers has radically changed in the past 10 or so years. The more dedicated, professional couriers are competing with those who think of courier culture as a sort of rugged, outlaw fad—with an appeal of action meant only for punks and partiers. According to Brewster, this is why naive, young college kids seek out this type of work—and they only last a few years.
Right Coast Couriers out of Jamaica Plain stands out from other messenger companies because they’re trying to change the dynamic—shifting the courier business into a professional courtesy. Right Coast knows the value of a good reputation, and not being a jerk on the road. If they see that a courier is a danger to others, they will call them out. “You can’t just do whatever you want,” says Brewster. “The business is now under a microscope.”
The glory days are somewhat over for couriers, at least for now. When the economy tanked, small courier businesses fell and now Boston only has a handful up and running. Most of these are bigger companies that tend to exploit the naivety of young, enthusiastic cyclists—putting many experienced couriers out of work. Colin Ryan wasn’t quite exaggerating when he said, “the single biggest risk of being a bike courier is homelessness.” Which is why Brian Moynihan, Richie Johansen and Adam Brewster took matters into their own hands when they started Right Coast Couriers in January of 2012.
“Every parcel we deliver, regardless of its size or weight, is oversized and fragile,” said Moynihan, operator and co-owner of Right Coast. After working in San Francisco as a chef and courier for TCB (Taking Care of Business) Couriers, Moynihan decided he gained the skillset to come back to Boston and try his hand. Given the current state of the business, he wants to be a conscious part of a shift in the attitude towards messengers.
“I can see the big picture of the community, and it can be negative,” Moynihan admits. “We’ve enabled this stigma against messengers to snowball from one reckless courier to another. They forget that there is a certain etiquette of how to treat people.” It doesn’t help, though, that most messengers for big companies “treat their employees like pack mules… it’s not very motivating,” said Moynihan.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Moynihan. “The industry needs to evolve in order for it to survive.”
Right Coast Couriers is doing exactly what they promise—speedy delivery, awesome customer service, and happy employees. “They’ve been delivering for me for free to get known,” said Brad Brown, owner of Blue Frog Bakery in Jamaica Plain. “The guys at Right Coast are always considerate. They’re great people, with great service.”
“Our model isn’t a corporate structure set up with the sole aim of making money,” explains Moynihan. As they expand gradually, they’re doing it thoughtfully as to “create an increased livelihood for messengers,” instead of burning them out.