Op-Ed: Why Bike Messengers Don’t Like Bike Lanes

August 25, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Kurt Boone has been a bicycle messenger for more than 15 years. He is the author of “Asphalt Warrior,” a memoir about his life as a messenger in New York City. You can see his work at www.kurtboonebooks.com

The messenger industry in New York City is a serious — if not dead serious — multi-million dollar business. Running in and out of bumper-to-bumper city traffic or hopping on and off subway lines to crisscross the city during rush hour requires some skills when you’re on a bicycle.

Kurt Boone has been working as bicycle messenger in New York City for over 15 years. He is also the author of “Asphalt Warrior,” a memoir about his life, and a producer for “The Messenger Poet Show." Photo Courtesy of John Sarsgard

I’ve been writing about messenger life for the past 10 years. Through this work, I have interviewed a number of bicycle messengers about their thoughts on the city’s new bike lanes.

Bicycle messengers have always been scrutinized for how they ride in traffic. The police keep a keen eye on messengers and give them tickets for violating the law. One of my fellow messengers quit being a bicycle messenger because he had too many tickets.  Now I see him on the streets doing messenger work on foot.

In the last five years, the city has designated a lot of streets for bicycle lanes. These new bicycle lanes have created quite a controversy, usually between bicycling advocates who support the lanes and motorists who stand in opposition.

But all us bicyclists don’t stand together. Most of us bicycle messenger don’t like the new lanes at all. We prefer to ride with the flow of traffic.

The city hasn’t created new bike lanes on the streets that messengers actually use during the course of their work day, like Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue or any of the crosstown streets from Harlem to the Battery.

At a recent book reading I did, Jose Morales, a messenger and bicycle riding advocate who coordinates the Five Boro Bike Tour and the NYC Century Bike Tour, explained that bicycle lanes are really just like additional sidewalks because so many pedestrians walk or stand in the middle of the lanes. Unfortunately, this pattern of pedestrian traffic is hazardous for a messenger because our work requires speed and agility. We are paid to pick-up and deliver packages on time, with or without bike lanes. Messengers can’t make excuses so Jose says he prefers to ride his bicycle with the flow of traffic.


A cyclist pedals on the bike path adjacent to Brooklyn's Prospect Park West. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he wants to more than triple the number of bike lane miles by 2030, but some bike messengers are opposed to the proposal. AP/Kathy Willens

Even if a messenger does choose to ride in a designated bike lane, that doesn’t prevent a car from swerving into your path and hitting you. Fernando Rivera, a partner for Cyclehawk Messengers, says that even if bike messengers ride safely and follow the law by wearing a helmet, carrying a light and using a bell, their work is the most dangerous job in the city.

I do understand why some people have a bad impression of bike messengers. Some of them break traffic laws and disregard safety measures. That type of bike messenger is very real and I work with them everyday. A big component of that lifestyle are the unsanctioned, messenger bike races called “alley cats.” These races promote a dangerous style of riding. “Alley cat” racers don’t use bike lanes and don’t care about them.

However, the professional bicycle messenger is a skilled job. People who perform this work really know what they’re doing. But bike lanes aren’t making our jobs any easier.

On the clock, I have to say it’s not always a fun ride through Times Square or Central Park, but I hope our work will inspire others to ride their bicycle in the city. As it says in “Bike NYC: The Cyclist’s Guide To New York City,” written by former bike messengers Ed Glazar and Michael Green, “the only way to see this city is by bicycle!”

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