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

| August 25, 2011 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!”

  • Bucky Turco

    This op/ed is so puzzling it teeters on the edge of incoherence.

  • Brian Davies

    I totally agree with this sentiment. Bike lanes don’t stop people from talking on their cell phones, texting, or otherwise being dangerous in their cars. As for Austin, the bike lanes tend to end at the worst time, dumping inexperienced riders into the scariest traffic possible. In a lot areas, the lanes turn into “sharrows” (read: you’re just riding in traffic) in the middle of big climbs, and other such places that are bad places to enter traffic. The only bike lanes I’ve seen that make any sense, in terms of safety, are the ones that are separated from traffic with some type of median. These seem like they’d be excessively expensive and probably wouldn’t see funding.
    As a bicycle messenger, I don’t use bike lanes. They make it much harder to turn when needed (especially left turns), and give car drivers more of a sense of entitlement.

  • Joseph I. Weiss

    I have no empathy for bike messengers at all. More than once I have almost been struck by one of them, they fail to stop at lights, and stop signs. Their bikes bikes are not in good repair and they dont wear safety items that would prevent injury. They intefere with bus traffic either by riding in bus lanes or cutting buses off. They are not a regulated industry which allows them to get away with violating traffic laws. The time has come for Bike Messenger services to be regulated by the City.

    • Alex Merz

      “they fail to stop at lights, and stop signs.”

      Some do, some don’t. They have that in common with auto drivers, who kill a lot more pedestrians and cyclists than cyclists ever will or could. Your logic (or what passes for logic, these days) would dictate that we should ban automobiles and trucks.

      “Their bikes bikes are not in good repair.”

      You apparently cannot distinguish between a bicycle that looks nice and a bicycle that is mechanically sound. I worked as a messenger many years ago (I’m now a research biochemist and tenured medical school professor; go figure), and I can guarantee you that the vast majority of messengers keep their bikes very well maintained indeed. Messengers value efficiency, and poorly-maintained bikes aren’t efficient.

      Also: “A messenger rode close to/surprised me” is not equivalent to “almost hit me.”

  • JeffS

    Poor thing. You didn’t get hit by a messenger.

    Wait, what was your point again? Oh yea… you don’t like them, and the city should regulate anything you don’t like. Got it.

    As if you cared about preventing their injury…

  • Matthew T.

    I can understand the views from both sides, you have riders that are reckless and unsafe when they are riding down the roads and increase the chances of an accident. However, There are a great deal of drivers out there that believe that bicycles shouldn’t be considered vehicles, but toys of a sort. In my opinion, the only way that would truly solve this problem would be to change the curriculum for drivers, to teach that bikes are also vehicles and should be treated with the same care as motorcyclists. At the same time, all riders need training of the same sort so to promote a safer riding environment.

  • beck

    Specious complaints and a picture of a protected bikelane, clear of obstacles and hazards.

    traffic jamming messengers represent a miniscule fraction of bicyclists and POTENTIAL bicyclists in New York City. Normalize bicycling for transport in New York City for the majority.

    bicycle facilities and road diets are being proven to make New York City streets safer for ALL ROAD USERS. Safer motorists, safer pedestrians along with more and safer bicyclists.

    a win-win all around. Grouses of the traffic weary battle scarred messengers unafraid to mix it up with high speed and heavy traffic? Terribly paltry when measured up to what the bicycle has done and can do again in New York City.

  • beck

    the new bicycle infrastructure is being used to great effect by the bicycle DELIVERY riders in New York City.

    A service and style of riding many new yorkers actually benefit from

  • Jacob

    Ok, so bike messengers don’t like or use bike lanes, but the article implies that they are upset that the city hasn’t created bike lanes on the streets that messengers actually use. I’m not sure what the point is here.

  • 4everrper15

    I’m considering a job as a bike messenger. Only thing troubling me is the pressure of delivering in time. Are there penalties your dispatcher can place on the messenger if they’re late on arriving to the destination? Even if it was as tardy as only five minutes or less?

  • 4everrper15

    Just a thought here. If the mayor or president really wants to help reinforce safety for the pedestrians and the messengers, why not force the companies to widen the time limit in which the packages are delivered? Messengers won’t need a reason to rush as much. 

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