Dave Schlabowske
Bike Czar

How Bike Messengers Break the Laws

Everyone, including police, tolerate it because law firms and other customers need their documents delivered as quickly as possible.

By , Bike Federation of Wisconsin - May 10th, 2013 10:08 am
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Depending on your perspective, either the Milwaukee Messenger Invitational XII released a scourge of law-breaking locusts on two wheels across the streets of Milwaukee, or the race involving bike messengers highlighted a little-understood subculture of freight-hauling professionals who prove 52 weeks a year that the bicycle is the fastest and most efficient means of transport on the streets of major cities.

A scourge of scofflaws or package delivering professionals?

A scourge of scofflaws or package delivering professionals?

My perspective? I tend to admire the messengers. How can a guy who prides himself on obeying all traffic laws all the time, on a bike and in a car turn a blind eye to messengers who get paid to run red lights and even ride the wrong way down one-way streets? For me the key is that mainstream society pays them to break laws in order to deliver packages faster.

When you want a package delivered fast and cheap, but absolutely need it to get there, you call a bike messenger.

When you want a package delivered fast and cheap, but absolutely need it to get there, you call a bike messenger.

In cities across the world, even though everyone knows bike messengers break laws on deliveries, law firms still hire them. And for the most part, police ignore them, just as they do all the cars that fail to stop for (or even honk at) pedestrians in a crosswalk downtown. Once again I will use the hockey analogy. People pay to go to hockey games, in large part, because they get to watch athletes exhibit incredible skills while skating through a barely-controlled brawl. Hockey players slam each other into the glass, elbow each other, skate full bore into each other, without fear of penalty. Once in a while they cross some violent line in the rule books, and a forced to sit in the penalty box for a minute or two, until they are released back into the melee.

In an alleycat, each racer gets a “manifest” that has a series of complicated pick-ups, deliveries and check-ins at random locations across the city.

In an alleycat, each racer gets a “manifest” that has a series of complicated pick-ups, deliveries and check-ins at random locations across the city.

You can call that entertainment or a sport, but either way it we are paying to watch people try to skate past the rules. As a society, we do the same thing with bike messengers. If we truly did not want them to run red lights, there is an easy way we could stop them: just stop hiring them. I think that as a society we are okay with their level of law breaking for a couple reasons. First, because most everyone who hires a bike messenger or signs for a delivery, knows that they, too, broke a series of traffic laws driving to work that day and will break them again on the way home.

leycat aficionados find the same elegance and grace in riding a fixed gear bicycle with no brakes through traffic that hockey fans see in a well placed snapshot or legal check into the boards.

leycat aficionados find the same elegance and grace in riding a fixed gear bicycle with no brakes through traffic that hockey fans see in a well placed snapshot or legal check into the boards.

The lawyer who desperately needs her document signed and returned before a meeting is willing to look the other way while the courier races across city to get it done for $12 because she knows she is going to drive 8-10 mph over the speed limit to get home in time to take her daughter to soccer practice. It is sort of like we are all in a hockey game. We have rules, but you would never know what they are just by watching the game. Why is it okay for a courier to ride the wrong way down a one-way street past a police car just to deliver a document? The same reason it is okay for the clerk who signs for the package to rush across the street when the walk signal clearly says “Don’t Walk” to meet a friend for lunch at the hot dog stand on the corner.

Want your sandwich from Potbelly’s delivered to your desk while it is still hot? You call this crew.

Want your sandwich from Potbelly’s delivered to your desk while it is still hot? You call this crew.

There is a certain element of hypocrisy we tend to tolerate in our society if we find it entertaining or it gets us something we want, like watching hockey or getting to a meeting on time. I think we usually draw the line when we personally are at risk in some way, but we are generally okay with others putting themselves at risk or even when we put others at risk. We all know speeding kills and we should pay full attention to driving, but we also know we can drive 5-10 mph over the posted limit while texting without getting a ticket or killing ourselves. In the same spirit, we hire, and admire, bike couriers for their urban outlaw professionalism. They are risking their safety to get us what we want fast.

Think of them as similar to the Stanley Cup, but for couriers.

Think of them as similar to the Stanley Cup, but for couriers.

I ignore the laws bike messengers break because they provide daily inspiration for just how fast and efficient a mode of transport the bicycle can be. I admire bike messengers because they have managed to blend punk rock and professionalism. I call a number of bike messengers friends because they are genuinely nice people with whom I have a lot in common.

That’s my take. What do you think about bike messengers and alleycat races?

This story was originally published by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

Categories: Bike Czar

3 thoughts on “Bike Czar: How Bike Messengers Break the Laws”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    First of all – IDAHO STOP. Lets get that meme going!

    Second, I’m amazed at how bent out of shape people get because a few cyclists run some stop signs. Cyclists should be courteous, not screw people over, not freak people out. That’s where it ends. Nipping a few laws when it’s perfectly safe and reasonable to do so is not a big deal.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Tyrell I’m with you on the Idaho Stop it is long overdue.

  3. John Brooks says:

    I’m not that big on following the letter of the law simply because it is the law. However, bike messengers are most known for ignoring safety (their own and others), putting people at risk, and relying on the quick reflexes of others to prevent accidents.

    The article compares a bike messenger going the wrong way down a one-way and a person walking against the don’t walk sign. Both are illegal. Both happen. If the clerk made sure there was no traffic before crossing, then who cares what the sign said. Likewise, if the bike made sure there was no one coming the “right way” who would be inconvenienced by the wrong-way travel, then who cares… However, in either case, if they are doing this without regard to safety and assuming others will compensate to avoid accidents, then they both deserve all the law can throw at them.

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