N.Y.C. Road Warriors Deliver Goods With Pedal Power

Bike messengers continue a 19th-century tradition despite fax machines and e-mail

Miguel Ramos, an elementary school dropout from the Bronx, is the latest incarnation of a struggling, century-old New York tradition.

To support his wife and four kids, he rides a bike at least 10 hours and more than 100 miles a day, in hail, sleet, rain, and snow, delivering packages across 10 square miles in southern Manhattan the 19th century way.

Despite the occasional broken bone and bouts of illness, he has no health insurance, no paid sick days, vacations, or holidays. A pension and a 401k are things he's only heard about.

But then comes Friday.

"When the checks come in - $550, $600, $700 a week - it's nice," says the well-spoken Mr. Ramos. " I don't have ... a higher education. So this is the way I have to feed my family."

Ramos is a survivor in a dwindling industry once considered a chic and profitable, albeit dangerous career choice for New Yorkers who don't aspire to the suit-and-tie scene.

For years, bike messengers were a frequent sight: dressed in armor-like protective suits; darting between traffic and latching onto the bumpers of passing buses and cabs, ignoring traffic rules and running red lights.

But in the 1980s, the advent of the fax machine cut deeply into the business of bike couriers, who earn a 50-percent commission for each letter or package. At the time, many thought New York City's notorious road warriors were going the way of the pony express. Not that many pedestrians minded.

Yet, 10 years later, stories of their demise appear to have been exaggerated. While their numbers have dropped, a hard-core group of messengers is still thriving.

"There's no doubt the industry is smaller because of the fax machine and extreme competition with the overnight delivery companies," says John Kaeny, director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bike messengers.

In the 1980s, an estimated 7,000 messengers prowled city streets. Today, the estimate is around 2,000. The cargo has also changed. As in other cities, like Houston and San Francisco, where the Cycle Messenger World Championships were held in August, New York's messengers now work harder.

"The stuff the guys have to carry is bigger," says Jonathan Golden of Express It.

Instead of magazine-sized envelopes, messengers now deal mostly with bulky packages that can't squeeze through telephone lines.

As Ramos, who rides for South Bank Messenger Service, puts it: "You can't do video through faxes. You can't do a model's portfolio through faxes."

And so, at 7:30 a.m. on a chilly morning last week, Ramos was already loaded down with 14 packages in bags slung over his shoulders and dangling from each handlebar. Only his face and long beard, scrunched into a rubber band, emerged from his snow suit.

Ramos says the decline in his business has created stiff competition among the leaner ranks, which has led to some carelessly aggressive biking. "Every year one or two of us get killed," he says.

Ever since a messenger got "pinched" while hanging onto the side mirror of a Coke truck last year, Ramos has quit the dangerous technique of latching onto a passing vehicle.

Like all messengers, he's had close calls, and recites his battle scars. "I [have] had a broken pinkie ... a fractured knee and a busted lip. One accident I didn't get hurt, but the person I hit got hurt," he says.

Attempts to create a union, as a group of Chicago messengers did in 1993, repeatedly fail, as did an effort this past summer to join the Teamster's. So, Ramos says, it's every biker for himself. It's up to each to decide how far to push themselves.

For Ramos, that means no wimping out in foul weather. "Last year, I rode through every snow storm."

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