Jun 29th 2006 | PORTLAND, OREGON
From The Economist print edition
GRAPHEON, a graphic design firm in Portland, is kind enough to keep a bowl of sweets in its reception area, not for peckish clients but for the ravenous bicycle messengers who dash to the front desk bearing deliveries. These days, however, the bowl is dusty and the Tootsie Rolls stale. Most of Grapheon's clients prefer to e-mail their artwork.
Look around: bike messengers, the freewheeling mavericks whose tattooed calves and daredevil stunts once defined urban cool, are slowly vanishing from America's streets. In New York, the hub of the messenger world, the number has skidded from 2,500 during the dotcom frenzy in the 1990s to an estimated 1,100 today, according to Joel Metz, who runs www.messengers.org, the website of the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations.
The reason is straightforward. High-speed internet, PDF files, digital photography and digital audio have been eroding bike-messenger revenues by between 5-10% a year since 2000, or so reckons Lorenz Götte, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich (and a former bike messenger himself). The revenue slump has sent wages tumbling. In 2000, messengers in San Francisco could make $20 an hour. Now the average is closer to $11.
Bike messengers have survived dire prophecies before. In the 1980s, doomsayers had predicted that the fax machine would push the profession into oblivion. Faxes did indeed carve a big chunk out of the business, but messengers hung on, thanks both to the poor quality of faxes and to new technology, such as pagers, which allowed prompter dispatch.
Keeping up with the download-and-print world will be trickier. One strategy is specialisation. The legal system still relies on original documents, so some messengers cater to lawyers by offering benefits such as serving subpoenas and filing papers in court. “They are almost paralegals on bikes,” says Mr Götte. Others focus on deliveries that cannot be made electronically—architects' blueprints, for example, or take-out meals.
Paradoxically, although their long-term prospects look wobbly, the messenger subculture has never been stronger. Their grimy allure is celebrated in books, films, festivals, and even trading cards. Last year's Cycle Messenger World Championship, held in New York, drew 700 competitors from 30 countries. Perhaps this signals a resurgence. More probably, it reflects the urge to honour a tradition that is beginning to slip away.