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Toronto’s Radio Flyers: Meet some of Toronto’s female road warriors: Bike messengers

March 6th, 2011     by Kate-Christine Miller     Comments

Cycling took stage in Toronto’s mayoral election last year. Some candidates and citizens question why people choose to cycle. To others, the reasons are obvious: low cost, it’s a good source of exercise, it’s fun and it’s environmentally sustainable. Thinking beyond commuters and athletes to those cyclists who keep our courthouses, banks, and government offices running smoothly, I chose to learn more about the work of bike messengers.

I see bike messengers on the street and in my office building every Monday to Friday, but it’s hard for those of us on the other side of the desk to imagine what it’s like to ride a bike for eight-plus hours a day, so I asked Toronto messengers Meli Martinez and Sammie Gary to fill me in.

What surprised me most about what they had to say was how little the physicality of the work seemed to bother them. Martinez said that for the first few weeks of work she was tired, then she simply got used to it. Neither mentioned getting injured as drawbacks of the work, and even the weather didn’t seem to be a major complaint. In fact, Gary notes one annoyance is the constant comment strangers make about the weather, “Wet enough for you?”

Working conditions for bike messengers in Toronto and everywhere aren’t great and have been declining over the past 10 years including a reduction in rates. Coop Couriers Toronto, a courier company that believes in ethical working conditions, notes on their website that couriers must give up their rights to workers compensation and pay unfair fees for radios and pay advances.

While you may not get compensated financially for this work, there is an immeasurable dimension of the work that is appealing to any independent girl. You get to learn the best routes for getting around the city, you have no boss looking over your shoulder, you become comfortable fixing your bike, and when you’re not riding, you can find a nice spot to sit and read.

“Everyday is an adventure. It’s kind of childish, but I think of my job as a quest where all the road vehicles are monsters that I have to dodge as I acquire these important packages that I have to get from one place to the next as fast as possible,” says Gary.

When you are riding all over city, zipping in and out of dozens of buildings, people are going to talk to you, if only because of the sheer number of people you come across in a day. Some people like this aspect of the job; One courier commented that she didn’t mind how often she got hit on because she found it was a way that people start to tell their stories. Many couriers talk about being in the city as observers, of studying human interaction and the mood and behaviour of whole city centres. “I feel sometimes like I’m conducting a case study on everyone in the core.” says Gary. However, when you are a part of this city landscape other people (particularly drivers) feel the need to make observations and judgments about you.

Gary gives a particular example of how women bike couriers might be a bit more vulnerable to this. “I attached these wings on my helmet like the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes, and a lot of people say to me ‘I didn’t know there was a female equivalent to Hermes.’ That tends to get to me.”

Martinez tells me about getting her job. She went around to various courier companies in Toronto until one agreed to take her on. However, when she showed up for the first day of work, the man who was to give her a radio looked her up and down and told her that they didn’t have one. Martinez could tell something was up and told him outright that she could ride her bike, was ready to do it, and that he was not giving her a chance because she was a girl.

Martinez admits she might not have had the “courier look”, which she describes as “skin that is literally dirty from riding behind cars and sweating all day and practical cycling clothes that are very worn-in” but the small soft-spoken science grad knew she could ride and hoped she had not missed her chance. The following week the company called her back and said they’d heard what happened. The employee assured her that they weren’t a sexist company, that one of their best riders was a girl, and they wanted her to come work for them.

While neither Martinez or Gary thought that they experienced much sexism from fellow bike messengers, they noted how other women messengers tend to help each other out, and commiserate about lousy working conditions, putting in eight hours on a bike with menstrual cramps or particularly slimy clients. “I was lucky because I met a girl who had been a bike courier for a few years and she gave me a bunch of tips on how to be more effective,” says Martinez

While there may be a “courier look” , there definitely isn’t one reason that messengers do what they do or one set of qualities that makes someone better suited to this job than others, although patience seems to be an asset. Says Martinez, “Maybe you have to be tough to do it… I’m not exactly sure what it takes. I think you just really have to love riding a bike in the city, and you’ll be okay.”

If you think being a bike courier might be your thing, here are some tips to consider:

  • Invest in a good rain jacket and get a fender for rainy days
  • Get the biggest bag you can carry—the more you can fit in your bag, the more money you can make
  • Meet other messengers!
  • Buy a small lock that fits in your back pocket and tie the key to your wrist
  • Invest in good gear for your bike and yourself (Cheap stuff will fall apart, and you’re riding at least eight hours a day, so it’s worth it)
  • Stay positive when drivers get to you (“I think I wave at least a dozen peace signs a day,” says Gary)

Need more inspiration? Check out these links: “Fixiepostcard” is a girl bike snob blog

“Even the Girls” is a short documentary on girl bike messengers in NYC

Hoof&Cycle Messenger Industry Handbook

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