History of Bike Messengering in San Francisco
excerpt from the CMWC 96 Information Booklet
guess we should start with the first S.F. messenger killed back
in 1888. His name was little Johnny Hancock, and he had been employed
as a walker for 2 months. It seems that this young orphan had been
enjoying himself in the brothels and opium dens of the Barbary Coast,
when he leaped off a cable car at Jackson and Kearny and got run
over by another cable car. He died two days later, after leg amputation.
No blame was attached to the driver.
messengering officially started in 1894, when a railway strike halted
mail delivery for the Bay Area. An ingenious bicycle shop owner
in Fresno came up with the idea to deliver it by bicycle. He set
up a relay between Fresno and S.F., with 6 riders covering about
30 miles each. The last rider would cover 60 miles. It was a complete
success, and our job was set in motion.
the mail route and the bicycle craze at the turn of the century,
companies started to employ bike messengers. Western Union was one
of the first, using bikes to deliver telegraphs to anxious clients.
Other local businesses started to catch on to the idea that a bike
was an extremely efficient way to get products to their customers.
In 1945, the first all-bicycle delivery service was founded by Carl
Sparks. Sparkie's went on to become Aero, which was bought out in
1998 later absorbed into CitySprint.
the sixties came along, so did a new breed of messengers. Instead
of caps and bow-ties, jeans and t-shirts became the uniform. Bike
messengering became the starving artists way of employment, and
the number of companies soon reached over 10.
the mid seventies, Punk Rock hit S.F., and messengering allowed
people with Mohawks to earn a living. Many semi-famous messenger
bands ensued. In 1979, over 10 years before the first CMWC, the
Bike Messenger Olympics was held downtown. Several tests of skill
are performed, including the pedestrian slalom, the wheelie test,
and the briefcase pass.
early eighties bring the "Gravy Days", bike messengers
can be loud, rude, and reeking of alcohol, yet still make a decent
wage. To celebrate this, "The Farm" is opened up for messenger
shows, complete with bands, art, light shows etc. The first "Road
Rash Bash" is held to benefit The Farm. In 1984, Gold Mountain
Courier is created to help refugees on public assistance hold a
job and learn the streets. And then right after the FAX machine
is invented, a major earthquake hits S.F., completely messin' with
the economy. Clients cut back on deliveries, as well as pay. One
speeds with baskets give way to mountain bikes, enabling messengers
to get around quicker. Messenger companies start to fold, and the
public's opinion of messengers reaches an all-time low. One police
officer even proposes to require bike messenger to wear an identification
sign on their shirt, visible from no less than 10 feet away. Messenger
activism, however, starts to grow and grow. BAAR is created to aid
Afghan amputees, Critical Mass gets its start with the help of the
SFBMA, the AIDS ride uses bike messengers in a fashion show to promote
their ride, the Hanx and the Jak's start gathering toys for needy
kids at Christmas time, the Russian River Ride becomes an annual
"mecca" for the SFBMA, the Small Messenger Company Picnic
unifies the "little fish," and 'zines of every form interest
the eyes of many a standby victim.
1993, word of the CMWC gets through the international grapevine,
just as the "Road Rash Bash" gets resurrected in Denver.
L. Sid headlines the CMWC '93 World Welcome Party, while back home,
road bike racers start to infiltrate the workforce. CMWC '94 brings
an even larger S.F. contingent, culminating in London's first Critical
Mass on a memorial ride after the final race. In S.F., many small
companies start to shack up together, in order to compete economically
with larger companies. Taking it one step further, a bunch of independents
share tags in order to compete economically with the small and large
companies, and learn that after some hard work, they can get back
to the gravy days. CMWC '95 gets S.F.'s largest contingent yet,
over 30 people, and their enthusiasm convinces everyone to hold
CMWC '96 in San Francisco. The SFBMA, as well as the local bike
community show their support, and show up for benefit after benefit
for CMWC '96, enabling the planning committee to actually pull it
here you are now, at the culmination of over 100 years of bicycle
messengering in San Francisco. Hopefully the future will bring a
decent wage, health benefits, sick pay, equipment compensation,
retirement plans; stuff that any other life threatening job offers
Stamps from the 1894 mail relay
the story continues... (2000)
1996 and the CMWC, things have continued to progress - the SFBMA
has become a force to be reckoned with, and the community has continued
to grow, as has messenger activism.
influentially, the SFBMA signed a working agreement with the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a union not only with a long
history here in the Bay Area, but a long history of rank-and-file
union activism. This appealled to those of us who first met with
them back in 1998, and let us to the relationship we have now. When
we first affiliated, we pledged to work together to organize the
industry - not just a company here and there, but the whole industry,
for the benefit not only of bikers, but all workers involved in
the messenger industry. Since then, things have come quite a ways
towards the hopes for the future voiced in the last paragraph of
the CMWC '96 booklet quoted above.
late 90's brought a massive consolidation of several midsize companies
(Battery Point, Zap, S-Car-Go, Crosstown, Alpha Express, Studebaker)
and one of SF's historically dominant companies (Aero) under the
umbrella of Dispatch Management Services (DMS), which eventually
became what is now CitySprint. Speedway merged with South Bay freight
company UltraEx, and took their name. The big players in the SF
messenger industry certainly got bigger.
later part of the decade also saw a burst of activity from the independants
as well, though. Multiple small companies spun out of disillussioned
workers from the large companies, especially the DMS, and have made
successes of themselves, using new technologies and approaches that
have taken the small messenger company a step forward.
with this has come a gradual increase in prices, due in no small
part to the organizing drive, and the multiple work actions that
came with it - Riders at UltraEx, DMS and Professional Messenger
have struck multiple times in the past few years, and with varying
levels of success.
recently, the workers at the SF branch of UltraEx have signed the
industry's first union contract in over 10 years, guaranteeing them
a pay raise, better vacation benefits, and compensation for mileage
and equipment, as well as becoming the first SF major company to
comply with state overtime law.
Proj flyer by America, 1997; Los Cerveceros flyer by Eddy Galvan;
Lewd flyer by Tony Calzone, Team Glue flyer by Stephanie, 1997