By Beth Treffeisen
Special to the Gazette
For two years bike courier Mike Oakhem, 33, from Quincy, has been zigzagging throughout Boston’s downtown streets to hand off various goods from piping hot pizza to architecture design rolls, offering Boston residents and companies one of the quickest forms of delivery.
To him, taking on this job is more than just getting from point A to point B; it has been keeping him busy, earning money and his freedom.
Owning only the clothing on his back and his bike, Oakhem took on this job that provided him with an independent life style that he wanted.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” said Oakhem. “It takes everything, it’s not just physical but takes a lot of mental thinking too –it’s tough but it’s rewarding.”
Being a bike courier is more than just riding the already dangerous streets of Boston, it also requires trekking through all weather—from rain, to sleet, to snow—in order to get the demanding goods to the customers in the fastest way possible.
“We have a lot of pride because we have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world,” said Oakhem.
A typical daily schedule involves riding downtown at about 9 a.m. and then checking in with the dispatch company. From there riders deliver packages throughout the morning rush, lunch rush, and then getting in the last-minute deliveries before the sun goes down. For some, it goes on into the night as customers begin ordering in their dinners.
For Max Frost, 23, from Breadrunner Courier, these days he is typically done by 5 p.m.
Frost is still delivering the papers that haven’t been digitalized yet, such as architecture rolls that may be hard to read on a screen, paperwork that has yet to go digital from Suffolk Appeals courts, and envelopes of paperwork that needs to be signed the same day for law firms.
Although there used to be more work, Frost said, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Along with being able to ride all day, Frost said there is a large bike courier community that he enjoys being a part of. Not only will you find them hanging out in Winthrop Square as they wait for dispatch to hand them a task, but they always look out for each other providing their friends a place to stay if need be or a new job if they are returning to the city.
“Boston couriers are salty and usually from here,” said Frost. “They’re not in it for the likes on the Internet.”
But, this type of messenger business may soon change as more and more paperwork becomes digitalized, causing the bike courier industry to transform and adapt in order to keep up with the modern times.
The bike courier industry, which once ran on delivering documents before fax machines and then later the Internet, has been slowly changing course to make way for the gig economy – providing on-demand goods to people who order items online.
Now, bike couriers transport vastly different things, from genetic tests from hospitals to the nearby labs at the local universities to transporting textiles from the Boston Design Center to the new buildings popping up around the city.
“Right now, the economy is good with all of the construction around the city,” said Tom Cromwell, co-owner of Break Away Courier. “Once a building goes up, people have to move in.”
Cromwell said there has been a lot of work both with the architects who design buildings and with the designers who fill in the space that need sample materials transported.
Also, it is a lot faster than having to wait for a mailman to transport it, he said.
“It’s much quicker on the bike to do a pickup because all they have to do is lock the bike – that’s it,” said Cromwell. “With a car, a driver has to find parking or go to a loading dock, and sign in before they can hand anything off.”
Many times, Cromwell said, drivers message bikers to do the hand offs for them if they know they won’t be able to find parking.
Plus, bikers have a zero carbon footprint, which may drive businesses to use them more if they are trying to be environmentally friendly.
But, a lot has changed since he started his company in 1988. During that time some law firms would need about 50 packages delivered a day, and now it’s a good day if they have around 10.
The way packages are communicated and delivered has changed, too.
“When we started Fly Over the City in 2000, we had a pager that the clients would use to order deliveries,” said Greg LeTarte, the owner of Fly Over the City Courier Company, which is based in Boston and New York City.
Communication between the dispatcher and the rider was usually done by cell phone, but during that time it was common for the messengers to call-in to their dispatch using payphones.
Now, many companies use a combination of using the website, phones, and walkie-talkies.
Back in 2000, the amount of hand deliveries was much greater, said LeTarte. During that time, e-mail was still thought of as slightly gimmicky. He said, “It was only 16 years ago, but a lot has changed!”
Around 2005 all the technology caught up to the industry, which resulted in a precipitous drop in package volume, causing many companies to merge or go out of business.
“It’s definitely evolving,” said LeTarte. “When I started Fly Over the City there were about 30 bike courier companies in Boston. Now, there’s maybe six.”
In order to keep up with customers’ needs, many messenger companies are offering modern services like real time package tracking and everything is online. LeTarte said clients are willing to pay more for the deliveries because they still need it and there has also been a major push for same day delivery across new markets, such as in retail and personal sectors.
Even so, LeTarte said, “I see half as many bike couriers on the street since I entered the business.”
According to the Boston Police Department, there are 36 bike couriers who registered with the city in 2016. That’s down from 60, in 2012.
For Noel Ferrick, 47, who has been in the business since 1992 and now works for Breadrunner Courier, he said that the work load has gone down, but the size of the loads have gone up with larger packages, cargo boxes, heavy rolls, and things from print shops that may not be easily accessible by a car.
Ferrick said the bulk packages are where the money is because the companies don’t have to pay for cars to park, or if they get unlucky, a parking ticket.
Ferrick who has been delivering packages for 24 years, being out in the elements all day long sometimes takes its toll.
“I just hypnotized myself to not feel pain anymore,” joked Ferrick. “But by doing it, it keeps you fit and healthy so you can keep doing it.”
When it comes to dealing with traffic, pedestrians, and other obstacles, safety is also a concern.
“Getting doored or the threat of being doored is very serious fear of most bicyclists,” said Ferrick.
Both Frost and Ferrick agreed that getting rid of parked cars would help solve that problem but neither of them sees that happening any time soon.
Bike lanes and separated tracks, they both said, don’t really help them because they are just trying to get to their destination as fast as possible, and many times riding along regular bikers may delay them.
Richard Schmid, the co-owner of Break Away Couriers, said all of his bikers are required to wear helmets, follow the rules of the road, and not run red lights.
The addition of bike-friendly infrastructure that the city has been working towards, Schmid said, may not help the couriers much, but it certainly can’t hurt.
As a biker himself, who commutes to work downtown from Brookline, he said, “It’s dangerous – it’s wonderful what has been done for biking here in the city.”
Oakhem said during just the two years he’s been riding he has gotten hit by a car seven to eight times. About five months ago, he broke his shoulder and was off his bike for two months.
But, despite the danger he has stayed motivated to continue on.
He said, “As long as I’m physically able to do it – I will.”