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FT reckons the best couriers make £400 a week, Austin Horse is uninsured
22.03.09 by Buffalo Bill

In an article headlined ‘Cycle couriers saddled with drop in custom’, which is yet another feel-bad story about the economy, the Financial Times has got its numbers wrong.

The industry has already fallen from the heady days of the 1990s, when Lycra-suited dispatch riders could expect to make £1,000 ($1,442) a week weaving between slow-moving city traffic. But as the rise of e-mail moved the bulk of document traffic online, the best cycle couriers nowadays rarely make much more than £400 a week.

I don’t where they got those figures from, definitely not from me! The only systematic survey of London bicycle messenger earnings was conducted by Ben Fincham in 2003, and published in the Sociological Review in 2006. The average earnings were given as £65/day, which is £325/week. I was on the road in the early 90s on one of the biggest circuits, Security Despatch, and I can tell you that it was rare that anyone made more than £500/week. Of course, there were a few guys doing a bit more than that at other companies, but there is no way that we ‘expected’ to make £1000. The best single day’s earnings at SD was around £125 in 1993.

Lower down in the article, the chief exec of City Sprint is quoted as saying that they charge £2 for WC1 – EC2. It’s not clear if that is what the rider gets paid, or whether that is what they charge the client. If it’s the latter, then I guess the rider might be taking £1.50 on the docket (which would be generous), which would mean 266 dockets a week to make £400, which hardly seems likely.

Anyway, whichever way you do the numbers, I would be very surprised if most guys in London were making, on average, more than £250/week at the moment. Which is around minimum wage BEFORE paying for equipment.

I spoke to my mate Andy Capp, who co-owns JetSet Couriers in San Francisco. He reckons that they are 40% down on this time last year, which is pretty catastrophic. I would think that the rest of the US is in the same situation. As you probably know, unlike jolly old Blighty, health care in the US is not free at the point of delivery. So if some moron in a car mows you down, you will end up paying the hospital bill, unless you have insurance.

In this article about ‘young invincibles’, New York bicycle messenger Austin Horse is used as an example of the many young adults who do not have insurance.

Despite his inherently dangerous job — Horse has made a couple of trips to the emergency room in the past few years — he is working without health insurance. Horse is one of millions of what the insurance industry has dubbed “young invincibles,” a group of 18-to 29-year-olds who reside in a precarious gray area when it comes to insurance coverage. Many work low-wage jobs, yet they just miss qualifying for government low-income health insurance programs.

Assiduous readers of Moving Target will remember that a 2002 Harvard School of Public Health report on injuries amongst Boston bicycle messengers determined that:

most working couriers have incurred an injury resulting in days away from work (70%) and in visits to a health-care professional or hospital (55%). Annual incidence rates were large at 47 injuries resulting in days away from work per 100-bike couriers. The national average is 3 lost-work injuries per 100 workers, with the highest rate at 15 lost-work injuries per 100 workers in the meat packing industry.

So US couriers are in a particularly precarious position. As their earnings go down, they are less likely to be able to afford insurance. Not great, but at least the current administration in the US is working to try and change that.

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  1. Hi, Bill!
    I enjoyed your article. I was not a courier in the 90’s, but i heard from a few courier that they earned better money back then, specially on time such as the post office strike, but i also find its highly doubtful to be £1000.
    I would like to say that City Sprint pays couriers £2.90 for a WC1-EC2. and 2years ago they lowered the ECs-ECs job to £2.20. So if they are charging their costumers £2, my only thoughts are, that they are trying to secure the account. As couriers we dont question on how much they charge clients, as long we get payed, its not our business.
    I am sure that the current economic situation affect the courier work, it was to be expected to do so.
    I currently stopped courier to dedicate myself to studies, but i expect to be back on the road in june, and as much as i look foward to get back on the bike and on the road, i been told not no expect the same earning as before!
    And i feel for the couriers and all trade worker in America, to live in country with such type of “exclusive” health system, its appalling system, specially for a first world country! It is truly a disgrace for a ‘first world’ country who has an economic power to finance wars and bail banks, cannot provide the basic to the people. There are hope that the new administration will improve this health system, but we still ought to see it.
    My best wishes and love to all couriers. Keep riding fast and hard! Keeping in mind it is our streets!
    x Sca (ex-messenger)


    Scarlet    22 March 2009, 12:08    #
  2. Usual level of shoddy research endemic in the journalism profession.
    City Sprint pay the riders £2 for deliveries in the middle of town. How much the client gets charged depends on how much they feel they need the client. £3.94 is the preferential client rate now – a response to one or two firms, Excel being one, going in at £3.94.
    When I was at West One (who are now City Sprint) in the late 1980s, I got £2.25. It went up to £2.50 in January of 1988 or 1989 and I think it went up to £2.75 about a year after that.
    For what it’s worth, I have never earned £500 for a week as a pusbike rider. Not once. Used to pull about £400 pretty steadily at West One in the late 1980s. I was fairly consistently top earner at some half decent circuits for a while – Mach One and Pink – and £400 was a good week at those.
    There are riders at some middle level companies not pulling £30 per day at the minute. God knows what schmucks who start at the likes of Post Haste, CDS or GLH are pulling.


    — Count Basie    22 March 2009, 13:11    #
  3. Why the hell we need to register in order to read a piece of ill-informed article anyway?


    — kostas    22 March 2009, 13:41    #
  4. Indeed. Having spoken to Lisa about the numbers, it seems that earnings quoted are for motorcyclists, not cyclists. Which makes sense.

    Current UK minimum wage according to HM Revenue & Customs: £5.73 per hour for workers aged 22 years and older. For a 40 hour week = £229.


    — Bill    24 March 2009, 08:17    #
  5. In 2 1/2 years, the most I ever made in a week was about £220. But I am pretty lazy.


    — turningwheelisanearningwheel    30 March 2009, 18:16    #
  6. yeah, stop bragging


    — Dazzlenger    31 March 2009, 18:14    #
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