Then and now
19.07.07 by Buffalo Bill
Winston was recently quoted by Matt Seaton as saying that this is “a dying industry”. And from time to time various articles appear predicting that on-demand despatch will soon disappear. Joe Hendry has some good examples going back to 1959 here. In fact, the imminent demise of couriers has been predicted consistently since Phidippides arrived from Marathon looking a bit peaky. Probably.
What’s the truth? Well, the truth is that the world changes, and sometimes what was essential yesterday is totally superfluous today. When I first started, we were still delivering display ad copy to the newspapers, and u-matic (those big tapes) cassettes to the ad agencies. Now the display ads get emailed, and the u-matics have turned into dvds. And no-one sends a dat tape anywhere these days.
But don’t believe anyone that tells you that 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, all, or even most, of London’s bicycle messengers were making £500 a week. I was there.
This is a generalisation, as I didn’t know every single courier, much less see their pay-sheet every week, but I reckon 20 years ago, a £300 week was rare, and a £200 week was pretty good. Most people were doing £100 – £200 and were happy with it. 10 years ago, £500 was still uncommon, and £400 was good, but most people were doing £200 – £300.
Ok, rents were lower, tyres cost less and all the rest of it. And there were probably a lot more messengers. In 1988 Moving Target was distributed free, and had a print run of 1000. Were there 1000 bicycle messengers in London in 1988? I have no idea. Perhaps there were. Now there are around 400 London bicycle messengers, according to the London Bicycle Messenger Association and the City of London Police – not often those two organisations agree about anything.
So the market for courier service has contracted. Another thing that has changed: people are doing fewer jobs for the same money. Fewer riders do more than 30 jobs these days. 10 years ago, I would have been unhappy coming home with less than 30 jobs on my day-sheet.
But to extrapolate this to a vanishing point is wrong. There are some things that cannot, and will never, be sent down a wire. Yer actual items that need to be photograped cannot be transmitted digitally, even if the images can. So, though the market for courier services is different and smaller than it was, I doubt that there will be a time when it is no longer there.
Don’t believe the hype. The bicycle messenger is not dying. Although Zack Speedfast might be looking for a job as a cycle-trainer soon.