Why do we pay bike messengers to break the laws?

Depending on your perspective, either last Saturday’s MMI XII released a scourge of law-breaking locusts on two wheels across the streets of Milwaukee, or the race highlighted a little understood subculture of freight hauling professionals who prove 52 weeks a year that in a City, the bicycle is the fastest and most efficient way to get from Avenue A to B.

A scourge of scofflaws or package delivering professionals?

If those choices are a spectrum, I tend to fall on on the admiration end. How can a guy who prides himself on obeying all traffic laws all the time, on a bike and in a car turn a blind eye to messengers who get paid to run red lights and even ride the wrong way down one-way streets? For me the key is the part that mainstream society pays them to do break laws in order to deliver packages faster.

When you want a package delivered fast and cheap, but absolutely need it to get there, you call a bike messenger.


In cities across the world, even though everyone knows bike messengers break laws on deliveries, but law firms still hire them. And for the most part,police ignore them, just as they do all the cars that fail to stop for (or even honk at) pedestrians in a crosswalk downtown. Once again I will use the Hockey analogy. People pay to go to hockey games, in large part, because they get to watch athletes exhibit incredible skills while skating through a barely-controlled brawl. Hockey players slam each other into the glass, elbow each other, skate full bore into each other, without fear of penalty. Once in a while they cross some violent line in the rule books, and a forced to sit in the penalty box for a minute or two, until they are released back into the melee.

In an alleycat, each racer gets a “manifest” that has a series of complicated pick-ups, deliveries and check-ins at random locations across the city.


You can call that entertainment or a sport, but either way it we are paying to watch people try to skate past the rules. As a society, we do the same thing with bike messengers. If we truly did not want them to run red lights, there is a really easy way we could stop them: just stop hiring them. I think that as a society we are OK with their level of law breaking for a couple reasons. First, because most everyone who hires a bike messenger or signs for a delivery, knows he or she broke a series of traffic laws on the way to work that day and will break them again on the way home.

Alleycat aficionados find the same elegance and grace in riding a fixed gear bicycle with no brakes through traffic that hockey fans see in a well placed snapshot or legal check into the boards.

The lawyer who desperately needs her document signed and returned before a meeting, is willing to look the other way while the courier races across city to get it done for $12 because she knows she is going to drive 8-10 mph over the speed limit to get home in time to take her daughter to soccer practice. It is sort of like we are all in a hockey game. We have rules, but you would never know what they are just by watching the game. Why is it OK for a courier to ride the wrong way down a one-way street past a police car just to deliver a document? The same reason it is OK for the clerk who signs for the package to rush across the street when the walk signal clearly says “Don’t Walk” to meet a friend for lunch at the hot dog stand on the corner.

Want your sandwich from Potbelly’s delivered to your desk while it is still hot? You call this crew.

There is a certain element of hypocrisy we tend to tolerate in our society if we find it entertaining or it gets us something we want, like watching hockey or getting to a meeting on time. I think we usually draw the line when we personally are at risk in some way, but we are generally OK with others putting themselves at risk or even when we put others at risk. We all know speeding kills and we should pay full attention to driving, but we also know we can drive 5-10 mph over the posted limit while texting without getting a ticket or killing ourselves. In the same spirit, we hire, and admire, bike couriers for their urban outlaw professionalism. They are risking their safety to get us what we want fast.

Think of them as similar to the Stanley Cup, but for couriers.

I ignore the laws bike messengers break because they provide daily inspiration for just how fast and efficient a mode of transport the bicycle can be. I admire bike messengers because they have managed to blend punk rock and professionalism. I call a number of bike messengers friends because they are genuinely nice people with whom I have a lot in common.

What do you think about bike messengers and alleycat races?

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

9 thoughts on “Why do we pay bike messengers to break the laws?

  1. If we need everything “yesterday” then this will keep happening. People are getting paid to “go as fast as possible” and when I ride my bike or drive I am usually the last person because I observe the speed limits.

  2. Dave, seriously? You’re comparing bike messengers and their chosen business to professional hockey? No one on the streets of any large city is “paying” to watch another cyclist disobey the law flagrantly. All they see is yet another cyclist running red lights, running over curbs to miss a light or car or pedestrian and they could care less whether that person on the bike is “on the job as a professional’ or just late for a date. It makes us all look bad in our everyday battle for respect on the roads. I agree that if law firms don’t like the fact that their hired delivery system is following the law, they should stop hiring them, but that will happen as soon a drug users stop using drugs and thus help us end the war on drugs, cartels, etc. While I personally love watching messengers do their job, at the same time, I realize they/us are our own worst enemies. Guess it’s the old love/hate relationship that life seems to be all about.

    • Hey Bill,

      I think hockey works pretty well as an analogy for how we treat driving in general. The main correlations being an accepted level of rule-breaking. Only when things reach a certain threshold are rules enforced. On the road you can drive 7mph over the speed limit in a car or run a stop sign on a bike and most law enforcement officers will ignore the violations. Everyone knows this, and although it increases the danger on the road, we accept it. Couriers are professional road users who understand that threshold better than most people who ride bikes. Hockey players are professionals who know when they enter the ice can through elbows, shoulders and slam people into the glass, but if they swing their sticks at another player’s head, they are penalized. On the ice, on the road, both places have written rules and unwritten rules. That is the analogy I was making.

    • An out of towner actually won the race overall, BUT he forgot to write his name on his manifest – DQ 🙁

      Professional couriers Bobbie “Paprika” Marie and Matt Ungerman were the official winners.

    • Nope, I’ve never been a courier or worked in a bike shop. Two jobs you might think I would have had at some point.

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