The voice of the dispatcher is difficult to make out on the radio duct-taped to the shoulder strap of Chris Corrigan’s courier bag, but he catches his call number: “Zero-seven.”
“Go ahead,” Corrigan replies.
“Witten going across,” comes the terse command.
“Check.” Corrigan’s brain clicks into gear as he pedals his bicycle down Whyte Avenue, mentally routing the pickups and deliveries he has to complete. He makes a quick stop to pick up a package from a law office. Then he’s on to a laboratory for a drop-off before biking over the High Level Bridge and into downtown.
He switches radio channels while waiting for the elevator at Manulife Place and tees up a meeting at 102nd Avenue and 102nd Street with a vehicle courier to hand off a package going to the “far west.” He takes care of the pickup at the law offices of Witten LLP before heading south, this time on the Low Level Bridge.
Corrigan delivers between 20 and 25 packages on an average day, but that can nearly double on a busy day. He covers the “short south” – Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta area – and the “short west,” to 124th Street and north to 111th Avenue. He might cross the North Saskatchewan River half a dozen times during a shift.
After six years as a bike courier for ‘MC’ Dispatch Messenger Service in Edmonton, he knows the addresses of most major businesses by heart and, like most couriers, has a unique perspective on Edmonton’s urban centre.
“In this job, all my passions collide,” he says. “I really love cities. I enjoy witnessing their complicated transportation networks and competing architecture. I get to see buildings in the round rather than just their front entrances.”
As archaic as it sounds in a day and age of emails and teleconferences, some businesses still need two-wheelin’ deliveries from guys like Corrigan. Law firms, banks and architects still require hard copies of information. Lawyers, in particular, often need original documents, not scans. Architectural plans or construction drawings are often hundreds of pages – too large to email efficiently. Bank deposits, original artwork, mortgage payouts, court documents, prescriptions, take-out orders, bakery bread to restaurants, even house keys on closing days – these are all things bike couriers may be asked to deliver.
But the courier business itself has been helped by technology, according to Pete Zablotny, co-owner of ACS Express Inc. His company switched to a fully electronic system two years ago. “This eliminated paper waybills as it allows customers to submit requests online, track deliveries in real time and provides instant signature verification.” Dispatchers use GPS to keep track of couriers.
“Not only does the use of bike couriers speed up delivery, but it helps lessen pollution in the downtown core,” says Zablotny, who launched the company on his own mountain bike in 1988 as a one-man operation and now has 10 bike couriers in addition to a fleet of vehicles.
Franky Thibaudeau has been with Scamper Delivery Service Ltd. for three years, but has worked as a bike courier for a total of six winters.
“Anyone can work a summer. It takes a real warrior to work a winter,” he says. “You gotta be prepared. It could be -20 Celsius with a foot and a half of snow, and you still have to go to work. There are no fair-weather couriers here.”
Weather conditions are one hazard; drivers are another. “Some people swerve at you, try to push you out of your lane,” Thibaudeau says. “It’s mind-boggling how some drivers perceive the road, as though any other vehicle is inferior. I usually try to ignore it, to not escalate the situation.
“There’s a rhythm to traffic. Once you get the flow, you can find the gaps and get between cars to avoid traffic jams.”
As a member of the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society board of directors, Corrigan supports bike lanes, but says they’re not useful to him while working: “I prefer to use the roadways and usually get respect from drivers if I behave responsibly and project an air of confidence.” But he also finds some drivers are too accommodating, giving him the right of way against traffic laws.
Both Thibaudeau and Corrigan usually use track bikes for their speed, better handling and simplicity. “There’s less to go wrong,” Corrigan says. When things do go wrong, though, he says fellow couriers are willing to help, lending tools or spare parts.
If everything goes right, though, reliability, punctuality, organization and speed can add up to a decent wage. “It’s possible to make $400 on a good day,” Corrigan says, “but that’s not every day by far; it’s not consistent.”
Business is usually busier around real estate closings, tax season, and before long weekends when people are trying to clear their desks, according to Zablotny. But December brings a whole different kind of payload. “A lot of our clients give their clients gifts, so we end up delivering things like gift baskets, chocolates and bottles of wine.”
Thibaudeau says some of the strangest things he’s ever delivered include a plastic bag containing only a licence plate and a shoe, and a bunch of pagers that wouldn’t stop going off in his bag. “That was pretty nerve-racking.”