In Washington, a Two-Tire Industry Goes Flat
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Getting a meticulously prepared legal brief to a courthouse or federal agency on time used to require a bit of comic-book valor. Just before deadline, exhausted lawyers handed off the document to a character in the tight Lycra of a superhero, the shoulder bag of a Pony Express rider and the bulging thighs of an athlete. One of Washington's legions of bicycle messengers would then dart through perilous traffic and any weather to deliver the goods in the nick of time.
Now, as the last of the area's courts and agencies begin to allow electronic filings instead of demanding piles of paper, deadline dramas in many law offices are being reduced to little more than hitting the "send" button.
The courier business -- for decades a quirky by-product of Washington's No. 1 industry, paper-pushing -- finds itself in rapid decline. Tighter security restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have closed off many government office corridors to couriers, and the recession has dampened activity at law firms and lobbying shops, rendering the life of a time-sensitive document in the District a lot more boring.
The number of full-time couriers in Washington has fallen from a high of about 400 in the 1990s to about 150, said Andy Zalan, a longtime bike messenger and head of the D.C. Bicycle Couriers Association.
"Those of us left are making a lot less money," Zalan said. "This last week, I set a personal best for futility: I sat out here for seven hours and made $25."
The decline is being felt in all cities, according to Michael Gualtieri, president of the Messenger Courier Association of America. In New York, consolidations and business failures have cut the number of courier companies from a high of almost 500 to about 40, he said.
But Washington bike messengers have been hit particularly hard because of the recent shrinkage in the government's document stream. "There's just not as much paper being pushed," Gualtieri said. "In the past few years, we've seen quite a few more government agencies go electronic."
The falloff threatens to end what has been for decades a very public aberration from Washington's buttoned-down business culture. Downtown has long been filled with messengers racing the clock -- and sometimes each other -- along the streets (and sometimes sidewalks). On weekdays, the parks at Dupont Circle and Farragut Square were piled with bikes and swarmed with couriers awaiting a call from dispatch. And generations of workers from K Street to Capitol Hill knew the experience of being in an elevator filled with six men who looked as if they'd been taxidermied by Brooks Brothers and one who looked like the Silver Surfer.
"I always took great pride doing deliveries to House and Senate buildings dressed like Boba Fett," the Star Wars bounty hunter, said Matthew Ayers, who worked as a messenger briefly after finishing law school at American University. "Without the messengers, these people might take themselves too seriously and implode."
Longtime messengers bond over tales of epic wrecks and glorious rides. Veteran messenger Matt Dwyer (broken middle finger '96, fractured mastoid '98) once took a "super rush" job from Georgetown to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Northeast in less than 10 minutes.
"I picked up the filing at 4:51 and made FERC by the 5 o'clock deadline," said Dwyer, 46, a messenger for 13 years who still delivers every day even as he runs his own courier company. His vacation in July was a solo ride from Montana to New York.
Mark Gross, a courier in the 1980s and now the owner of Quick Messenger, remembers the time he and six other riders scrambled to deliver a hot-off-the-Xerox press release to all 535 congressional offices. Elapsed time from getting the panicked call from the public relations firm to dropping off the last envelope: 80 minutes.