In July the city passed an ordinance regulating downtown bike messengers, and just about everyone applauded. "Some of these riders, the way they zip in and out of traffic and over the sidewalks, are a detriment to the safety of pedestrians and themselves," says Alderman Burt Natarus, who led the movement to adopt the ordinance. "We're not trying to take away their livelihood--we're trying to protect lives. Most of the owners of the large messenger services support it, because it makes so much sense. Just about everyone is for it."
Except bike messengers such as Jack Blackfelt, who says the ordinance is hypocritical, destined to fail, and a detriment to the city. "The only redeeming feature about this ordinance is that it might prompt bike messengers to organize for our rights," says Blackfelt, who has been zipping in and out of downtown traffic for the last two years and now works as a messenger for Intercept Delivery Services. "People complain that we move too fast, that we break the law, that we fly in and out of traffic. All of that is true. But it's the system that makes us move fast. They can pass all the ordinances they want, but the fact is that bike messengers are an integral component of the quick downtown pace. If we can't move those packages on time, a whole lot of businesses will suffer. And we won't be able to make a living."
Blackfelt's objections might seem strange given that the new law is also designed to protect bikers. Among other things, it requires them to wear protective helmets and brightly colored vests. It also requires them to register with the city and to have liability insurance. "I don't understand how the bike messengers would be against this," says Natarus. "We're trying to protect them as much as anything."
Blackfelt counters that the ordinance will wind up costing the messengers too much money. "We're going to be the ones who end up paying for the insurance and the new uniforms and the license fee," he says. "The company will pass the cost on to us somehow or other. As for the helmets, some guys like them and some don't. I don't. I don't think that's anyone's business."
The city was moved to adopt the regulations after Natarus, whose ward includes much of the Gold Coast and the near north side, reported that a bike messenger almost hit him. "These cyclists drive you lulu. They ride the wrong way down the street. They don't obey the rules of the road. They are supposed to stop for a light, and they either go right through or they walk through it. And they are very arrogant people.
"One day I was at Madison and LaSalle, and what happened I can only describe as a whiz. One messenger went by me so close that I could feel air brushing against me--whiz. I'm lucky he didn't kill me."
Natarus used the next City Council hearing as a forum for venting his frustration and anger. "You know me, I'm not afraid to say what I think. So I got up there and I said, 'Does it make sense to allow people to ride bicycles on a heavily pedestrian street where they can knock people down?' I cited a letter I got from [personal-injury lawyer] Al Hofeld in which he talked about one of his clients, a psychiatrist who is now brain damaged because he was hit by a bike messenger while walking on a downtown sidewalk on his way to lunch. Brain damaged--just for walking down a street.
"I take a lot of abuse for this. I have a reputation of being a killjoy or a grinch because I'm the kind of alderman who responds to complaints. I'm the one who wrote the ordinance regulating skateboards."
This time, however, he found a receptive audience. Within a few days of Natarus's speech, Mayor Daley introduced his own messenger-regulation ordinance, which quickly won council approval.
The most controversial aspect of the ordinance, as far as Blackfelt is concerned, is the requirement that messengers apply for an operating license. On the street they must wear city-issued identification tags or risk fines as high as $500. The tags will enable the city to identify messengers who consistently break laws by riding through stop signs and red lights, among other things.
"If we lose our license, we can't work--at least not legally," says Blackfelt. "A lot of the better riders might quit rather than have to put up with this crap. And it's not going to make anyone ride any slower."
Blackfelt likens bike messengers to pizza carriers who work for companies that boast about fast deliveries. "To make money in this business, you have to break the law--and that's a fact. There are generally three types of services: all day, two hour, or one hour. Well, if you have to cross the Loop two or three times in an hour, you really have to move. And there's no way that you're not going to run a red light or go the wrong way up a one-way street. Not if you want to make you and your company some money.
"The flat rate tends to be around $4.50 a delivery, depending on the urgency. We're paid on commission--there's no pay floor. If it's slow, you bite the bullet. Usually we get between 45 and 55 percent of that fee. You got to do 50 deliveries a day to make real good money. If I'm sitting around with no deliveries or waiting for the light to turn green or going one block out of my way to avoid going north on a southbound street, I'm losing money and so is my company. And so is, I guess, the customer, who depends on fast services. That's the system. That's capitalism. If you don't like it, don't blame me--change the system."
He also accuses city leaders of exaggerating the messengers' threat to pedestrians. "I consider myself an underpaid professional athlete. I'm good at what I do. I've been doing this for nine hours a day for the last three years. I know what I'm doing. I have experience, and experience leads to wisdom. Some pedestrians might think I'm playing a game when I whiz right past them. But it's not a game. I'm cutting the corner, cutting back on time. I'm not going to hit you. I'm not trying to scare you. If anything, I'm the one who has to watch out for pedestrians. They do stupid things all the time. They walk with their heads in the clouds. Without warning, they'll suddenly slow down or veer off course. My job is all about gauging objects and their patterns. It's like physics. And I'm good at it."
Despite his experience, Blackfelt has been involved in several accidents, as well as altercations with outraged pedestrians and motorists. "I once got punched out by a construction worker who thought I came too close to him. I got hit by a bus two weeks ago, and it was my fault completely. I saw the bus, but I had cobwebs in my head and I didn't realize he was moving until the last second. I pushed off the bike just in time before he crashed into me, and I banged off the windshield, landed on my feet, and started to run off my momentum. I was OK, but the point is that we take the biggest risk in this business. I know of three people who have died on the job, two here and one in San Francisco, where I used to work. I heard the aldermen talk about this one guy who was hit by a messenger and is now in the hospital. Well, what about the messengers who are dead? I find it a double standard for someone to complain that I am a menace because I have to weave through traffic threatening my life to make a decent living. They should be more worried about changing the system that makes me race this way."
Blackfelt says he wants to keep working as a messenger. "I love this job, especially its freedom. Your boss is in a little tiny box that squawks at you. You never have to see him. You meet a million people. I know all the best places to eat downtown. It's a hard job, but it has its rewards. The city should stop messing with us."
Blackfelt says most messengers agree with him, a contention supported by several recent articles in the Sun-Times. But Natarus says the city can't refuse to pass an ordinance just because the people being regulated object to it.
"I've got another ordinance in committee--this one regulating rollerbladers," says Natarus. "A lot of people think rollerblading is fun, but the other day I saw this guy rollerblading the wrong way on Michigan Avenue. Honest to goodness, he was doing this in the middle of the day. He might have been an affluent businessman, because he had the padding and the special uniform and the color T-shirt and all that expensive stuff. God forbid he gets hit by a car. Then he'd blame the driver. It reminds me of a senior I know who was hit by a guy on a skateboard. Do you know what the guy said? He said, 'You're in the way.' I tell you, it's crazy out there."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.