March 6, 2011 • In web :: Features
Toronto’s Radio Flyers
Our writer talks to some women who can be seen flying down the streets of Toronto delivering packages. Some of the city’s female bike messengers share their experiences about the job on two wheels that they love.
Cycling took stage in Toronto’s mayoral election last year. Some candidates and citizens question why people choose to cycle. To others, the reasons are obvious: low cost, it’s a good source of exercise, it’s fun and it’s environmentally sustainable. Thinking beyond commuters and athletes to those cyclists who keep our courthouses, banks, and government offices running smoothly, I chose to learn more about the work of bike messengers.
I see bike messengers on the street and in my office building every Monday to Friday, but it’s hard for those of us on the other side of the desk to imagine what it’s like to ride a bike for eight-plus hours a day, so I asked Toronto messengers Meli Martinez and Sammie Gary to fill me in.
What surprised me most about what they had to say was how little the physicality of the work seemed to bother them. Martinez said that for the first few weeks of work she was tired, then she simply got used to it. Neither mentioned getting injured as drawbacks of the work, and even the weather didn’t seem to be a major complaint.
In fact, Gary notes one annoyance is the constant comment strangers make about the weather, “Wet enough for you?”
Working conditions for bike messengers in Toronto and everywhere aren’t great and have been declining over the past 10 years including a reduction in rates. Coop Couriers Toronto, a courier company that believes in ethical working conditions, notes on their website that couriers must give up their rights to workers compensation
and pay unfair fees for radios and pay advances.
While you may not get compensated financially for this work, there is an immeasurable dimension of the work that is appealing to any independent girl. You get to learn the best routes for getting around the city, you have no boss looking over your shoulder, you become comfortable fixing your bike, and when you’re not riding, you can find a nice spot to sit and read.
“Everyday is an adventure. It’s kind of childish, but I think of my job as a quest where all the road vehicles are monsters that I have to dodge as I acquire these important packages that I have to get from one place to the next as fast as possible,” says Gary.
When you are riding all over city, zipping in and out of dozens of buildings, people are going to talk to you, if only because of the sheer number of people you come across in a day. Some people like this aspect of the job; One courier commented that she didn’t mind how often she got hit on because she found it was a way that people start to tell their stories. Many couriers talk about being in the city as observers, of studying human interaction and the mood and behaviour of whole city centres. ”I feel sometimes like I’m conducting a case study on
everyone in the core.” says Gary. However, when you are a part of this city landscape other people (particularly drivers) feel the need to make observations and judgments about you.
Gary gives a particular example of how women bike couriers might be a bit more vulnerable to this. “I attached these wings on my helmet like the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes, and a lot of people say to me 'I didn't know there was a female equivalent to Hermes.' That tends to get to me.”
Martinez tells me about getting her job. She went around to various courier companies in Toronto until one agreed to take her on. However, when she showed up for the first day of work, the man who was to give her a radio looked her up and down and told her that they didn’t have one. Martinez could tell something was up and told him outright that she could ride her bike, was ready to do it, and that he was not giving her a chance because she was a girl.