Murder for hire in Vancouver

Indie filmmakers Neil Brill and Tom MacLeod clearly don’t believe in the expression “don’t shoot the messenger” given that they’ve spent the past few years filming local bike messengers for the new documentary Murder of Couriers.

The word “murder” is used here as a collective noun similar to the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired term “murder of crows,” and couriers themselves are much more likely to get killed on the job than do any actual murdering of their own. (Here at the Courier newspaper, we generally refer to a grouping of our own product as a “pile of Couriers.”)

Opinions on bike couriers run the gamut from distant admiration to out-and-out scorn, particularly here in Vancouver where attitudes towards urban cycling are so weirdly polarized that the next civic election could very well hinge on the issue of building/removing separated bike lanes.

Not that couriers tend to use them much anyway, preferring to instead weave through traffic — frequently without helmets and riding fixed-gear bikes without brakes — as they race the clock to make pick-ups and deliveries on time.

As the film shows, being a bike courier is more of a lifestyle choice than a career move — which I know firsthand having worked as one part-time back in my university days.

“You get to ride your bike and get paid for it, there isn’t a better job, period,” says a grizzled-looking dude in the trailer. He seems to actually believe it too.

Performing what is generally considered one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, bike messengers take a certain pride in their subculture status. The job lacks prestige or security, and the wages, which were already pretty crappy given the risks involved, have been steadily plummeting for years.  A typical bike messenger in Canada makes somewhere between $11 and 30 grand a year, which obvioulsy doesn’t go far in an expensive city like Vancouver. Fifteen years ago, more than 400 couriers were licensed in the city, according to a recent story by Megan Stewart. Last year there were 86.


In other words, it’s becoming increasingly tough for couriers to bring home the bacon.

But while the pay sucks, at least you’re not stuck in a cubicle spending hours of your life watching the Spinning Wheel of Death on your Mac. And there’s a kind of brothers-and-sisters-in-arms solidarity in the courier culture that many outsiders find compelling. Along with Murder of Couriers, in recent years they’ve been the subject of an American reality TV series, a Hollywood action movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a Playstation game and yet another documentary. Their trademark, over-the-shoulder messenger bags can also be spotted everywhere these days, although on the downside they’ve have also had to endure the indignity of a terrible Robin Thicke video.

But while the demand of for their delivery services is in decline due to technological advances, it’s unlikely that the job will ever disappear entirely. There will always be a need for someone willing to manually haul stuff around the city, and bikes will always be the fastest way to get the job done given they can get through traffic jams quicker than cars. The Internet is never going to make the job entirely obsolete.

Hopefully the same will hold true for newspapers.

© Vancouver Courier


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