Commerce in High Gear: The Geography of Bike Couriers in North America

They are some of the city’s most visible workers, a familiar blur in the downtowns of New York, Chicago and Toronto. With the advent of e-mail there has been less work for them, yet they do their work as they have always done it: with urgency. They are bike messengers (also known as bike couriers). Their job is to move contracts, monetary instruments, and other small packages around dense areas of the city – and to do it fast.

There is already a fair amount written about the decline of messengers or about messenger subculture. In this work, bike messengers are profiled either as dodos of the digital economy or urban cowboys; anachronisms or anarchists. New research on Bike Messengers from the MPI suggests that they might also be symbols of regional economic advantage.

A recently completed study by Research Associate Patrick Adler has mapped and attempted to explain the geography of bike couriers in North America. It finds that bike couriers cluster in a small number of North American cities and that the places with bike couriers are more prosperous economies than the places without them.

Thirty metropolitan areas in Canada were studied along with the ten largest American metros, and a stratified sample of 32 others. Part of this study involved establishing the number of bike courier companies in each metro. The map below shows survey results.

Exhibit 1: The Geography of Bike Courier Firms in North America

Exhibit 1: The Geography of Bike Courier Firms in North America

The most prominent spatial pattern, was concentration. Bike courier firms were only found in 32% of the sample (28 regions). As expected the most populous cities, tended to have the most bike courier companies. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal — each country’s largest cities had more than five firms with bike service. Still, size could not account for the entire geography by itself. More populated cities like Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta have fewer couriers than smaller cities like Minneapolis. There are also national differences. No bike courier metro in the US is smaller than 1.25 million people (Louisville). Victoria (330,088) and London (457,720) are the smallest Canadian places with courier companies. Other regional characteristics seem to matter. For instance, statistical analysis found that the presence of artists, in addition to size and density was significantly associated with bike firms.

Further analysis determined the economic characteristics of bike courier cities (Figure 2). Cities with bike courier firms outperform cities without them in terms of GDP per capita, average wage and patents. The cities with even more firms do substantially better in terms of GDP per capita, the most fundamental measure of regional economic performance.

Exhibit 2: Average Metropolitan Characteristics, Based on # of Bike Courier Companies

Exhibit 2: Average Metropolitan Characteristics, Based on # of Bike Courier Companies

To be sure, this is mostly a story of correlation over causation. Bike couriers are by no means the cause of regional economic success. But bike couriers and prosperity are not completely disconnected either. Interviews with their clients show that messengers still perform valuable functions — even today. They offer the fastest mode of transport in the urban core, making guaranteed deliveries in under an hour. They are able to reach these speeds at any time — even when car traffic moves at a crawl. Costs for bike couriers are lower on average, thanks to lower costs in maintaining a bike than a car or truck and bikes get comparatively more affordable as gas prices go up. At a regional level all of this means that cities with bike couriers are faster and more efficient at circulating small packages . Bike couriers allow their cities to operate at higher speeds of commerce.

The story of the bike courier is a useful reminder for those who think regularly about the factors influencing regional economic development. As important as knowledge workers and creative workers are to an economy, producer services like bike messaging can be the source of regional advantage. A city’s ability to perform certain services can be meaningful to the knowledge/creative sectors as well as the wider economy. Some highly visible workers do some hidden work to make their cities … sprint.

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Further Reading:

Bettencourt, L., Lobo, J., & West, G. (2008). Why are large cities faster? Universal scaling and self-similarity in urban organization and dynamics. The European Physical Journal B-Condensed Matter and Complex Systems, 63(3), 285-293.

Martin Prosperity Institute. (2010).  Towards a world-class service class: the role of Toronto’s service workers in generating jurisdictional advantage

The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors—location, place and city-regions—in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.