Retiring Messenger Mike Morell Discusses the State of the Local Courier Biz

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When Time Out Chicago still ran in print, Morell (center) distributed hundreds of pounds of magazines via trailer. Also shown: Jim Freeman and Bob Matter, now with the bike-focused firm FK Law (a Streetsblog sponsor). Photo: T.C. O’Rourke

Imagine how much better Chicago’s central business district would work if all the deliveries that don’t require motor vehicles were made by bicycle instead.

While the traditional bike messenger industry, based around moving envelopes and small packages, has been steadily shrinking with the rise of digital media, it’s still alive and kicking. Meanwhile, human power is becoming an increasingly common way to transport larger items and, especially, food.

Last week Mike Morell, 39, a 15-year veteran of the courier business and a mainstay of the local messenger scene, announced he was retiring to “explore some other pursuits.” Morell is known as a cofounder of 4 Star Courier Collective, Chicago’s first cooperatively owned messenger company.

Morell is also a seasoned racer. He won the title of Chicago’s fastest bike messenger as the top-ranked local competitor in the 2012 Cycle Messenger World Championships, held in the south parking lot of Soldier Field (originally proposed as the site for the Lucas Museum). I caught up with him to get his take on how the local courier biz has evolved over the years.

Morell founded 4 Star with friends in September 2005. “We all had our gripes with most of the companies out there, although we really liked the job,” he said. “It was a last-gasp effort to continue to do the job we loved.”

The company is no longer purely a collective. “Unfortunately, one of the tricky things was to find an equitable way to have owners come and go,” Morell said. “The owners still do deliveries nowadays, but they make a little bit more.” However, he says the bike messengers and car couriers who work as employees for the company are still paid fairly. “The focus is making sure everyone is still making a living.”

Although Morell will no longer be riding or dispatching for 4 Star, he will continue to help out behind the scenes for some time. The remaining owners are Tom Willett and Al Pearson.

Morell says that while there is much less traditional messenger work in Chicago than when he started, the number of companies has also greatly decreased, so 4 Star is still doing well. “Our share of the market has grown as companies with a more top-heavy management structure folded,” he explained.

There are about 12 traditional companies left downtown, and about a third as many bike couriers as there were a decade ago, Morell estimates. “It used to be that you would run into people you knew all the time,” he recalled. “You still do, but it’s more of a novel occurrence.”

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A food delivery cyclist. Photo: Cut Cats Courier Collective

While it’s less common for firms to send forms across the Loop for signature, most of 4 Star’s runs still take place downtown. They deliver blueprints to construction companies and work sites, transport proofs for advertising companies, and drop off keys and documents for real estate closings, for example.

Morell doesn’t think the total number of delivery cyclists in the Loop has risen over the last ten years, despite the growing use of bikes to deliver food. “A lot of the new food delivery companies only cover neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Wicker Park,” he said.

“The food courier business really seems to be blooming,” Morell added. “But it seems like it’s a precarious point where, much like Uber drivers, we may soon have many bikers getting work off an app. It’s possible that larger multi-city companies will end up dominating the market.” However, he said local food delivery companies like Cut Cats Courier Collective, SNAP Courier, and Uptop Delivery Network have a loyal following of restaurants that appreciate their focus on high-quality service.

Another trend in the bike delivery business is the growing popularity of cargo cycles for hauling larger payloads. “You’ll see people using, say, a [Danish-style cargo bike] Bullitt or an Omnium to carry five or six boxes, or a file cabinet,” Morell said.

While the golden age of courier work was the 1990s, when some bike messengers claimed to make up to $1,000 a week, Morell says it’s still possible to make a decent living as a courier.

“The days of dropping off ten deliveries in an hour and making really good money may be behind us,” he said. But he added that 4 Star employees make a living wage, and food delivery cyclists seem to make between $80 and $200 a day. “I think a lot of that is tips. Tips are pretty rare for traditional messenger work, so that’s a new thing.”

As far as his own job prospects, Morell says he’s looking into pursuing a master’s degree in accounting. “Ideally I’d like to offer accounting services to companies like 4 Star that don’t follow a traditional model,” he said.

Morell says he has no regrets about spending more than a third of his life in the courier industry. “I did it for so long because I really loved that job, having that freedom, being outside, getting to feel like you’re a part of making the city work, going in and out of so many businesses,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know the city in a way most jobs wouldn’t allow me to.”

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  • Alex_H

    I’ve always thought this seemed like a cool job. Sounds like a great way to have spent the past 15 years, being outside, meeting people, and learning the city. Kudos to Mike, and good luck!

  • BlueFairlane

    I did it for a couple of years in the middle of the last decade until a bad case of lymphoma forced me to stop, and the treatments wiped me out too much to go back once I was done. I had a writing career before the bike and have been doing something similar since I left, but the bike was still the best job I’ve had.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Very glad you won your battle with lymphoma. Sounds like you and I had opposite job trajectories. I had a biking career before the laptop.

  • Great article, John! I followed your links to the delivery services —yeah for them!— and the cargo bike builders. As far as the last, while it is good to see that more manufacturers are building them, it is curious & unfortunate that the American ones use the highly uncomfortable and un-ergonomic “comfort” bike as the basis rather than a northern-European upright rider position. The old-fashioned “bakfiets” may be slower, it is comfortable to ride.

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