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.”