We’ve all seen them (and hopefully avoided them): bike messengers are part of the modern urban landscape. NIU sociology professor Jeffrey Kidder has recently published a study of the distinctive subculture. A former courier himself, Kidder knows what it’s like to risk life and limb to make rush deliveries (everything from legal documents to a dress for a model to a vial of blood for the Red Cross) in downtown traffic.
In Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City, he introduces readers to the daredevil profession and, through interviews with and observations of messengers, shows how many become acclimated to the danger and highly devoted to the job in spite of consistently low wages.
From a sociological perspective, the bike messenger culture presents an interesting case study for Kidder, whose research interests include the intersection of cultural and urban sociology, and who is particularly interested in how people find meaning in their everyday lives.
“For a lot of people, work is drudgery,” said Kidder. “I’m interested in studying what can make work enjoyable and why, for some people, it becomes an essential part of their identity. On paper, a bike courier job sounds terrible, but messengers talk about it like it’s the best job ever.”
Kidder says that part of the appeal comes from how messengers “look upon traffic as a puzzle that needs to be solved. Their work becomes a very creative and sometimes even artistic enterprise. Those elements are missing from many jobs today.”
Though the risky profession may not appeal to everyone, Kidder believes it has a lot to teach us: “They find a great deal of satisfaction in what they do on and off the job. So I think messengers can teach us about work in general. It’s not always about what you’re paid.”