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Multiple North American courier champion Austin Horse gives us a whistlestop tour of a typical but totally crazy day as a New York City bicycle messenger.

Part career, part athletic pursuit, life for Austin Horse is never dull. See the map above for Austin’s stops as he delivers packages personally all around the city of New York, and read what he has to say about his unusual job below…

1. 8 a.m. start, Brooklyn
“Definitely the best messenger service in New York!” says Austin of the outfit he works for, Samurai Messenger Service. “We’re a co-op, so if I take a day off I’d be concerned about my fellow employees. In any one day, five of us will be on the road and one of us will run the dispatch. It’s in all our interests to work as efficiently as possible.”

"I feel responsible and in control of everything that’s happening to me." –Austin Horse

2. From home in Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge to SoHo
“Often a ‘triple rush’ here – our most urgent clients. Could be very busy. Sometimes on standby…” Austin says. “When you get a good day on the road there’s a sense of connection. If you ride you get to be in the flow,” he explains. “You don’t want to be contentious, you want to read the flow, feel the flow and use the flow.” Courier colleague Josh Godar (aka ‘Sweets’) echoes: “You get a good day on the road and there’s a sense of connection, of everything being around you, like a fish in water. There’s a sense of flow, it’s true. It’s like cooking; don’t force it, just relax. There’s a natural pace to it. You have to let go of your ego on the road.”

3. Madison Square Park
“Our biggest client, a PR agency. Could easily be here four times a day with various items: adverts, editorial, post-production, proofs, randoms,” Austin says. “The times when I’m going really fast through tight traffic and you see how depressing it is for people in their cars going just a foot every minute, with no idea of whether it’s getting better or worse… just a combination of factors coming together that’s making them unable to move or do anything about their situation… I realize I don’t have any of that. Instead I feel responsible and in control of everything that’s happening to me. I make decisions and go between the cars. It’s my decision to speed up and make it through a gap. It’s nice to be in control.” 

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4. Upper Midtown, just below Central Park
“Lots of media companies here,” Austin comments. “New York is an amazing place with incredible opportunities. One of the things I love is that, in a way, it’s the center of the universe. Things begin here and they end here, and if they don’t come from here they come through here and I’m able to participate in that because I have a job and a mode of transport that unlocks so many of the closed doors. It allows you to do so much – for example, being up on the Park Avenue overpass and looking at the amazing view from Grand Central; you can’t walk on it and it’s not as good from a car.”

5. 86th Street
“Our furthest regular client,” says Austin. “A good day is when you go to a lot of unique places and I feel challenged by a diverse amount of work. All these different places that everything has to go – it keeps you thinking and moving.”

6. West Side: 601 West Houston
“The seasonal bully, early spring, teasing bike messengers with the promise of the summer’s warmth, only to repeatedly smack us across the face with cold rain, near freezing nights, and this year, a glut of road-rage focused at cyclists,” the Samurais’ entertaining blog comments, before adding: “One of our founding partners, Dan G, was sideswiped on Bleeker St on his way home from dinner. The cab hit him and tried to drive away before our friend Bill successfully chased him down, got in front of the car and called the cops. Dan’s wrist is broken. Really broken. Surgical-repair-required broken.”

"You escape serious injury or death by inches and all because of the action you take." –Austin Horse

Austin adds: “Cops generally just ignore messengers. I think they understand we perform a role in corporate life and that most of the time what we’re doing is deliberate and careful. But if we do get to the point of interacting with a cop, they’re probably not going to judge us too favorably.”

7. Down the West Side: Workshop in Chinatown
“Do I get scared?” Austin reflects. “No. Not even when I started. I just feel really comfortable in traffic, so I never really got scared. I’m lucky; I’ve never had someone deliberately chasing me and trying to hit me with their vehicle – and that does happen. It depends a bit on the road. If it’s quite open then you’re more exposed. I just kinda trust people not to be psychopaths. If you really think about it, then of course, when you’re going into a gap between two stopped cars… they could see you and think, ‘Fuck this guy,’ and hit you… I’ll see situations where somebody does a U-turn right in front of me when I’m coming towards them at a fast pace, and without your reaction you’d be severely hurt or dead. You escape serious injury or death by inches all because of the action you take.”

8. Back to SoHo, often for another triple
“There’s spontaneous street-burning [with other couriers]: that’s real fun,” Austin grins. “Sometimes when two of you are in traffic and you’re both feeling it – maybe you’ve raced before – you just go jamming through the cars.” 

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9. East Village bike shop (if he's lucky and has time)
“On a really basic level it’s not that complicated,” Austin says, “but there are all sorts of things you can do to save time and energy and make your day flow better: a better way to position your strap, a better way to pack your bag. Or a way to sneak into a building instead of taking a time-consuming service entrance.”

10. Avenue B between 12th & 13th
“There’s a definite reason I do this,” says Austin’s colleague Josh Godar. “It’s not because I’m crazy and I like to ride my bike. There’s a real sense of freedom and accomplishment to it. A lot of us are college educated and could choose more conventional jobs, but this is what we want to do. I think the tourists like us, too. London, Tokyo, Berlin… we’re part of the scene, man,” he twinkles.

11. Austin’s favorite coffee shop on 29th between Broadway and 6th
“If a job has a two-hour delivery, then why do it in 20 minutes and give the client a rush tariff for nothing?” Austin says. “The best thing you can learn in this job is patience.”

"The U.S. is on the cusp of a sea-change in the way we consider urban transportation." –Austin Horse

12. Red Bull New York office to top up with Red Bull Cola
“It’s not like we’re some exclusive club. Maybe being a messenger isn’t even a huge part of your identity because so many people do it,” says Austin. “There is a small group – and I’m in it – where being a bike courier is a big part of who you are. [Austin jokes that his girlfriend is “very good” at making sure time away from the bike is just that – away from the bike.] But there are guys for whom music is much more important and this is just their job. And that’s cool. If they just want to make enough to live, that’s fine. There are plenty of guys who go nose to the grindstone, working every waking moment, every day of the week.”

13. Time’s Up offices: 9 South 6th Street
Austin’s bikes carry ‘One Less Prius’ stickers: “I’m active with one of New York’s green organizations [www.times-up.org], and we’re trying to create new cyclists in New York. The U.S. is on the cusp of a sea-change in the way we consider urban transportation. For most of the last century the country was built on a motor vehicle model and that’s no longer sustainable. Finally, the policy of U.S. transportation is shifting to one that relies more on bikes.” 

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You can read the whole of Anthony Rowlinson’s Red Bulletin article about spending a day with Austin Horse in New York in the October 2010 edition of the magazine, viewable and downloadable here.


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