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In San Francisco, bike messengers are in demand again due to tech boost

SAN FRANCISCO--Technology was supposed to be the end of bike messengers — until some couriers managed to make it their means.

The number of messengers in San Francisco has plummeted in the last two decades, but the surviving courier companies are getting a boost from tech and the on-demand lifestyle it enables.

As companies including Google, Amazon and eBay rev up their same-day delivery vans, startups are turning to bicycle messengers — though they've had mixed success wooing experienced riders.

For courier companies, it's disrupt or be disrupted. Armed with logistics apps and startup partnerships, some are adapting to a new business environment fueled by a culture of instant gratification.

“I've seen a massive paradigm shift from business-to-business courier service to business-to-consumer,” said Chas Christiansen of TCB Courier in San Francisco. “We're really trying to bring back the courier culture and keep it alive by shifting what we deliver from packages to food, wine and flowers.”

In the 1990s, back before Dropbox, DocuSign and court e-filings, bike messengers raced through the city by the hundreds, bolstered by dot-com-era companies flush with cash. Estimates vary, but the number of professional San Francisco messengers today is about half of its dot-com peak of more than 500.

Food Delivery

By the mid-2000s, the remaining courier companies were fighting over what was left of the demand for business deliveries. So when Christiansen started TCB Courier in 2009, he went where no messenger company wanted to go: food delivery.

Food is tricky cargo. Speed is imperative, temperature matters, and “if I spill burger sauce on these court filings, nobody's gonna be happy,” said Brandon Correia, 39, who in 1999 co-founded Godspeed Courier. And some couriers look down on food delivery workers and don't consider them real messengers.

TCB didn't win respect focusing on food, but it had great timing. It began delivering for places like Memphis Minnie's just as startups including GrubHub and Seamless let users order food without getting out of bed.

When tech companies became interested in deliveries — bringing goods “the last mile” from a store to a customer's hands — courier services gained some buzz.

About two years ago, Postmates came knocking, Christiansen said. The delivery startup hoped to use couriers on bikes and in cars for small businesses in a city. TCB consulted for Postmates briefly, but it “wasn't a good fit,” Christiansen said.

At a 2011 event to demonstrate Postmates' services, founder Bastian Lehmann called it a “marketplace for professionals,” not a “crowdsourced platform.” (Lehmann declined to be interviewed because this story's focus was not solely on his company).

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