Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Brandon Lockfoot cycled 4,000 miles to document urban couriers.
Last year, 27-year-old Brandon Lockfoot competed in the North American Cycle Courier Championships in Denver. There’s swerving and bobbing and dodging, sure. It’s also a test of intellect and intuition. Competitors race to decipher manifests and fasten and unbolt locks.
Those skills also translate to the workday, when messengers gain a leg up by memorizing shortcuts and mapping out unmarked freight entrances. They need to prioritize, and knock out rush orders before queuing up for the security line at buildings such as One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Speed matters, but strategy does, too.
As the historian David V. Herlihy notes in his encyclopedic book, Bicycle: The History, couriers were enlisted to sprint stock market documents around France as early as the 1870s. That doesn’t mean that their utility has dried up now that so much commerce has migrated online.
In the click-to-buy era, messengers have been tapped by Uber, Amazon, and food delivery start-ups to ferry items to customers within few hours. "I've seen a massive paradigm shift from business-to-business courier service to business-to-consumer," one messenger explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. “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."
To shave minutes off the trip, they’ve got to outsmart the street, bypassing the grid system. Alleys are a messenger’s ally. In New York, “you’re kind of bound by what the street is,” Lockfoot says. But “Boston has a lot of alleyways. That city is kind of like a bowl of spaghetti, how it’s laid out with the streets going all over the place.”
Lockfoot, who works part-time as a courier in addition to going to school at The Cooper Union School of Art, decided to translate his gig into a photography project. From May to August, he zipped around the country with bike messengers in 15 cities, clocking 4,000 miles.
He took photos while riding shotgun up San Francisco’s shrugging peaks or slicing through Philadelphia’s narrow streets. It was key to use a camera with a quick shutter speed to snap a photo without slowing down. “I ain’t trying to hold someone back because I’m too tired to go up a hill,” he says.
The resulting portraits will be on display in an installation, Invisible Infrastructures: Ghosts on the Street, on view at Cooper Union from February 2-19.
In San Francisco, Lockfoot met Christina Peck, a two-time Cycle Messenger World Champion. In Chicago, he trailed Joey “The Legend” Love, a member of a cohort known as the “Cling-Ons” for their style of hitching onto taxis or trucks to haul themselves across town.
Messengers are always scanning the road, attuned to dozens of stimuli at once—watching out for opening doors, taillights, and turn signals; angling for fleeting eye contact in a rearview mirror. (“Sometimes you have to give them a little tap on the back of the car to let [drivers] know you’re there,” he says.) They stow garbage bags in their backpacks to wrap around the haul if it starts to rain, drenching bundles of architectural sketches and contracts, or garment bags holding a dress for a last-minute invitation.
In each city he visited, Lockfoot crashed with messengers he met or camped out at the dispatch office, so “I could wake up where the action is.” From Portland to Milwaukee, he blended into the fold.
“Do you know any other job where someone can just leave their city and be welcomed in?” he asks. “Have you ever heard of a plumber going to Europe and hanging out with a bunch of other plumbers?” The camaraderie is what keeps him on the saddle. “It may not be much for a lot of people,” he says, “but I don’t need anything else.”