Free Enterprise, Advocacy - The Word from Buffalo
From today's New York Times:
Buffalo's Bike Messenger Industry: Two Wheels, One Man
By MICHELLE YORK
BUFFALO, Aug. 15 — In New York City, the number of bike messengers who make their living while dodging taxicabs, inhaling exhaust and enduring curses from pedestrians as they ferry goods from building to building reaches 2,000. In the city of Buffalo, 400 miles to the west, there's one.
He's Mike Rizzo, a disenchanted 38-year-old computer programmer who traded in his office and steady paycheck two years ago for a cellphone, a canvas pouch and an Xtracycle. He bought a uniform of two black bike shorts and a yellow shirt with the name of his one-man company, Zippy Delivery, on the front and sent out some faxes announcing his arrival.
Then he began building his business at the same rate he began building his leg muscles — slowly. Now he cycles full time around downtown Buffalo's five square miles, delivering about 30 packages a day for $8 each.
Mostly, he said, he delivers documents. He does not want to deliver food. At least once, he tucked a bobblehead from the Buffalo Bisons, the city's minor league baseball team, into his bag and rode it over to an advertising agency so it could be photographed.
Though he is the city's only bike messenger, Mr. Rizzo does not appear to be lonely. Downtown workers have come to recognize him, and he waves at friendly greeters more often than he brakes.
He loves researching Buffalo's history, and he can tell you about a building's past as he trudges up and down its steps making deliveries. In his slow periods, he digs up history on certain homes, which he writes about for a newspaper column, and for private customers willing to pay $35 to $225 for his research.
Mr. Rizzo readily admits that big-city messengers might scoff at the 200 miles he rides a week. "They probably do that in a day," he said.
But that does not mean he faces fewer hazards. Not to mention a few unique to Buffalo. Last winter, the city had more than nine feet of snow, according to the National Weather Service. That is more than twice what was recorded in Central Park. "The winter's busy because nobody wants to be outside," he said. "It's like my own downtown. But snow actually isn't too bad. We have some of the best snowplow drivers in the world. I only closed once, and that's when the whole city closed."
Too bad those snowplow drivers cannot do much about other conditions. The worst time to cycle, Mr. Rizzo said with an eye cast toward the gloomy sky, "is in down-pouring rain."
On a recent workday, a minivan driver cursed the wiry Mr. Rizzo, husband to a high school science teacher and father of twin 13-year-old girls, as he waited to turn left from the center of the intersection — a legal move that drew the driver's ire nonetheless. Mr. Rizzo was reminded of his latest project. "That driver's part of why I want to form an advocacy group," he said to the reporter cycling behind him.
That, and the fact that the Buffalo police arrested a group of bicyclists on felony riot and unlawful assembly charges on May 30. The informal group, which calls itself Critical Mass, is similar to other groups across the country that feel they should not have to follow all traffic rules, and it was out for its monthly ride. The rides sometimes attract only 20 people. But on that day, as many as 75 cyclists were riding together, which appeared to make the Buffalo police nervous.
One cyclist was ticketed for failing to stop for a police car. When other members of the group gathered around to spontaneously collect money for the fine, another cyclist was given a ticket for jaywalking.
More police arrived. Descriptions of the confrontation vary, but when Heron Simmonds, a part-time philosophy professor who is black, was handcuffed and placed in a patrol vehicle, his fellow cyclists accused the police of racial profiling. More arrests ensued. The police said the cyclists struck them with their fists.
In the end, the cyclists' felony charges were reduced and others dropped at the request of the Erie County district attorney. Now, eight cyclists, including another college professor besides Mr. Simmonds, face misdemeanor charges of obstructing governmental administration. A trial date has been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17.
Mr. Rizzo was not among those arrested. Afterward, though, "nobody came out to make a statement," he said. "There's nothing to prevent this from happening again."
So Mr. Rizzo decided to form an advocacy group, a project he expects might be an uphill endeavor — even more so than delivering messages. "The goal is to make Buffalo a bicycle-friendly city," he said. "A lot of people are afraid to ride."
That means educating the public and the police about bicyclists' rights. Mr. Rizzo said he would like to see everything from large nonconfrontational bicycle rides to patient minivan drivers. "Even police don't know what the rules are," he said.
The fledgling group, with about 20 members including Mr. Simmonds, will meet for the second time on Aug. 28, and Mr. Rizzo hopes they will decide upon a name and agree on their goals and tactics.
A network of people within and beyond Buffalo's limits are supporting Mr. Rizzo.
"It's great to see him doing this," said Shawn Bega, owner of DC Couriers in Washington, who has exchanged e-mail messages with Mr. Rizzo to offer support and advice. "It's extremely worthwhile. There is a big international group of bike messengers, and they are pouring ideas and information to him."
And while on his route, Mr. Rizzo came upon a fellow bike enthusiast, Glenn Palin, who pedaled up on a bicycle with a car battery strapped to the front that helped provide plenty of light to see in the dark. They talked for a few moments about the group before Mr. Rizzo wheeled on to his next delivery.
Later he headed to Rick Cycle Shop, where his friends teased him, calling him Zappy — "the opposite of zippy." Mr. Rizzo's cellphone rang with a request for a delivery. He rode onward, carefully over the Metro tracks where he once fell, and toward his last pickup of the day.
A traffic light ahead turned red, and rain began to fall, but blessedly, not pour. Though he claims to not be obsessed with biking (meaning he does not ride on the weekends), he seems to relish the twists and turns that come with cycling, and the obstacles along the way.
"When the light turns green," he said, "we have to outrun this bus."