Bikes have long been a useful medium for transporting goods. In late 1880s Paris, for example, messengers on bicycles delivered checks between banks. Bike couriers also carried telegram messages over their last-mile journeys.
Around the same time in the U.S., bike messengers came on the scene in California. During a railway strike in 1894, they ferried packages and letters between San Francisco and Fresno.
Later, both Western Union and the U.S. Postal Service utilized bicycle messengers to make deliveries. Even with the rise of automobiles, bicycles continued to be a quick and cost-effective way to deliver goods in busy cities.
The Gig Cyclists
After World War II, bicycle courier companies emerged. Among the first was Sparkies, which was started by Carl Sparks in San Francisco in 1945. That venture went on to become Aero. In 1998, it became a part of CitySprint.
Across the country in New York, bicycle messengers arguably reached their peak of 5,000 workers in the 1980s. While new methods of communication such as email and fax machines displaced some bicycle messengers, they still were used to deliver items such as legal documents and plane tickets.
Long before Uber or Lyft, these messengers were essentially gig workers. Pierre Jacob, who worked for Cycle Service Messengers in 1987, told The New York Times that he enjoyed the job because he got to spend the day outside and set his own hours.
As an independent contractor, Jacob worked on commission. His take was typically around 50 percent, according to the NYT. At the time, a delivery for the service usually cost a customer $7, while a rush delivery — delivered in an hour or less — was $20.
An Unmet Need
In 2012, four entrepreneurs were at a macaroon store in California getting feedback on technology to help small business owners. As they were wrapping up their meeting, the store owner told them of an unmet need.
“Well, there is one thing I wanted to show you,” the store owner said and pulled out a delivery order book. “This drives me crazy. I have no drivers to fulfill them, and I’m the one doing all of it.”
Following their meeting at the macaroon store, the entrepreneurs proceeded to talk with more than 200 small business owners who all seemed to have the same need, so the entrepreneurs developed a food delivery app.
That idea resulted in a service called Palo Alto Delivery, which is known today as DoorDash. One of their delivery methods? Bicycles.
Since its founding, DoorDash has put quite a bit of thought into bicycle delivery. To increase its focus on bicycles, for example, the company created a special delivery bag designed to increase the comfort of bike messengers, along with their visibility. On the technical side, the company’s software analyzes the size and distance of delivery orders to see if they’re appropriate for a bicycle.
The Road Ahead
Today, DoorDash couriers use different types of vehicles. While they do utilize trucks and cars, pedal power has its advantages.
“We’ve seen that scooters and bikes are incredibly efficient at navigating heavy traffic in urban areas to get an order to its destination on time,” the company wrote in a blog post.
However, bikes have a distinct advantage over other non-car methods of transportation. Take scooters, for example.
“While scooters aren’t for everyone, and can sometimes require different licensing, we’ve found that bikes are an easy-to-use, accessible option for most,” the company continued in the post. “And since many people are already comfortable with riding a traditional bicycle, eBikes are a great way to help reduce our carbon footprint and assist Dashers to navigate a city with ease.”
A merger between the two companies could, however, enable them to take on their better-funded competition. Currently, GrubHub, which also owns Seamless and Eat24, is the biggest company in the United States dedicated to restaurant delivery, with a public market value of $8.5 billion.
Would such a deal put more bikes on the road, delivering takeout to hungry customers? Only time will tell.