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NIU prof delivers book on bike messengers

The 2011 book 'Urban Flow' about bike messengers was written by Jeffrey Kidder Forest Park resident Northern Illinois University professor.

The 2011 book, "Urban Flow," about bike messengers was written by Jeffrey Kidder, Forest Park resident and Northern Illinois University professor.

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:07AM

The job is even more dangerous than working in the meat packing industry, yet the pay is low. Bicycle messengers whiz in and out of serious traffic in all types of weather, avoiding everything from delivery trucks to baby strollers, yet the job attracts a wide variety of people who otherwise wouldn’t consider an entry-level type position.

That’s because many see the job as a lifestyle choice rather than an occupation, said Jeffrey Kidder, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University.

“There’s a certain romance to be able to ride your bike,” said Kidder, who studied the city bike messenger subculture for his recent book, Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City.

Kidder, of Forest Park, said Chicago is among the top three cities in terms of shear numbers of couriers, with 300 making 1.1 million deliveries every year.

Kidder said he observed two types of bike couriers in his five years of research: “occupational messengers” and “lifestyle messengers.”

Occupational messengers are usually “marginally employable” at best and often choose courier work simply to earn a paycheck, he said. He said it’s not that hard to get started: “In order to make some money in the profession, all you need is a bike and be able to pedal.”

Lifestyle messengers, however, are often “college-educated bohemians” who are attracted to the “sense of personal autonomy” and the daily “excitement of adventure” on the job, Kidder said. The job requires intimate knowledge of city streets and traffic patterns and requires quick reflexes and decision-making.

Messengering requires “creativity and spontaneity in the workplace every day,” he said.

There’s also a camaraderie among messengers, who work most of the day on their own but often meet after work. They also coordinate team “alleycat” bike races through city streets, and some travel around the world to take part in such races.

Kidder, 35, brought more than just an academic eye to the trade: he worked as a messenger in New York, San Diego and Seattle while earning master’s and doctoral degrees.

“It allowed me to pay my rent and do my research,” he said.

Like any messenger, Kidder has plenty of harrowing delivery tales to tell.

“I got hit by a guy who drove a stolen car,” he said. “When the weather gets bad, it can be a very physically painful job.”

His deliveries ranged from a vial of blood for the Red Cross to a bag full of family photos for actress Kathleen Turner.

Bike messengers might not seem like a typical subject for academic study, but it’s fascinating to Kidder, who studies the intersection of cultural and urban sociology.

“For a lot of people, work is drudgery,” he said. “I’m interested in studying what can make work enjoyable and why, for some people, it becomes an essential part of their identity.

“On paper, a bike courier job sounds terrible, but messengers talk about it like it’s the best job ever.”

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