Hello, Detroit? Kevin Bacon just called. He wants his old job back. Seems he’s caught wind that a renegade group of messengers is showing the Motor City how to properly get its bike on. And he wants in. Thing is though, they aren’t out to trade in their three-piece suits for 10-speeds all Quicksilver
— as in the 1986 feature film starring Mr. Bacon — style. Some of them have degrees in urban planning. Others are going grassroots with biking organizations and events. Not one of them owns a car. And all of them have an awful lot of, well, messages to drive home. Pigeonholed
"There’s a lot of romanticism that happens with a bike messenger service, but at the end of the day we're just delivery dudes," says Hans Buetow, 26, one of the founders of Rock Dove Couriers. He’s chomping on his fifth or six meal of the day—one of the perks of riding a bike for a living. But he and the orange-shirted, messenger-bag-toting posse that is Rock Dove couldn’t have a more skewed idea of who they really are. Rock Dove Couriers
(named after beloved urban animal, the courier pigeon) is a five-person pack of professional bike messengers
“pedaling” their wares around the city. For a courier service, those wares could mean anything from a subpoena or affidavit to the occasional last-minute Tigers box seat ticket haul. But don’t be fooled by the cut-off pants and sweaty brows. They’re specialists. They know the courts, They know the city buildings and the clerks. And, they know they can get a package anywhere downtown in 15 minutes rain, shine or 20 below. Just delivery dudes? Yeah, right.
Before they joined forces to form Rock Dove though, Hans and his three fellow partners, Ben Chodoroff, 22, Jack Van Dyke, 27, and Darrin Brouhard, 29, experienced their profession under slightly different conditions. They worked extraordinarily hard for what they call “a pittance” doing local runs on the bike for car-based delivery companies that offered no insurance and no protection for packages. "Basically if we get hit, it'd be like 'I don’t know you,' " Buetow says. But over the years, the various messengers that ran the local area day in and day out for car-based companies began to build a unique culture with an expertise at its core that only being on a bike could afford. "We realized that all this social capital is in our hands…in the worker’s hands," adds Chodoroff. "And we should be accountable for it."
To that end, Rock Dove built their own company...for the people, by the people. It’s what they call a "non-competitive collective" with each employee taking responsibility for the company name, its profits, and the packages. "It's more important to deliver packages well and treat clients well," says Buetow, “than sharing money with someone who didn’t get on the bike to do the run.” And speaking of keeping things cooperative, Rock Dove also operates on a non-hierarchical functioning system so at any given time all the messengers must have a mental map of where everyone is and where they are headed. "If you move, check in," Buetow says is the key to their homegrown company working smoothly.
When it comes down to actually pairing a messenger with a run, Rock Dove again veers from the traditional delivery and dispatch systems where the important information gets passed through way too many hands. The group's system has one of the couriers actually answering the phone, taking all the info, then going on the run. "So when a client calls our number," says Chodoroff. "They speak to one of us. They speak to an actual bike messenger."
And that cuts down on confusion and lends a personal air to such a fast-paced business. In fact, even the skeptics come around when one of them is able to pull off the unimaginable by being more mobile with their two legs than anyone behind the wheel. "That first time we pull somebody's butt out of the fire, oh, man," Buetow says. "People get sold."The price is right
Both Hans and Ben say that there's never been a better time to start a bike-based business. With gas prices in constant flux, Rock Dove has the advantage of being steady as she goes. Around Metro Detroit and especially downtown, delivery services are still primarily car-based. And that’s how Rock Dove knows it's always going to come out on top.
"We're always parked in front of where we are," says Buetow. "We never have to pay for parking." And of course, that front-door service translates into cost savings for clients. The Rock Dove standard rate is six bucks for a guaranteed two-hour delivery. Want it faster? $18.50 will have a messenger peddling as fast as his two legs will take him. And by fast, we’re talking like with 15 minutes. "Parking downtown and outside of downtown is horrible. That’s why we can offer service that's faster than a car. It may take us 8 minutes to get up to New Center
, but we definitely beat them (the cars) on the parking front,” Buetow says.
But here's the real kicker when it comes to who is really kicking who's butt on the cost front: Rock Dove has also started doing runs to both Oakland and Macomb County Circuit Courts. (Um, wait just a second. That's like 30 miles each way, right? No one could possibly bike that far!) Buetow says that through a combo of their bikes, DDOT
buses ($1.50 per ride, thank you very much), and the existing arteries of Woodward and Gratiot, they’re able to travel long distances in a shorter amount of time. “Because our model uses bikes, roads, and public transportation,” he says, “our solution is not only green, it is also significantly more cost-effective than cars, insurance, parking, and the biggest variable—gasoline.” And that directly translates into a cost savings for Rock Dove clients of up to 75% less than car-based delivery services. Same roads, same rights
All talk of cost savings and mass transit aside, the truth is Detroit is still really slow to accept bikes as more than just a needs-based way to get around. "The big thing is that there's a gigantic 'cyclist-by-default' culture here,' says Chodoroff, who is also one of the founding members of the Back Alley Bikes
collective in the Cass Corridor. "Whether economically or just because they hate the bus system, people will ride bikes." It's why he's tapping into that unorganized community and helping educate them (and others looking to ditch a car-based life) about bike safety (not wearing a helmet accounts for 90% of fatalities) and the ease of bike repairs (a few simple tools will handle 90% of repairs).
He hopes that in terms of systemic change, the city starts to focus on educating public servants, including DDOT drivers, about bike laws. "There has to be a change in the public's perception of bicycles," he says. "More bike lanes would great. But they don’t really mean anything if there's going to be cars driving in them or parking in them." Buetow pipes in with his two cents about public perception. “I live in Hamtramck and I get yelled at out there more than anywhere else. People just don’t know how to contextualize a bicycle on the road."
But that’s exactly where a group like Rock Dove comes in and starts to become the context. They’re literally working in the space where the rubber meets the road. They're two-wheeled agents of change. And they're showing a city built on cars that not everyone needs a pretty hunk of sheet metal to work and be happy. "We get to ride a bike for a living," Buetow says with a smile as he takes another guilt-free bite of his dinner. "We see parts of the city and get to do things here that no one else gets to. The city—that’s my office."
Detroit-based writer Jennifer Andrews is a regular contributor to Model D.
Photos:Crossing Cass AvenueHeading West on Fort StreetBen Chodoroff, Hans Buetow, Darrin Brouhard and Aaron KluzaRadio DispatchedRiding Down GriswoldHans Riding on Fort Street
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger