by Jim Gregory (November 1997)
For the past five years, I have been earning a living hauling cargo by bicycle. Half bicycle messenger and half truck driver, I pull loads weighing anywhere from 50 to 1000 pounds. Our company, Fresh Aire Delivery Service, uses only bicycles and trailers to deliver groceries, distribute bulk newspapers, collect recyclable materials, and carry a variety of cargo in Ames, Iowa, a college town of 50,000 people located in the middle of the state. Our company employs two people full time (myself and my partner, Joan Stein), and 23 other people part-time.
There are several advantages to working as a "cargo bicyclist". The job is great physical exercise, providing a real workout. Joan and I have to eat a lot of food to get enough calories, and we never have any problem falling asleep at the end of the day. We also get to work outside all day (although this can be more of a curse than a blessing during part of the year).
More important, our work is an expression of our beliefs. The increasing number of cars on our roads is ruining our community, as it is virtually all communities nationwide. Ames has heavily-trafficked four-lane roads, a growing number of strip malls and fast food franchises, and a declining downtown area. We show people a different method of transportation, one that involves people and bicycles, not parking lots and gridlock.
In fact, hauling goods by bicycle is one of the best methods of changing our current transportation system. Not everyone is willing or even physically able to give up their car for a bicycle, but our company can provide them with the clean transportation services they need without anyone having to use a car. Being highly visible (it's hard not to notice a bicycle pulling a 10.5' long trailer) and on the road every day, we're a constant reminder to everyone in town that there is another way to transport goods. More than one person has told us that every time they see us as they drive along in their car, they feel guilty.
Plus, as we are a company that relies on our community's roads and bicycle paths to carry on our business, our city government listens to us. We take an active part in the forming of our city's transportation infrastructure, attending bicycle facility planning meetings and expressing our opinions to our city traffic engineer. Because we make a living riding bicycles, we often have more of an impact than bicycle advocates who are only occasional riders.
But, there are downsides to the job--namely, weather, traffic, and equipment. Iowa has fairly severe winters. The temperature can stay below 0º Fahrenheit for days at a time, snow and freezing rain are common, and strong winds are much more frequent than I desire. Although warm clothing (especially mittens, boots, and neoprene face masks) make the weather bearable, the extra layers make the job more difficult to perform.
Then, there's traffic. The automobile is still by far the most popular method of getting around Ames (despite the fact that the city is fairly flat and only 5 miles square). Our major roads have four lanes and heavy truck traffic, and most of them have no shoulder, bicycle path, or wide curb lane for most of their length. I'm frequently squeezed against the curb by passing motorists in too much of hurry to be concerned about my safety, only to be stuck behind them at the next stoplight, breathing their exhaust fumes.
Lastly, we have equipment problems. Because I have to shift gears so often, I break derailleur cables as often as once a month. Brake shoes, chains, and sprockets wear out quickly, too, especially in the winter. Fenders crack from fatigue, or are shredded when they come into contact with a spinning studded tire. Trailer tires seem to go flat only when the trailer is fully loaded and the temperature is below zero, making tube replacement that much more of a struggle.
Despite these obstacles, I still love my job. The physical act of carrying cargo by bike--pulling out from a stoplight with two trailers in tow, shifting through 21 gears, keeping a smooth cadence, gradually gaining speed--is, for me, almost a meditative experience. I wouldn't want to do anything else.
Joan Stein & Jim Gregory own the Fresh Aire Delivery
Service and make and sell cargo trailers through:
Bikes at Work
216 N. Hazel
Ames, IA 50010-5948
Read "Trailer Treaure" by Patrick David Barber