Life as a cycle courier in Bristol part 1

To earn a little bit of extra money, I decided to apply for a job besides my studies as a cycle courier in the city of Bristol. Getting paid to ride, was the slogan of the big company delivering food from a variety of restaurants. It appealed to me. Soon I got the job after just one trial shift and a job interview talk on the phone, not necessarily the best job application process. As a geography student I have a skill set to analyze the city, understanding how a city presents itself to me, how a city functions, getting a grip on the beehive that cities are today. As I was riding through the city, I got a chance to experience the city from a unique perspective; from a bicycle.  A fresh perspective that hopefully will let you think about cities differently. A perspective that breathed the fumes of the city, felt the physical design of the city in the legs. A perspective coming in contact with a variety of people living in the city. As a cycle courier you play your tiny part in the buzzing theater called modern life. A tiny cog in the machine of production, consumption and mobility. This is what working as a cycle courier is all about.

Car city

Car use has exploded throughout the Western world last decades. Cars were the sign of modernity, of affluence, of social status. New cities were designed to accompany cars; facilitating individual mobility all across the society. Owning your car and driving it from A to B was the way forward. Old cities were altered, modified, reshaped to aid car mobility. Bristol endured the same fate as many cities in the Western world; thousands cars speed past monumental landmarks; replacing traditional means of transport. Cars are claiming the streets, the spaces in the city. Picture yourself a city without cars; it’s almost impossible.

the city of Bristol, sliced through with high ways. (source: google maps)

Bristol’s main arteries of mobility, Park road, Gloucester road, the A38 slicing through the city center, are all packed with cars. Individual mobility: one car with one person takes as much space as 10 bikes with 10 people. The streets are therefore always congested. The main arteries of the body of Bristol suffer from constant blood cloths, the average speed in Bristol reaches nowhere near the speed that the roads were designed for. Our jobs as cycle couriers demand that we flow through these cloths, swirling as a drop of water between stuck traffic.  Overtaking cars that are stuck in traffic; finding ways between the lanes or between cars, hoping they would see your flashing lights and reflective clothing, praying they don’t change lanes without looking in their mirrors.

The traffic lights in Bristol are not well set compared to the Netherlands. One green light doesn’t necessarily means another green light at the next junction, slowing the traffic to a heartbeat: slowly pumping forward instead of a slow and steady stream. Traffic lights means two things to us as cycle couriers: a break in the demanding physical activity or another annoying stop where we lose precious minutes. The company I worked for paid us by delivery. To earn a minimum wage we had to push the limits, many red lights could mean the difference between a minimum wage or less than minimum wage.

Bristol’s municipality has taken steps to help cyclists reclaim the streets. So they say. Now we are forced to share spaces with buses; cycle lanes are bus lanes, bus lanes are cycle lanes. Buses stop frequently, we don’t. We maneuver through bus lanes, overtaking them right or left, being just behind them or even holding on to them. We are like the flies that annoy horses, swirling around the buses, left or right often out of sight of the bus drivers. I always feel bad for the bus drivers, we are not the vehicles you would like to share space with. But we have no choice; this shared space option was not our choice. The municipality forced the marriage between us the and the buses. Maybe because we were a hindrance for cars…

Areas of Bristol

Because of the diversity of restaurants; I delivered at a variety of people and social classes. Bristol is a city with a big multi-cultural heritage; but also with a class heritage.  The cheap fast food orders usually went to the poorer neighborhoods;  St. Pauls, Bedminster. Places that were the neighborhoods of the urban poor during the industrial time. These neighborhoods were old workers houses with tiny gardens, small doors and cables hanging in the street.  These streets were narrow; the sidewalk even narrower, swallowed by the space for parking cars. Some of these neighborhoods however escaped decades of poverty through ‘gentrification’.

These houses were built near the city center, close to the polluting factories where the urban poor earned their living decades ago. The rich people escaped the stinking city center; moving to Montpellier or mostly to Clifton. Now however, these former poor neighborhoods are valued for their cultural heritage and location. Being close to the city center matters now! Stokescroft; an area that belonged to the social outcasts, the urban poor, the minorities has been transformed to a hip, cool and most importantly expensive area. Easton, a neighborhood with more cultures than any other area is valued for its location and its history: prices of houses have doubled last decades, pushing out the former inhabitants further away from the city. This process is named by geographers ‘gentrification’.

It’s a vice versa movement compared to 60 years ago, the rich come back to the city center and the poor are forced to the peripheries. Delivering food in the high rise flats right in the city center across the Marriott Hotel taught me that. Old factories of manual labor have been replaced by the central business districts between Queen square and park road: glass towers of global capitalism. These areas in the city center belong to the big money, to the lawyer firms owning enough money to build an impressive office. These people working here needed food as well, so I delivered. Their location in the city center made easy trips; food was delivered well in time of the promised 30 minutes. These places in the city were solely for the businesses, you wouldn’t see people ‘dwelling’ or being there. Although no signs stated that you couldn’t be there; the feeling of these places of offices made sure you wouldn’t stay too long. If you wanted to be in the city, to have lunch to enjoy the buzz of the city, you must go outside of this business district. Whenever I had a lunch break or no orders, I would never be able to comfortably sit between these high rises, they were too distant, too unwelcoming for me to be in these spaces.

Part two will be released in due time. stay tuned!

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