We have a bicycle riding culture at Datalogics. A lot of our employees participate in rides like the Udder Century, through Illinois and Wisconsin dairy farm country, and the North Shore Century across Chicago’s north suburbs. Several of us ride to work; I bike seven miles to work every day, year round, and haven’t owned a car for over 30 years. On a cold January day in 2014 (-16 degrees F) I biked to work, and ended up meeting our president on the elevator on the way to the office. He kept on saying, “you are a sick man,” but I am sure he was impressed.

Biking to work in January 2014

Winter biking is something I am used to, and over the years I have watched more and more adults join me in pedaling to work in the Loop, including in January and February.

But something else has also changed in recent years. I used to see a lot of bicycle messengers on downtown streets. Since 2005 or so, nearly all of them have vanished.

Not just my impression, either.

I did some research, looking for bicycle messenger companies in Chicago. A March 29, 2001 article in the Chicago Reader, “Shoot the Messenger,” reports that there were 70 bicycle courier services in the city at the time, employing hundreds of bicyclists. Now, 15 years later, I can find three or four. Most of the blog articles and other postings that appear online related to bicycle messengers are four years old or more. An April 22, 2016 posting in StreetsBlog by John Greenfield quotes retiring bike messenger Mike Morell noting that the number of bike messengers in the city has fallen by two thirds over the last ten years. Most of those who remain deliver food, riding Dutch cargo bikes. And while food delivery is booming, the trips tend to be longer, and delivering food doesn’t pay as well. Chicago remains a great place to ride a bike, but making a living while doing so is harder than it used to be. “The days of dropping off ten deliveries in an hour and making really good money may be behind us,” Morell says.

In the old days bike messengers had to ride hard, as they were paid a percentage of each delivery. So most bike messengers covered the rent by delivering legal documents for banks and law firms and other businesses that were within walking distance of the train stations and Loop L stops. Ten years ago or more the deliveries were abundant, consistent across regular business hours, and concentrated in Chicago’s compact central business district. To keep up with demand, bike messengers were legendary for riding fast and for taking risks.

But that model only worked as long as businesses were inclined to print out legal documents to be signed and delivered in the rain in satchels, and as long as marketing and design firms wanted to deliver proofs and galleys. Around 2005, bike messengers in Chicago started to notice that their business was drying up, according to Joel Van Twisk, a mechanic at Heritage Bikes on Lincoln Avenue (terrific custom bikes, and coffee). Improving technology related to digital documents, as well as in collaborative design software, led to a shrinking need to print, sign, store, and deliver paper.

Adobe Systems was an early leader in providing digital document technology. In 2003 Adobe Systems introduced, with Acrobat 6, digital signatures for PDF documents that could be verified by a Certificate Authority. Then Adobe introduced Reader Enablement, making it possible to fill in a PDF form and save it using Adobe Reader. At that point an administrator could create a PDF document in Acrobat, add form fields and a digital signature field, and then distribute copies of that PDF document. Anyone with a current version of the free and widely available Adobe Reader software could open a copy of the PDF document, complete the content, and sign it, if a signature was needed. Then the PDF file could serve in place of a printed and signed document. Also, after a PDF document is saved with a signature, it is possible to lock it against any further changes if necessary. This is a requirement in some cases for a digital document to be legally binding.

The Federal government had a role, too. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) of 1998 mandated government agencies to make electronic versions of their forms available online. Notably, the Internal Revenue Service has been encouraging taxpayers to file their returns online for over 25 years, and in 2014 nine out of ten did exactly that. GPEA was followed by the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act. ESIGN, passed in 2000, was designed to make electronic contracts and electronic signatures as legal and enforceable as traditional printed documents. This worked well for financial services firms, insurers, and other vendors who conduct business online, reducing the costs for completing a home loan, for example, and making it possible to complete these transactions much more quickly. The changes in the law also helped transactions between businesses, such as easing the ability to order supplies and services over the Internet. The Federal ESIGN Act did not require that transactions be completed digitally, but it made paper forms and documents unnecessary in many situations. Some documents still must be provided as traditional print and ink documents to be enforceable, such as wills, divorce decrees, court orders and notices, and documents needed to accompany the transport of hazardous materials. But the law made it possible for the volume of paperwork to be significantly reduced. Meanwhile, nearly every state in the country has since adopted a version of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), sponsored by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The UETA makes electronic signatures on digital contracts valid for state use.

So Chicago’s bike messenger community watched their profession fade—slowly at first—as local businesses started to change their ways. Then the Great Recession gave them an incentive. Desperate to cut costs, Chicago businesses and law firms were much more willing to switch to digital documents. And besides being free, email file attachments move a lot faster than even a champion bike messenger could manage. So bike messengers don’t haul many documents around any longer, and the total number of deliveries has fallen. These days I look for cargo bikes and bikes pulling trailers carrying lunch and groceries and compost bins instead. They ride a lot more slowly than their predecessors, but I think they are more elegant. And they continue to provide a valuable service on Chicago’s crowded streets.

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