Some portion of the continued demand may be the need to send items which can not be sent by digital means (eg corporate gifts, original artwork, clothes for magazine photo-shoots or original signed documents). But legal documents, various financial instruments and sensitive information are also sent by courier, perhaps reflecting a continuing distrust of digital cryptography. Also common is the use of messengers to deliver digital content across the city on optical media or hard disks. With the introduction of high speed internet connections, the speed of delivery is no longer the main reason for the delivery of removable media, as it may have been in the past. In some instances messengers may be used purely for the air of importance the delivery method lends to a package.
In the U.S., the Obama-Durbin Independent Contractor Proper Classification Act of 2007 was introduced to deal with the problem of workers 'misclassified' as independent contractors. It is not clear what effect this legislation, if enacted, will have on the U.S. courier market. But if, as is the Act's intention, courier companies are forced to treat those workers that they previously declared independent contractors, as employees, with all the benefits thereof, then there is no doubt that costs will rise. It should be noted that this legislation is aimed at 10 million workers in the U.S., not merely couriers and messengers.
The employment status of the bicycle messengers of one of the UK's biggest sameday courier services, CitySprint, was challenged by the GMB trade union in December 2007. The challenge arises from the firm deciding to terminate the contract of one of its riders. The GMB seeks to establish that more than 1500 CitySprint operatives currently classified as self-employed sub-contractors should be re-classified as employees.
It is very common for the job to carry a low degree of compensation relative to the risk and effort required. In 2002, a Harvard Medical School study of injury rates amongst Boston bicycle messengers determined that the rate of injury requiring time off work amongst the sample group was more than 13 times the U.S. average, and more than three times higher than the next highest, workers in the meat-packing industry. At least one bicycle messenger is killed while working every year in the U.S. Eight bicycle messengers are known to have been killed while working in London between 1989 and 2003. Because payment is made at piece rates, and cycle couriers often fail to file accurate tax returns, it is hard to find good evidence of messenger income. A study published in 2006 stated that the average daily wage of London bicycle messengers was £65 a day, and that of bicycle messenger in Cardiff was £45. The UK legal minimum wage is £5.52/hour. Based on a nine hour day, this gives a legal minimum daily rate of around £49, before deductions.
Almost immediately after the development of the forerunner of the modern pedal-driven velocipede in the 1860s, people began to use the bicycle for delivery purposes. David Herlihy's 2004 book on the early history of the bicycle contains several references to bicycle messengers working during the late 19th century, including a description of couriers employed by the Paris stock exchange in the 1870s. During the bicycle boom of the 1890s in the United States, Western Union employed a number of bicycle messengers in New York City and other large population centers.
The earliest recorded post-war American bicycle courier company was founded by Carl Sparks, in San Francisco 1945. According to the San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association, "Sparkie's went on to become Aero, which was bought out in 1998 [and] later absorbed into CitySprint. By the late 1970s, there were well-established companies offering bicycle messenger services in many major cities in the U.S.
In Europe, the bicycle had fallen out of favour as a means of delivery in the third quarter of the 20th century. It was not until 1983 that bicycle messengers made their reappearance in Europe. London's On Yer Bike and Pedal-Pushers were pioneers of pedal over petrol, and the rest of the city's courier companies followed suit. By the late 1980s, cycle couriers were a common sight in central London and a British manufacturer named a range of mountain-bikes for them, the Muddy Fox 'Courier'. Entrepreneurs in continental Europe, some inspired by seeing couriers in the U.S. or in London, began to offer bicycle courier services in the late 1980s, and by 1993 there were sufficiently large numbers of bicycle couriers in Northern Europe and North America that over 400 attended the inaugural Cycle Messenger Championships in Berlin, Germany. Bicycle messengers have not become common in southern Europe, the heartland of world competitive cycling. There are very few bicycle couriers in Portugal, France, Spain, or Italy. Outside Europe and North America, there are now large bicycle messenger services in Japan — notably Tokyo — and also in New Zealand and Australia.
The essential equipment of a bicycle messenger is a bicycle. Messengers can be found using many different types of bicycles, including road bikes, hybrids, mountain bikes, BMX bicycles and fixed-gear bicycles. Although not ridden by a majority of messengers, the fixed-gear bicycle is currently most often associated with bicycle messengers.
Clasps which can be adjusted with one hand (ideal for riding), clips, pockets and webbing loops on the strap for holding a cell phone or two-way radio and other equipment also feature on purpose-built messenger bags. Messenger bags generally have large capacities (up to 50 liters or 3,000 cubic inches, large enough to hold a box of ten reams of paper). Baskets and racks, mounted on the front or rear of a bike, can also provide carrying space, and at least one messenger service (in New York City) equips its riders with specialized three-wheel cycles (sometimes known as cargo-trikes), which have a large trunk in the rear for carrying items, in lieu of bags.
Some messengers see their occupation as a sport as well as a job. Starting in 1993, Cycle Messenger Championships have taken place at national, continental and world levels. In addition to these international races, bicycle messengers organise events of many kinds. These range from weekend events featuring multiple competitions, to roller races held in bars, to alleycats and social rides. These events are held as much for fun and messenger networking as for competition. Bicycle messengers also take part in formal cycle competitions at all levels, and in all disciplines. Nelson Vails, silver medallist on the velodrome in the 1984 Olympics, worked as a bicycle messenger in New York City in the early 1980s. Ivonne Kraft, who competed in the 2004 Olympic cross country mountain bike race, is a multiple former Cycle Messenger World Champion, and worked as a bicycle messenger in Germany for a number of years.
News media have made portrayals of messengers ranging from innocuous urban libertines to reckless, cliquish nihilists. The latter portrayal is often sparked by local incidents involving bike messengers in collisions with other road-users or run-ins with authority figures. These incidents also occasionally lead to proposals for, and dispute over, new ordinances and regulations on messengers and messengering.