“Both clever and fast”: Montreal just hosted the 25th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships

Here we go. Image: author provided.

Bike couriers from cities across the world converged in Montreal last weekend for the 25th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC). Most events, including the gruelling three-hour main race, took place on the concourse of Montreal’s 1976 Olympic stadium.

The much-maligned building is capped by the world’s tallest inclined tower, but is best known for its calamitous construction history, exorbitant price tag and status as the ultimate architectural white elephant. But, said event organiser Alan Adriano MacQuarrie, it was the obvious choice of location. “It’s a concrete paradise. It has a richness and complexity that lends itself to such a strategic race.”

Indeed, the iconic location was a key factor in Montreal’s successful bid to host the championships – as was the city’s thriving bike messenger community. “There’s a very strong-willed messenger scene in Montreal,” MacQuarrie said. “We have tough winters. If you are a serious messenger, and work during the winter as well, that takes strength and determination.”

The main race mimicked an urban bike messenger’s typical work day and tested riders’ navigation skills, strategic thinking and speed. Each participant was entrusted with a ‘manifest’ at the beginning of the race –  a piece of paper to be stamped at various checkpoints – and had to choose the most efficient routes between all the pick-up and drop off points listed on it. The twisting course involved one-way systems, roundabouts and made full use of the stadium’s multiple concrete ramps. Extra points could be gained by completing several manifests, or completing ‘rush manifests,’ in a narrow window of time.

“You have to be both clever and fast,” Montreal bike messenger Brett Barmby explained on the final day of the championship. He’d competed in the qualifiers the day before. “Often people who are really enthusiastic about bikes and are really fast give it a try. But they don’t think like a messenger, and so they don’t do so well.”

For many, the annual championships are not only a competition but an excuse to party with old friends for five days. “This is our Olympics. People come from everywhere,” Barmby said. “On the first day, it’s amazing to see people who haven’t seen each other for a year reunited, and so happy to see each other.”

Informal street races held over the weekend called ‘alleycats; gave participants a taste of the particular challenges of being a bike courier in Montreal and a chance to explore whilst hurtling around the city. The city is notorious for bad roads, reckless drivers, potholes, and year-round construction. Moreover, hills are inevitable, given that many of the city’s different neighbourhoods are clustered around Mount Royal, the large hill from which the city is thought to take its name.

Alleycats operate in a legal grey-area. They are organised on the side by people outside of the official event team and are left off official programming. However, they are “the foundational events of the bike messenger scene,” according to MacQuarrie, and are inevitable fixtures to each CMWC. Like the main race, contestants were given a manifest and had to choose which order to visit various checkpoints scattered across the city.

A pop-up bike polo court was installed outside the stadium for the duration of the championships. Visiting players from across the world participated in friendly matches with the Montreal team and each other, with a swell in activity and court-side beers after the final race wrapped up on Sunday afternoon.           

Bike polo has featured in the past as a side event at CMWCs; while invented by an Irish bike enthusiast in 1891 and played on grass at the 1908 London Olympic games, it was resuscitated on a hard court by bike messengers in Portland in the early 2000s.


An industry in flux

The bike messenger industry is evolving, explains MacQuarrie. Bike messengers earn less and work longer hours than they did in the 1990s: cheques, custom forms and bills are now mostly sent by email, and newspaper deliveries have plummeted. Independent companies are moving into food and bulkier items – one company in Montreal even delivers mattresses. “Twenty to 25 years ago, a food delivery guy was a food delivery guy. It wasn’t noble work. But now people are diversifying.” 

Corporate food delivery companies, like Foodora and UberEATS, are a relatively recent phenomenon, and according to many people at the championships, there is a definite gulf between the traditional independent companies and the big firms. The difference, MacQuarrie said, is “professionalism”. In an independent company, “Every delivery is personal to you, you have an interest in your company, you are dealing with clients. You are not just a faceless employee hired to do deliveries by a huge company.”

Barmby agreed. The corporate food companies “don’t get a lot of respect in the community,” he says. “They will hire anyone with a bike who thinks they can do it.”

Earlier this month Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was partially transformed into centre for asylum seekers fleeing the US. If any asylum seekers were present at the championship, however, they kept a fairly low profile among the heavily-inked beer-chugging bike messengers.

Cecilia Keating tweets as @ckeating14.

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What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.