While many folks use bikes for sport or commuting, a smaller group of cyclists rely on them to actually make a living. And it’s not just couriers, anymore. From laundry deliverers to street cleaners, a variety of Philadelphians have found both full- and part-time jobs atop a bike seat. We sat down with three of them — Kwan, 32, of Center City (he doesn’t use a last name); Mariusz Tyrk, 42, of Mayfair; and Jake Clark, 29, of South Philly — to find out about their experiences, how they interact with others on the street, and how cycling jobs are evolving.
What do you do? What does your typical workday look like?
Kwan: I do bike deliveries at Kabuki Sushi, at 13th and Arch. I work nights. I’m not really a morning person. Sometimes I go to Goldilocks Gallery on 8th and Arch and help out and plan stuff with the owner of the gallery. I also plan and throw events myself, so my daytime is usually filled with working on that.
Mariusz Tyrk: I work for NKCDC [New Kensington Community Development Corporation]. I ride a tricycle with storage and maintenance equipment. I have a couple of routes on Richmond Street in Fishtown. On Mondays, I go to Girard and clean the streets under the train station and work my way to Berks Street. My duties are to remove all the graffiti, to remove illegal signs, to scrape up any tags that are attached to the newspaper stands and poles. I also take care of the bus shelters. I put up new posters, clean the glass, and make sure there’s no graffiti. I also deliver all kinds of invitations for events that take place in Philadelphia. Basically, I work five days a week, seven hours a day. I have a flexible schedule.
Jake Clark: What type of tricycle do you use for your routes?
Mariusz: There’s a guy in an old factory. His name is Steve [Horcha].
Jake: Haley Trikes. Dutch-style, with the cargo box in the front.
Mariusz: Yeah. When I first started I didn’t have a tricycle. I was working on foot. But one day, he provided me a tricycle and it was so nice. I could put two recycling cans inside the compartment. I also have a little storage compartment for my chemicals and attachments for my brooms and dustpan. It’s a three-speed tricycle. It’s very comfortable.
Jake: I’m director of logistics for Wash Cycle Laundry. I have my hand in just about everything delivery related, whether it be making sure my frontline deliveries happen and speaking with my frontline team members on a daily basis, or trying to improve efficiency by researching vehicles we can add to our fleet or different programs we can use to track maintenance, or going over the numbers with members of my team in Philadelphia and the members in Austin and D.C. I can’t think of one day that’s ever been the same as the next.
When did you all start working on your bikes?
Kwan: I’d say probably four or five years ago. I went to school for marketing, tried the whole marketing thing, and it didn’t really work out. I just never got into the groove of it. That was kind of the push to get into biking, because I like biking and I can make money off of something that I’m into. I don’t have to deal with corporate culture.
Mariusz: I started [at NKCDC] on October 11, 2011.
Jake: I’ve been on my bike about six years now, doing various things. But I’ve been with Wash Cycle Laundry for just over two years. I started when there were just six employees, and I was just a person riding around delivering laundry. As the company grew, I’ve grown along with it.
“What’s that phrase, be the change you want to see? I feel like working on a bike is the easiest way to actually effect that.”
Kwan, you mentioned that you were really into biking. Were all of you into cycling way before you started your jobs?
Jake: I rode BMX since I was 10 years old and never really got off a bike since then.
Kwan: Yeah, definitely. Putting it into perspective, I would say biking is the one time I really feel free.
Mariusz: My first experience tricycling was when I started this job, but riding a bike was always a pleasure. I commuted on a bike basically since I was a little kid. But a tricycle was a bit of a different experience, because it was designed for work. Riding a tricycle gives you a good workout. I transport bags filled up with trash. I have to pedal hard, especially when I go up a hill. I have to downshift to the lowest gear. And it depends on the weather conditions — wind blows, or there’s snow or rain. You have to adjust.
It seems to be a cool moment for cyclists in Philly. What is it like seeing the growth of the cycling community, as people who use bikes for work and not just to commute?
Jake: It’s great seeing the change in the winter. Five, 10 years ago, drivers weren’t used to seeing bikes almost at all in the winter, so people would forget about how to ride with bikes. It would become dangerous. Now that drivers are used to seeing people on bikes throughout the year, they seem to have a much better handle on how to ride with bikes on the road. I’ve noticed that if you give drivers respect, they tend to give you respect, too.
Kwan: Uh, yeah. I don’t… you have Philly drivers, and Philly, we’re just kind of… there’s this aggression in the city, and I think it spills over with drivers and the way they react to bikers. Sometimes I feel like I’m at war with drivers. Sometimes with cabbies.
Jake: Cabbies are the bane of everybody’s existence.
For pedestrians and drivers, too?
Kwan: I notice a lot of people jaywalk looking at the ground or looking at their phone. And yeah, it’s a pain. But how do I feel about there being more bikers than there used to be? I think it’s overall a good thing. Obviously, it’s not a bad thing as far pollution and health. We bike for our jobs, so there’s this pride in that. [To Jake] Like you were speaking on biking in the winter. I have no choice. But I notice a lot of people will put their bikes away in the winter and start driving.
“Putting it into perspective, I would say biking is the one time I really feel free.”
Jake: It’s like, “Look what I do. You couldn’t do this. You wouldn’t do this.”
Kwan: Yeah, exactly. “This is my job, and you’re treating it like a trend.” I’m not into that side of the growth so much.
Jake: I think there’s always going to be turnover there. Bike shops wouldn’t have business if people didn’t sell their bikes and then decide a couple years later that they want a new one. A good bike will last you 30 years-plus — even longer than a car if you maintain it properly. With that said, I think there are more people now who aren’t going to give it up. It may be a trend, but you see people riding around with their kids, and I think that’s going to continue to grow.
How do you guys adjust your routes, especially in Philly, which has so many streets with legacy trolley lines still in them?
Jake: I don’t try to avoid bike lanes per se, but I don’t seek them out, either. Especially in Center City, where we focus a lot, they tend to have a little traffic in the lane — whether it be people running, parked cars, or people walking their dogs. In Center City, [bike lanes] are almost more dangerous than they are helpful. Now the trolley tracks, I always try to avoid those. Those are no fun for anybody. But we use routing software and can adjust the routes accordingly.
What’s the routing software that you use?
Jake: We actually built it ourselves. It has no name. I guess it’s based off the Google Maps algorithm, with some different parameters that we’ve put in specifically for bikes. We route by point and we assign it to a certain cyclist. We assign eight, 10 stops to each cyclist, and then it routes the best way around the city, taking into consideration the time that we have for delivery to make our appointment.
Kwan: For me it might be a little different, because I feel like delivery is based on speed. Plus, I deliver downtown and don’t have the luxury of a lot of bike lanes, but I guess it’s knowledge of the city and knowing which ways are faster than others. I also think instinct plays heavily in how I get from point A to point B. Sometimes I feel the need to go against traffic because I can get to point B faster. And yeah, trolley tracks. Nobody likes those. As far as delivery, you can’t really avoid situations like that.
Jake: You can’t go out of your way just to avoid the trolley track.
Kwan: You just have to go over it at an angle, I guess. That’s my advice. Don’t hit it straight on.
Jake, you work for a company that has sustainability at its core. Do you think climate-consciousness will open the door for more people who work on their bikes?
Jake: I don’t think it’s a niche market; I think it’s a growing trend. There are companies in Europe that do bicycle delivery. There’s a big one in Portland that does it as well. Almost every other major city has pedicabs, and those are huge markets that Philadelphia hasn’t even tapped. I think that the bicycle as employment will continue to grow. What’s that phrase, be the change you want to see? I feel like working on a bike is the easiest way to actually effect that. [To Kwan] Do you or anyone you work with use electric assists on your bicycle?
Kwan: [laughs] This is the first time, actually, at the Japanese spot. I work seven nights a week. And the other guy has, like, an electrical Robocop bike.
Jake: What do you think about that? Do you think it’s cheating?
Kwan: No, I wouldn’t say it’s cheating. You should just get there, because it’s not just biking — people live off of deliveries. So skateboard there, if you have to.
Jake: What’s the farthest bike ride you’ve ever done?
Kwan: I worked at Circles on 2nd Street in Northern Liberties, and [the owner] opened up the delivery zone. I found myself going from 2nd Street to University City, as well as past Lehigh almost to where the Somerset stop is.
Jake: For me, it’s probably either going down to the Navy Yard and back, or up to the Mann Center and back. The Mann Center is not really that far, but that hill…
Mariusz: I begin my route at the [NKCDC] Garden Center. I go to Girard, Allegheny and Frankford. It’s not really that far, all within the same area. What does make things demanding is when I pick up a lot of bags, it’s harder to pedal. It puts on more weight that you have to carry.
Jake: How much weight do you carry on your tricycle?
Mariusz: Well, the tricycle is designed to carry 500 pounds. I have two bins, one for recycling and one for trash, so if I clean a lot of glass and the bags are really heavy, maybe 80 pounds or so. You still get good maneuverability, but you have to pedal harder.
Jake: I can imagine.
Mariusz: And if the weather conditions are not favorable, that makes it even harder.
“It’s like a little obstacle course at times. I haven’t broken any ribs, but I’ve broken my jaw, and my nose got ripped off.”
Kwan: Going back to fear of getting doored: I feel like you guys stick out more than the average bikers, and maybe people are more conscious about it. Have you ever gotten into an accident?
Jake: Personally, yeah. I got doored pretty bad. Broke a few ribs. But at work, we have a great safety track record. We’ve had two car-to-trailer incidents in our four-year history. Oddly enough, those happened at the same intersection about a week apart from one another.
Kwan: Where was it?
Jake: It was 38th and Spruce, right up by the [University of Pennsylvania] campus. Somebody making a right turn on red without paying attention. Turning into the trailer, knocking somebody off, slight injury but nothing serious, nothing that kept them off of work.
Kwan: That’s a main street, too.
Jake: You get so many kids who don’t know how to drive right there. Other than that, we do stick out, and people do notice us. I think we get a little more respect because we’re so visible. If we stop at stop signs, people will wait for us go through instead of jumping ahead. How is it for you? Is it a lot of weaving in and out?
Kwan: Yeah, because my job is outside of bike lanes. It’s like a little obstacle course at times. I haven’t broken any ribs, but I’ve broken my jaw, and my nose got ripped off.
Kwan: Yeah, it’s a skin graft or whatever. I’ve only gotten doored once, luckily. That didn’t happen until recently. Someone jumped out of a cab, not at the light.
Jake: On the wrong side. There are signs in every cab that say to get out on the sidewalk side.
Kwan: That was only time I’ve gotten doored. Again, last winter was really rough. It got to the point where I would crash once a week just because of the ice. Oh yeah: Last winter I did get second-degree frostbite for the first time. Which was weird, because I’d never had frostbite before and I didn’t understand. For two weeks, my big toe was numb and black.
Anything you else you guys want to share with our readers?
Kwan: Uh… biking is fun?
Jake: Everyone should do it!
Kwan: It’s funny: Last weekend I was somewhere, and a girl visiting her friend from D.C. saw that I was sitting with a bike. They came up to me like, “Thinking about moving to Philly. Do you think that Philly is a bike-friendly city?” My response was, “No, not really.” But to go back to your original question, with more people on bikes — I think that’s a good thing, because it’s slowly going to change Philly into a bike-friendly city, and cars will notice and understand how to coexist with bikes. Yeah, that’s it. Get a bike. ◆