Once Exotic, Bike Couriers Capitalize On Downtown Nashville’s Growth

They’re common enough in cities like New York or San Francisco, but bike messengers in Nashville?  The advent of bicycle couriers is another sign Music City’s core is getting denser, with more businesses, more people—and more traffic to avoid.

Dave Thienel "one-hands" a lunch order from a downtown deli to a nearby law firm. Thienel sees downtown's increasing density as a business opportunity. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Dave Thienel “one-hands” a lunch order from a downtown deli to a nearby law firm. Thienel sees downtown’s increasing density as a business opportunity. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

In 2000, before the condo boom, barely a couple thousand people lived in downtown Nashville.  That number is now above seven thousand.  And with ever more shops and restaurants opening—50 new ones in 2012, and still more this past year—Dave Thienel sees an opportunity.

Thienel's company, Rush Bicycle Messengers, sometimes uses a cart for big deliveries like large lunch orders or groceries. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Thienel’s company, Rush Bicycle Messengers, sometimes uses a cart for big deliveries like large lunch orders or groceries. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Thienel runs Rush Bicycle Messengers; he says for a few bucks he’ll deliver just about anything, be it legal documents that need to be signed and quickly returned, stacks of magazines for distribution all over town, groceries, or just lunch to a law firm.

While Thienel’s only been in the bike-messenger business a couple years, he’s not alone.  In addition to the people who ride for him, another courier service uses a mix of cyclists and drivers, and a downtown sandwich chain employs uniformed riders of its own.

Thienel says he’s essentially found a way to capitalize on big-city problems people hate, like traffic and parking.

“In a way, traffic is almost my friend,” Thienel says, “because the worse the traffic gets, the more my business can grow… You know there’s always a way around it when you’re on a bicycle.”

Skirting through alleys and side streets, cyclists easily bypass long lines of cars forced to idle for minutes on end, say, as a tow truck blocks the lane next to someone parked illegally.  And a bike can be chained up for free outside buildings where a driver might circle for minutes more, finding few good options—and none of them cheap.

The Worse The Weather, The Better For Business

Thienel says perhaps the biggest downside of his job is dealing with the weather.  Business isn’t as good when it’s mild outside, because potential customers don’t mind walking to lunch themselves.

Thienel says he got into making lunch deliveries to stay busy, after noticing a midday lull at many of the offices he delivers legal documents for. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Thienel says he got into making lunch deliveries to stay busy, after noticing a midday lull at many of the offices he delivers legal documents for. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Conversely, taking to the cold, wet streets on a bike often means donning a ski mask.  Thienel jokes it’s not a big deal, so long as he remembers to take it off before strolling into anyone’s office: “You have a lot of run-ins with security guards in general, regardless of if you’re wearing a ski-mask or not, so I usually try to keep those at a minimum.”

During downtime, Thienel lurks in coffee shops, watching his smartphone, flicking incoming calls to other riders, who he says during heavy times earn money comparable to serving at a nice restaurant.  The day I visited, Thienel had just sat down with a hot cup of coffee when a delivery order came in.  He chugged what he could and tossed the rest before strapping his helmet back on.

Changing Downtown

Downtown Nashville’s population has roughly than tripled over the last decade, though it’s still roughly half that of cities like St. Louis or Charlotte.

Peruse data on downtown Nashville’s population and businesses here.

Mark Woolwine, who watches real estate for Colliers International, sees bike couriers as a sign Nashville’s business district is indeed getting denser, and closer to the big-city feel of being able to get by without a car.  But he adds, “Are we a Chicago in terms of some of those services and needs? You could argue we’re not quite there yet.”

Woolwine’s sense is Nashville is getting close to that point.  And Thienel, whose bike courier business is now two years old, is betting on it.

Thienel owns several bikes, including a fixed-gear track bike and a mountain rig, but his main workhorse for deliveries is one he also uses for cyclo-cross. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

Thienel owns several bikes, including a fixed-gear track bike and a mountain rig, but his main workhorse for deliveries is one he also uses for cyclo-cross. (Photo: Daniel Potter)

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