Five years ago, publications like the Houston Press were sounding a tocsin: the death knell of our local bicycle courier community, whose jobs were increasingly being lost to electronic filing of court documents and other online means of transmitting the documents they once shuttled between courthouses, law firms and the tall quiver of various skyscrapers in downtown Houston. But at least one courier was optimistic about the future.
"The delivery business is going nowhere but up from here," Old Man Tim Bleakie, one of the original downtown bike couriers who skimmed the city's asphalt like fast flocks of sandpipers with wheels and helmets, told the Press at the time. "Maybe working for law firms isn't the way — you're gonna have to be more creative, do more hot-shot runs than courthouse runs, but I'm not gonna give up on the business."
Today's bicycle couriers have done just that: they've gotten more creative, both in the breadth of their delivery services and in the way they market themselves to potential clients. They'll go (nearly) anywhere you want, in (nearly) any kind of weather, pick up (nearly) anything you need and deliver it to your home, office or (nearly) any other location—and fast.
Heights-based Velo Delivery, run by co-owners Ryan Strayer and Christopher Saldaña, is one of those newer, more creative bike delivery outfits. Velo maintains a clever Instagram account that shows its couriers picking up everything from giant cardboard boxes filled with bananas to a single pint of Blue Bell cookies and cream, and offers weekly specials like its half-price Taco Tuesdays, when all Tex-Mex orders are half-off.
Rad Ass Delivery, meanwhile, distinguishes itself by its large delivery area: downtown, Midtown, Montrose, the Museum District and—best of all for those who know how hard it is get off campus—the Texas Medical Center. As with Velo, its co-owners Teneil Matthews and Chesare Johnson do much of the cycling and deliveries themselves. Both companies also charge incredibly reasonable delivery rates given the quite literal sweat equity involved.
And though both are relatively new, they've already generated a lot of steam (and miles on their bikes) as an increasing number of Houstonians turn to these handy concierge services for everything from cold meds and cans of Campbell's soup to, yes, document delivery (it turns out that even with e-filing, this is still a thing). And since both deliver in entirely different areas, neither are competitors—at least not yet.
We caught up with the Velo and Rad Ass teams to find out what other similarities they share (pothole struggles; rush hour; the excitement they feel when they get an order from a regular) and where the two companies are striving to set themselves apart.
How long have y’all been biking/cycling?
Rad Ass: Five years.
Velo: I started cycling about four years ago when I found my grandma's old 10-speed in her basement. I'm not an all-star, but I do love to get around on my bicycle.
How long have y'all been running deliveries?
Rad Ass: RAD officially opened in February 2015. We’ve been growing for six months now!
Velo: Velo officially began December 1, 2014.
How did you come up with the idea?
Rad Ass: On a road trip to California, we noticed a lot of bicycle delivery services all over the place. We thought it would be a bad ass idea to deliver things on bikes in Houston.
Velo: I looked for typical messenger work in Houston and found that it was slim pickins. At the same time I was seeing other bike delivery services, aimed toward delivering food and goods, open up in other cities. I reached out to them, got some advice and opened up Velo here in the Heights. I'm not that original; I'm just surrounded by a supportive network.
Is there a road(s) you avoid at all costs?
Rad Ass: We pretty much avoid high speed, heavy traffic routes like Allen Parkway and feeder roads, but we regularly deliver to places on those streets. Luckily, we know plenty of good routes throughout the neighborhoods that help us to beat traffic and avoid dangerous situations.
Velo: Heading north on TC Jester (especially with pizza) is something I try to avoid.
What is your “rush hour” so to speak?
Rad Ass: Our busiest times each day are lunch and dinner hours, especially on rainy days when people don’t want to spend their time stuck in traffic. We don’t mind a little rain and we package everything so it stays dry, so it’s a win-win.
Velo: Our busiest hours are during lunch and dinner. A lot of folks want lunch delivered downtown and then dinner delivered in the Heights.
What’s the strangest item you’ve been asked to deliver?
Rad Ass: Lube.
Velo: We haven't had anything too wild. Somebody wanted crickets once.
What’s the most common item you deliver?
Rad Ass: Food is definitely number one. We’re proud that a lot of our deliveries come from local gems like BB’s Cafe Montrose, Hot Bagel Shop, Al's Quick Stop, Luna y Sol and SweetCup Gelato. We take pride in being able to offer our delivery service to bring more local goodness to people in our delivery area.
Velo: It's a toss-up between tacos and pho.
What’s been your favorite delivery so far?
Rad Ass: It's pretty fun delivering to our regular customers who will call us up two or three times a week. They're always happy to see us again and we're happy to see them as well. We really enjoy getting to know the people in our neighborhood and it’s super cool to learn about some of their favorite places around town.
Velo: My favorite deliveries are to our regulars. I love getting to stop and chat; seeing familiar faces and getting to know the community is what it's all about.
What’s been the toughest delivery so far?
Rad Ass: Our first large grocery delivery was a little tough. It had a lot of heavy items like cases of water, milk, lots of produce, etc. Mashing at high speed wasn’t an option, but the groceries made it to their destination safe and sound.
Velo: I filled a breadbox with fountain drinks a few weeks ago and had to manhandle it in my arms from Airline to I-10 and Shepherd. I felt it the next morning.
Is there anything you absolutely won’t deliver?
Rad Ass: If it’s illegal, we won’t deliver it. Small pets and children are a negative as well.
Do you feel like Houston’s drivers have become more or less courteous to cyclists over the years?
Rad Ass: Drivers are definitely becoming more aware of bikes on the road as the cycling community in Houston continues to grow and influence traffic laws and the city’s infrastructure; and I think that increased awareness contributes to safer commuting conditions. Fortunately we operate in the more bike friendly parts of town where the cycling community is very active and visible. There are definitely people on the road every now and then who are aggressive, inconsiderate or just plain oblivious to cyclists and other vehicles on the road, but for the most part we get through our days smoothly. (But we do have rad ass kung fu skills just in case we need to use them.)
Velo: Some are great, some are outrageous—most of the time I don't have any issues. I haven't ridden in Houston long enough to see a real change.
How would you rate the ease of cycling in Houston?
Rad Ass: On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is a breeze, Houston would get a 5. The terrain is flat, but it's a pretty big city so it’s easy to put in a lot of miles just commuting from place to place in a set area. Also, people drive fast, so it makes you keep a quick pace to keep up with traffic.
Velo: Generally, Houston is pretty easy to navigate by bicycle. The Heights is great to ride in.
How many miles a day do y’all ride on average?
Rad Ass: On a slow day 15 to 30 miles. On a good day 50.
Velo: Sometimes 6, sometimes 60; it depends on people's appetites, where they want food from, what day it is and how many riders are working. Fridays and Saturdays see a good bit of evening and late night miles.
Where do you like to stop and eat/grab a bite/a drink while you’re making deliveries?
Rad Ass: There are so many good places! We end up stopping somewhere different every day, but we were huge fans of BB’s Cafe before we started RAD and we still are. For a quick and delicious bite we frequent Khun Kay Thai Cafe, Bodegas Taco Shop, Pinewood Cafe, Simply Pho and Fat Bao. Cupcake Kitchen and SweetCup Gelato are also our favorites for a sugar boost every now and then, and Cecil's on West Gray is definitely our favorite place to grab a drink.
Velo: I love Catalina Coffee. The owner, Max, is a cyclist and there's no shortage of delicious bites and great espresso. Also, the Bicycle Speed Shop on 11th has long been a hide away for me. They've got an espresso machine and a fridge where I've usually got some food hidden. The owners, Greg and Brian, have become close friends of mine and have some of the warmest attitudes around.
What do you think is the most cyclist-friendly establishment(s) in Houston?
Rad Ass: Anywhere with a safe place to lock up our bikes is cyclist friendly to us. One of the most notable is Moon Tower Inn where you can almost always find cyclists hanging out or meeting up for the monthly Full (((MOON))) Cruise by Ours Too Cycling. Whole Foods Montrose, The Hay Merchant, Flying Saucer and Cecil’s are pretty bike friendly too. The Hay Merchant even gives you a discount for riding in on your bike.
Velo: Good Dog generally seems have customers who've arrived on two wheels. Antidote is the starting point for some local morning rides. Also, Onion Creek sees a lot of cycling shorts.