It’s 8.15am on a Friday and the city’s street and foot traffic is predictably light. It is after all the one day of the week when most people sip their morning coffee a little slower and get behind their desks a touch later.
Blane Muntz, however, operates in reverse. Not only is he ready for his next cup of coffee, he has also already completed four deliveries across Melbourne in the past two hours.
Mondays and Fridays are often the busiest days of the week for the founder of Cargone Couriers, the first cargo bike-run company in Melbourne. But the workload, Blane hastens to add, remains fairly unpredictable.
There are days when he and his team of between six to 11 riders start the morning with two pre-booked jobs and chalk up 120 deliveries by sundown.
But there are also days that begin with 15 pre-booked jobs only for bookings to slow to no more than 20 per rider. And there are days that greet them with a staggering 40 pre-booked deliveries.
Our coffees arrive and Blane uses the interruption to glance at his phone. He taps the screen and says, “Two jobs have come in since we started chatting. One is from 575 Bourke to 485 Bourke.”
I point out the obvious - it's a very short distance. 260 meters to be exact.
“Yea, it’s a easy one,” Blane grins. “But this is a small rubber stamp business run by a mother and son. Being a Friday, there’s possibly only one of them in the shop right now, so they’re doing the phones and taking the orders, and can’t step out.”
“Sometimes I get bookings to deliver documents from Level 32 to Level 34 in the same building. And some of these customers pay premium rates for urgent delivery. The biggest question I have is whether I should use the stairs or get back into the lift.”
“You think that’s madness? It actually isn’t. It’s about accountability. By getting us to deliver the document, there's evidence of it being received and signed for. There’s a chain of control. And the pressure is on the courier service.”
“That’s the only possible reason. Because, otherwise, you can’t explain it.”
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I’ve always been a keen mountain bike rider and I started couriering because I was working close to 80 hours a week in a windowless building. I realised I’d been in Ireland for two years but I didn’t know Dublin.
If I were to leave and people asked whether I’d been to this place or that place in Dublin, I wouldn’t be able to answer them. I didn’t know the city at all. So I took three months off work and decided there was no better way to get to know a city than as a bike courier. After two weeks I knew I was going to do this for a lot longer than three months.
The same thing that still gets me excited to get out of bed each morning - the fact that I earn a living riding a bike. No one day is the same. I’m not walking into the same office to sit at the same desk and have the same conversations with the same people at the coffee machine. It’s a constant change and it’s addictive.
But more than that, there’s nothing to think about at the end of the day when the last job is done. There’s no boss asking you for updates on a project. You can switch off and do whatever you want. Obviously, I think about a lot more now having started the business seven years ago, but it’s still the best job. Even with the occasional bad weather, nasty stuff on the road and the few grumpy people.
The city infrastructure has certainly changed a lot and with that, the way traffic flows through the city. And it will continue to change. But Melbourne’s traffic, compared to other cities around the world, is awesome.
Forget whatever you've read in the newspapers about a war between bikes and cars. I’m convinced that the people who raise that issue have never left Melbourne. Over the years I’ve met many foreign bike couriers who say Melbourne’s roads are paradise for cyclists.
Oh yea, that happens. But in general, when you’re on the road for eight or more hours a day, five days a week, a lot of interactions happen and very few are nasty.
My biggest concern is actually jaywalking pedestrians. Vehicles are predictable. Yes, they’re a big tonne of mass that could kill me if I get the wrong side of it, but you can tell if you’re riding behind a car, whether it’s going to make a turn, even if its indicator isn’t on. These are the little skills you pick up as a city cyclist.
But pedestrians, they can be crossing a road, looking at their phone and suddenly decide they don’t want to cross after all and take a step back. You’re riding behind them and the next thing you know, you’ve clipped them. And it’s horrible feeling to hurt someone.
Yea, it was that one incident in Dublin. It’s always been a vehicle breaking the law and me not being able to react in time. Or just rider error and no one else involved.
The first few accidents were always after 5pm on a Friday when you’re still working and fatigued after a long week. When you’re travelling at high speed on a bicycle and get knocked off, the ground is pretty hard. Sometimes, something breaks.
Thankfully there hasn’t been any damage to my legs or collarbones, which surprises me. But I’m grateful that every time I’ve been hospitalised, no one else has been injured. And I always get right back on the bike.
Many people think the cold and rain are the worst factors but it’s actually the heat. We’ve chosen to be outside all day so it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. You just get wet. But you can’t escape the heat. On those 40-degree days, we cope with lots of water, sunscreen, long-sleeved shirts and wider brimmed caps.
The next worst element is the wind. It just destroys your energy levels. It can be hard fighting 7km/hr winds in the Docklands three times a day. This time of year is almost perfect. A bit chilly but you can ride as hard as you want without overheating.
I personally stopped counting a long time back because when you’re paid per job rather than per kilometre, the mind games start. And then you start getting disgruntled. The job is to ride a bike. If you’re moving, you’re making money. That’s a fact. Having said that, I tell my riders to expect to do 60km in a day but to be prepared for 120km.
A four-drawer filing cabinet and a fridge. If we can lift it, we can deliver it. We deliver a lot of flowers in vases, which is unique for a bicycle service, but the Bullitter bikes we use are just phenomenal.
The load rests between the axles so bumps are smoothened out and the order stays reasonably stable. It was a hard road to convince Melbourne florists that we’re capable of making this delivery but we’ve cracked that market.
We also deliver cakes. Four of the six jobs that I’m doing later today are for La Petit Gateau. Those deliveries need a little extra care. But we’ve been delivering their cakes for a long time with less than 1% of damages.
Being car doored. That’s the main reason cakes get damaged. Nothing can survive that. And thankfully, none of my guys have been seriously injured.
Fax machines were meant to be the death of the bicycle courier industry but we still exist. Then emails came along but we branched out to take on jobs that would have been done by a car.
Internet banking really hurt us, though. I used to make a few hundred dollars between 11am and 4pm every day just delivering cheques to banks. We used to go to different banks three times a day to lodge multiple jobs at the same time. Now we’re there three times a week.
We’re still behind but we’re getting there. There’s a lot more talk about consolidation centres. In 2015, the Melbourne City Council gave us a small business grant to develop a Last Kilometre Freight service. And on a very small scale, we were successful. But I don’t have the support, the power or simply put, the funds and time to pursue the international logistics companies to take this service further. But we’re setting example.
If you look at Switzerland and Germany, they’re bringing the delivery trucks to consolidation centres in the outskirts of the city and are using exactly the same bikes that we are to make deliveries within the city centre. And it’s working. What the individual transport companies don’t understand is that the lack of consolidation centres comes at a cost to our city and the ease of access.
Favourite sandwich bar: Ample Café in North Melbourne
Favourite cycling route: King Street and straight down Kingsway. You can’t beat that.
Most unusual delivery: Flowers. Although I delivered one stiletto from a bar to a very hungover person.
Best tip for city cyclists: Look where you’re going.
Complete this sentence. A real Melburnian…shows respect for another.