dandyARCHIVE: Saddle up with Austin Horse

Saddle Up

Delivering packages, saving the planet: a day in the life of bike messenger Austin Horse

Story by Tammy Thorne, photo by Takuya Sakamoto

~This story originally appeared in our Summer 2013 print issue aka the 'safety' issue. ~

Austin Horse is a rare breed: a professionally-sponsored bike messenger who recently spent two-and-a-half months on set as a stunt double for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Hollywood movie Premium Rush. He can usually be found biking up a mountain or racing other cyclists against crosstown traffic. If he wasn’t delivering packages, he says he’d be saving the world. And, well, he kind of is.

dandyhorse magazine asked one of the world’s fastest urban riders what he thinks would make city streets safer for cyclists and about his gig as a volunteer at the New York City–based not-for-profit group Time’s Up!

“It’s incredibly important that we change the basic way we live if we’re going to sustain the planet – and changing transportation is a huge part of that,” says Austin Horse when asked about his work with the direct-action environmental group.

“Bikes are the easiest and most accessible fix. I would say they are the low hanging fruit of transport reform,” says Horse. “You don’t have to push people too hard to get them on a bike and you see benefits right away: congestion is down, health and happiness go up. It’s really important to put more on bikes and keep them riding.”

At Time’s Up!, Horse helps run both the bike co-op, teaching people how to fix their own bikes, and the bike recycling program, where old bikes are fixed and sold at low cost.

He says volunteering is both satisfying and gratifying as he helps high school students gain experience in bike mechanics: skills they can use later in the job search. “What’s nice about the co-op is that people come in and have a problem, and I help them fix it themselves – it’s very satisfying.”

Time’s Up! garnered international headlines in early 2013 when members spray-painted outlines of bodies on pavement where cyclists and pedestrians had been killed by a driver who was committing at least one traffic infraction but was not charged criminally. This garnered positive media attention.

The group’s follow-up campaign, “My Living Street Will” invites cyclists and pedestrians to record personal messages such as: “If I’m killed by an automobile, I want the NYPD to conduct a full investigation before declaring ‘no criminality suspected.’” And: “I want the NYPD to release their investigation reports to the public so that people can use them to advocate for safer streets for everyone.”

Horse says he wasn’t involved in this particular campaign, but is supportive due to how the NYPD treats cyclists. “I’m motivated by the need to challenge the existing system, and by the need for change,” he says, adding it’s getting harder for everyday citizens to see how their vote makes a difference with all the gerrymandering designed to protect incumbents in the two-party system. “There’s a quote, ‘Direct action gets the goods,’ and I believe that. It holds true. As a normal citizen, it’s really the most empowering thing you can do.”

He adds it’s “not all sunshine and roses” for cyclists in New York, despite all the attention that new bike lanes and the like have received. “In New York City, we are getting a lot of ticketing from cops. I think right now among my cycling friends, the threat of a ticket is one of the most effective things as far as stamping out enthusiasm to ride a bike. The penalties feel out of proportion to the threat and harm that a bike can pose. All the cars that run a red light three seconds after it turns should be fined $500 or $250, but instead it’s a lot easier for cops to get the cyclist at the T intersection, with no traffic, on a winter morning… Sure, they’re also issuing traffic citations to motor vehicles, it’s a big police force, but in 2011 more tickets were issued to cyclists than to trucks,” says Horse. “It is way out of proportion.” He adds that he thinks police are just going after cyclists to help fill their ticket quota.

“There are people who speed and don’t pay attention in their cars and they are the greatest threat on the road – and when they hit and kill someone, often no criminality is suspected,” he says, referring to the recent Time’s Up! campaign. “Yet for a cyclist, that bike ticket is half your rent [and you’ve caused no harm].”

Cyclists are getting ticketed for “not riding in the bike lane.” This may seem egregious to us Canadians (especially with Toronto’s bike lane dry spell), but it became an Internet sensation last year when actor and stunt person Casey Neistat made a short film about getting ticketed for not riding in the bike lane.

“The new boulevard bike lanes are great. We need to create those for people who are going to go at that slow speed, like people who use the bike co-op, bike share and bike recycle program," says Horse. "But the NYPD chooses to misinterpret the law and issue tickets to people who ride outside the bike lane, which you have a legal right to do – go the speed limit with traffic. Yet, you can get a ticket in N.Y. for doing so. It’s just 20 miles [in traffic] an hour, which isn’t a safe speed in these new bike lanes that are designed to be appealing to pedestrians.”

Horse, a Houston native who’s been in N.Y. since 2005, has yet to receive a ticket himself.

In spite of everything, he says N.Y. is still one of the safest cities in the world to ride in, and it’s also his favourite. He’s ridden in about 30 cities worldwide, with Mexico City, Tokyo and Copenhagen among his other favourites. “In N.Y., the congestion has benefits for me as a city cyclist, because it slows down the cars that are passing me – which feels safer,” Horse says.

His advice for city cyclists of all skill levels: don’t expect road paint and street signage to protect you. When told of Toronto’s many bike lanes that are built in the door zone on arterial streets, he says: “That sucks. You have to ride where it feels safe and don’t pay attention to the paint so much. Read the traffic, not the paint. Ride where it feels safe.”

His overall advice? Always anticipate; anticipation leads to prevention. And his advice for cyclists in a city with a shitty mayor? “I find the strongest solidarity in cycling communities where it is hardest to bike.”

This article originally appeared in dandyhorse's Summer 2013 issue. Buy it here.

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