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NIU assistant professor delivers insight on bike messengers

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Posted: Monday, September 12, 2011 10:32 pm | Updated: 10:22 am, Thu Sep 15, 2011.

When assistant professor of sociology Jeff Kidder first rode his bike down New York City's streets, he was afraid.

Angry commuters, red lights, traffic, one-way streets - Kidder struggled to weave through the urban maze so he could pick up an application at a bike messenger company.

"It's sort of like being in the middle of an aluminum Grand Canyon," Kidder said. "It feels very frightening."

Kidder's interest in this subculture grew as he worked as a bike messenger for his doctoral research, which became the foundation for his recently published book, "Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City."

"A bike messenger's self identity is really wrapped up in their work, and I find that very interesting," Kidder said. "My book tries to unpack what about this job allows that to happen."

For more than three years, Kidder worked as a bike messenger in New York City, Seattle and San Diego. Kidder said having direct experience with the group's activities is the best way to study a subculture.

"Jeff's research shows that participant observation is much, much more than simply describing the experiences and culture of persons in a unique setting," said Kirk Miller, department chair and associate professor of sociology.

By taking this approach, Kidder experienced the freedom but also the dangers of being a bike messenger. Kidder recalled a close call he had while he was working in New York City.

"I was riding during a blizzard, and on my way home, I slipped and swerved in front of a car that hit me head on," Kidder said. "I don't know how, but I didn't get hurt at all."

Even though this occupation can be physically and psychologically demanding, Kidder said solving the problem of getting through traffic quickly to deliver a package allows for spontaneity and creativity that is structured out of most jobs.

"For many of us, work is just a means to a paycheck so that we can realize our true selves somewhere else," said Kidder. "[Bike messengers] show us that being an active participant in the decisions we make throughout the day helps make what we do seem like it matters."

Kenton Hoppas, owner of a Aloha Bicycle Courier, a bicycle messenger company in San Diego, said Kidder's book encapsulates the lifestyle well.

"I felt proud to be a bike messenger when I was reading his book," Hoppas said. "He accurately wrote about everything that a bike messenger feels."

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