By Dominic Lucchesi
It’s hard to believe, but Pedal Express was founded over two decades ago in 1994. Obviously, I personally have not been with the company for that long – I was 9 years old when PedX made it’s first delivery. Still, I am fascinated by the history of Pedal Express – such a unique company, with an activist tradition that remains strong ’til this day. I’m just honored to be a small part of it.
Touring the Pedal Express office, you can find stacks of old photos, sweat-stained uniforms, and binders full of marketing material – Pedal Express memorabilia dating from 1994 to today. Several “generations” of people have come through Pedal Express over the past twenty years. All of them with their own story to tell; all of them contributing something to the unique character of Pedal Express.
To me, Pedal Express represents the best of the modern courier industry. While we work exclusively by bicycle, Pedal Express is about more than just bikes. Pedal Express is about community.
I recently contacted David Cohen, one of the original founders of Pedal Express. While he no longer resides in the Bay Area, he continues to live a largely car-free lifestyle, and has been a great source of information about the early days of Pedal Express. Yesterday, on the eve of the 20th Anniversary of Pedal Express, David shared some of these stories with me. I’ve posted the (almost) full transcript below, both for you to enjoy and for historical purposes.
Before I let you go, I’d like to invite you to our 20th Anniversary Party. It will begin at 7pm on Saturday, June 14th at the Golden Bull in Downtown Oakland. We’ll have Goldsprints, music, a raffle, and vegan birthday cake. I guarantee it will be a night to remember!
Pedal Express Origin Stories – By Dave Cohen
AFBAC Genesis of PedEx
Pedal Express was an outgrowth of a group that I formed in the early 90’s called the Auto-Free Bay Area Coalition (AFBAC), which itself came about through a collaboration to create a Berkeley Car-Free Day in 1992. The organizational aim of AFBAC was to support anyone wishing to live a car-free or car-reduced lifestyle and to do lots of public outreach. We did programs in high school driver’s ed classes, created elaborate street theater performances, published a newsletter, and even got involved in a lawsuit to stop the widening of I-90.
AFBAC also made some wonderful One Less Car shirts that incorporated a gnarly but cute illustration on the front that depicted caribou attempting to get across a pipeline, oil wars, oil spills, traffic jams, fish and birds dying, a man in a car shooting up gasoline into his veins and other things I can’t even mention. As I said, ‘gnarly’, but it also had a certain levity to it. At the bottom of the illustration were the words ADDICTED TO OIL and BRAKE THE HABIT NOW. The slogan, ‘One Less Car’, was on the backside and we sold hundreds of them. Our CARS KILL EVERYTHING shirt didn’t sell nearly as well – it didn’t have the cuteness factor.
In October 1993, AFBAC organized a trip to the Center for Appropriate Transport (CAT) in Eugene, OR. I chartered a Green Tortoise bus to take us there and back. The folks that signed up were bike visionaries and activists from both sides of the bay. Lots of folks from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (also the Bay Area Bicycle Action – BABA – a sort of rogue alter ego of the SFBC) came, as well as AFBAC folks and East Bay Bike Coalition members.
The trip was a blast! It was like going to bike heaven and we turned Eugene upside down for 36 hours. I can’t tell you if we ever slept because all I can remember is riding all over town at all hours with an arsenal of bikes and getting into intense conversations with Jan VanderTuin, the CAT founder. Most of all we were blown away by the cargobikes and different bike designs, the machine shop, showroom, repair collective, advocacy groups, and a delivery service, Pedaler’s Express, all under one roof.
I came away totally taken with the idea of creating a delivery service in the East Bay as a fantastic way to do the AFBAC mission every day. In reality, I was thinking about this long before the trip. In my work to create a Berkeley Car-Free Day, my dream was to have cargobikes and trailers throughout town, with riders ready to run errands for the elderly and anyone in need. Finally, I learned that only a handful of folks had trailers and that there were no cargobikes around. Bummer… That’s when I started thinking about creating a delivery service.
So, while running AFBAC, I began pondering how much better and more effective it would be to be doing the work every day in the streets, demonstrating an exciting, fun alternative, rather than running a volunteer advocacy group. I loved the ruckus AFBAC caused, but it was missing something. Once I saw what Pedaler’s Express was doing and the Longhaul bikes, I was sold. I discussed this idea with two other trip participants; David Carcia, a SFBC activist, and Michael Studebaker, founder of Studebaker’s Delivery (which was the only bike messenger service in the East Bay at that time).
Post CAT Trip
After the CAT trip, many of us continued to get together in San Francisco to plan a vision of a CAT in the Bay Area – we were going to call it something like The BayCat. We had lots of folks with pretty diverse skill sets, but in the end we couldn’t really agree on how to get things organized and even where it should be – the East Bay or SF. A few projects did emerge from the Cat trip, which included the Bicycle Dojo, Bogart’s Trailers and a few other ideas, but as far as I know, Pedal Express was the most substantial project to be birthed from the trip.
Anyways, David, Michael and I started planning our business on the bus trip back and during the months that followed. Mike was interested in this because he wanted to see if he could lend his expertise to another bike transport business and we all felt like the work we would be doing with PedEx wouldn’t really conflict with Studebaker’s. His ideas and business realism helped us get onto sure a footing. We all decided to put in an equal share of money to purchase our first two Longhaul cargobikes and cover some very basic operating expenses. Nobody got paid until probably 8 month later. For months while we waited for our bikes, we began to work on our business and marketing plan.
Sometime in April 1994 Jan VanderTuin and the bikes arrived on a Green Tortoise bus. It was so totally exciting to have Jan personally delivery the Longhaul cargobikes. We set up a special event for that evening at the Missing Link to introduce the company and the concept to the community. We packed the house with all sorts of folk, including lots of Berkeley luminaries. Jan showed an amazing slideshow at the event about the history of cargobikes and how they can be a great addition to the transportation mix of any community. There was wine, cheese, and local foods all donated by local businesses. I wish we still had the program sheet we made up for the event – perhaps it’s still somewhere in the PedEx files.
Jan Gassed Silly
Right after the event Jan and I brought the Lounghauls over to my apartment on Delaware St and we partied some more with Mike, David and a few other folks. That night Jan slept on my couch right next to the new the fresh, new cargobikes. In the morning I got up to treat Jan to some yummies at the Cheese Board and coffee at Peet’s, but I was barely able to move him off the couch. When he finally “came to” I realized that my bedroom had the powerful fragrance of the fiberglass LongHaul containers which were still off-gassing and that Jan had been breathing that sickly smell in all night long. I urged him to get up and get out before he succumbed to the fumes. I finally had to pull him out of my place into the fresh morning air of Berkeley to revive him. We had a great weekend with Jan once he was detoxed with some black Peet’s.
As we began planning the business and getting the word out, I had a series of nightmares about all kinds of things. One that I can remember vividly revolved around the question of what to do if you really needed a bathroom in the middle of a delivery run. I dreamt that I was riding in downtown somewhere and need to ‘go’ real bad. The only place I could think of was up three flights of a narrow stairway. It occurred to me that I didn’t have a lock so my only choice was to carry a loaded LongHaul up the stairs which was absolutely excruciating. I don’t remember if it was number 1 or number 2, but carrying a LongHaul up three flights scared the shit out of me when I woke up.
So for the next several months we operated out of my apartment. It was a great way to keep expenses down, but also a great way to really piss off a roommate. With the bikes taking over the living room and the office taking over my bedroom and life, there wasn’t much space for anything. In the beginning, we didn’t have much to do as far as deliveries, but I was talking with folks from at the Berkeley city offices and others and things looked promising. It was mainly David Carcia and I who did all the groundwork for the biz as Studebaker was already running his own company and he was mostly hands off.
First Delivery –
Our first real delivery I can recall was for a bike event in Oakland right near City Hall. They wanted us to show off the bikes and make a delivery of food. We found out that day, to our surprise, that we were assigned the job of picking up a massive order of burgers and fries from McDonalds. This was total letdown and I was totally crestfallen at using our bikes for such an errand. We ended up delivering the tainted goods, but then afterwards had a lengthy private ritual of burning sage in and around our still off-gassing fiberglass containers. Nothing like food snob bikeheads.
For a while I went on mock deliveries around town with all sorts of packages and envelopes to give people the impression we were off and running. I’d walk into buildings and go up stairs to make it look real. A number of folks remarked to me about how impressed they were that we got off to such a quick start. Perhaps it’s time to let the real truth out.
One of our earliest clients was the City of Berkeley contracts with the transportation and planning commissions. I was on the transportation commission for a couple of years so I had a bit of sway on the inside. The Bread Garden came on pretty much in the beginning and we collecting day old garlic cheese baguettes for years. I think that Palm Press came on board around the same time.
Articles – LA TIMES
Our first article appeared in the Contra Costa Times, but the real big piece was the LA Times in June 1994. That month we also had an article in the Oakland Tribune and a report on NPR.
Ice Cream Bike?
So, early on some Berkeley residents were a bit confused by what we were up to. Some folks thought that we were advertising for something and others thought we were just delivering lunches. One day I was slowly riding down towards West Berkeley on Berkeley Way and I overhead a young boy exclaim to his dad “look, an ice cream bike.” At that moment his dad chimed in quickly to say “no son, that’s PedEx. They deliver packages and do good work for the City of Berkeley.” I rode on with my fist up and belted out a huge “YES, you tell him daddy.”
Slowing Down Studebaker
By the end of summer 1994, Mike Studebaker decided to back out of Pedal Express. At some point we started thinking erroneously that Studebaker was ready to buy cargobikes and go into competition with us. We decided to fight back with the only weapon we had. After several months of eating those day old garlic cheese baguettes, we began to realize that they had some rather intense deleterious impacts on our energy level and physical stamina. They sort of made us feel like we had 10 lbs of air pressure in our tires.
So, one afternoon we hatched the brilliant idea of handing the baguettes to the Studebaker riders. The next morning I had some 10 or so day olds to distribute to our mistaken archenemies and sure enough I had an early sighting of one of Studebaker’s messengers coming out of an office building. After a friendly chat I told him I had a little present for him. I showed him a garlic cheese baguette and he told me he loved those things. I remarked how pleased I was and told him “why not take a bunch and give them out to your fellow colleagues.” He was so happy and gladly took 5 baguettes.
After about a week of doing this we got a call from Mike telling us that he knew what we were up to and to cease and desist. Our brilliant plan went out with a whimper.
Alan Van Tress and the Night of 87 Deliveries
After Studebaker left PedEx we soon hired Alan Van Tress as a rider and to put him on track to become a member/owner. Shortly after Alan came on we had one of the greatest, lucrative, longest and most tiring jobs to be ever taken on.
It was November and mayoral race was on between Shirley Dean and Art Jelinek. The night of the election it was clear that things were going to be close and it ended up being so tight that a runoff election was soon called. A few weeks later, on the day before Berkeley prepared for the runoff, the city offices contacted us and told us that they needed us to deliver some 87 packets to the precinct captains, with each packet containing a listing of the voters in their district. We were delighted by the news and made sure we were well-fed and ready to do it. The city then called back and said that the packets wouldn’t be ready until 4pm and needed to all be delivered by 12 midnight. I remember that we all looked at each other and said “Holy Shit!”
By the time 4 pm rolled around the city didn’t have the packets ready and it wasn’t until at least 5:30 before they had them ready to go. That meant that we had a little more than 6 hours to make 87 deliveries, but it wasn’t really until 6:30 when were able to get the packets back to my apartment and have them all organized so that we could efficiently make the deliveries to virtually every part of town.
Oh, one thing I forgot is that it started raining at about 5 pm and didn’t stop until the next day. When we all headed out to start the deliveries is when the rain started coming down like crazy. Raging rivers were flowing down the streets. We had our waterproof messenger bags, pannier and lots of plastic bags to hold the torrent back from our important documents.
So, out we went with me taking care of all of North, West and Central Berkeley, Carcia all of South Berkeley and the south hills, and Alan took the majority of the hill deliveries. Back in those days we didn’t have cell phones, so the whereabouts of any of us wouldn’t be known until we all got back to my apartment. All I can tell you is that we all had stories of riding upstream through what we all described as rapids. David and I returned to my apartment at about 11:30 pm ragged and soaked, but real happy we got the job done. Alan rolled in after midnight with stories of weary precinct captains starring him in disbelief and offering him tea and biscuits. It sure was a night I will never forget.
First Real Office
By the winter of 1994 we found ourselves in an office at the Berkeley Store Gallery Annex, which was located at the NE corner of Shattuck and Bancroft. Our entrance was on Bancroft side. There were two rooms – one just big enough to fit in our 2 bikes and the other a nice size office space. Bonnie Hughes, the art diva of Berkeley at the time, let us use the space for something like $50 a month and totally helped us incubate the business.
Bonnie put on all kinds of events at the Annex and then a diverse group of organizations began moving into the main space just outside our door. Nick Bertoni and the Tinkers Workshop moved in, a jazz performance space called Beanbenders set up in the Annex, and EcoCity Builders called the place home for a while. Also, BFBC held huge meetings there, the library held book sales, and it became an all-around amazing community center. One time I was making some marketing calls and one of the great all-time jazz saxophone players, Dewy Redman, was practicing with a stunning quartet. So much fun…