National

Tokyo bike couriers pedal their wares

Newcomers hope to tap into 25 billion yen motorbike messenger market

Tokyo’s perennial gridlock first prompted the birth of motorbike messenger services, but bicycle courier businesses are fast establishing themselves as viable.

Delivering documents and photographs for banks and advertising companies via motorcycle has grown into a more than 25 billion yen per year market. But there are more than a dozen companies and about 500 people in the business with bicycles trying to get a slice of that pie.

Cyclists normally complete an assignment in one to two hours and charge around 1,000 yen if the distance they cover is within 1 km.

Kazuya Miyashita, 26, works for the venture business Messem. It was established in April last year by Kan Iwabuchi, 31, who gave up his mountain bike after suffering multiple bone fractures in his right leg three years ago while training.

The company consists of himself, as president, and three part-timers, including Miyashita.

“Many customers ask us to deliver reference materials within 30 minutes, in time for a conference,” he said, adding that when he meets these requests the clients express surprise at his speed.

He and his coworkers keep in touch with their company’s Web site via Internet capable cell phones. When an order comes from a company, the cyclist who happens to be closest to it responds.

Miyashita said the key to outperforming rival companies is being good at reading when traffic signals change, and knowing the locations of one-way streets and alleyways between buildings.

Though Messem is new to the field, it has banks, real estate companies and designers in Tokyo’s Chiyoda, Minato and Shinjuku wards, among others, as customers.

Iwabuchi said he set up his company because he wanted to be associated with “bicycles that I like.” He saves phone costs by receiving orders from clients and routing cyclists via the Internet.

But he said that even though he offers fees that are 15 percent lower than those of his rivals, some companies have asked him if the fees can be further reduced.

“The severity of the economic slump was brought home to me,” he said.

Analysts say some major motorbike messenger services have also entered the bicycle courier business.

Competition is therefore getting intense. T-Serv, the pioneer bicycle messenger service established in 1989, began offering a new service in April that cuts delivery times and lowers fees.

Demand for bicycle courier services has dropped in the U.S. due to e-mail. But Akira Tanaka, vice president of T-Serv, said there still is room to develop the business in Japan, because many people feel insecure until they see printed material or photos.