Budapest’s first and largest cycle courier service, Hajtás Pajtás, has become a legend in its own right since being launched in 1993. As well as providing an essential delivery service for nearly 30 years now, they were also mainly responsible for the huge annual cycling event, Critical Mass. Hajtás Pajtás manager Gábor Kürti, originally a courier himself, talks about transforming Hungary’s capital on two wheels.

We Love Budapest: Hajtás Pajtás was the first cycle courier service in Hungary. What was behind the decision in setting it up back in 1993?

Gábor Kürti: Owners and founders Lackó and Spenót had a friend who was studying in Switzerland, and who worked as volunteer at the local annual cycle courier championship there. When he came back to Hungary, he talked about his adventures and suggested starting one up here. At the time, Lackó and Spenót were making a living from odd jobs, so they decided to give it a go. They hired out bicycles, printed up a couple of leaflets and spread them around the city, hoping for rich people to start using the service to send each other champagne. This did not work out of course, as barely anyone was interested. The few orders they got came from friends or acquaintances.

Then we started working for a translation agency, who entrusted us with delivering their finished materials to their partners. One of their partner companies was the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, whose co-owner had admired how cycle couriers worked on a previous trip to New York. As soon as he found out that there was this option here as well, he started using Hajtás Pajtás for all deliveries. This led to more and more businesses opting for our service, and suddenly we started expanding. When I joined in 1995, there were already 40 daily orders. I became deliveryman number 5. It was still just a tiny business, but with this number of members, the service functioning pretty well and could cover the whole city.

Our growth then rapidly escalated in the second half of the ’90s and peaked in 2006, when we had 150 employees and around 130 couriers. There were a few bumps in the road, like a law that prevented companies from having self-employed workers, as well as the credit crunch. Loads of firms went bust, and the remaining ones decided to take care of their own deliveries. This downward trend lasted until 2012-13, when we started getting back up on our feet again.

Currently, our company has 78 members, and we now also offer package delivery that we distribute in the city centre with tricycles and electronic vans.

WLB: Why did package deliveries become necessary? 

GK: Because of the internet, many processes no longer require couriers. A great deal of paperwork is now digitalised, and the transport market has changed as well. So, we are experimenting with everything. We decided against delivering food, but keep working with packages.

WLB: In the current crisis, we’ve heard of instances where former top managers hopped on bikes and started delivering. Do you have people like that?

In truth, we’ve always had people like that. This isn’t anything new or unusual for us. The freedom of our job is an attraction for many, especially those who are used to something very different, for example a bank manager or a lawyer. Some only join us for a year, to escape the daily hustle for a while. Some have a glitch in their creativity and they use this opportunity to get moving and refresh their minds and bodies. Some are attracted by the subculture of cycle couriers. We really enjoy working with these kinds of people, as they bring something new and unique to the table, even though they usually don’t stay with us for long. 

WLB: How old is a typical courier?

They are typically in their ’20s and ’30s, but we have older members as well. We had an ex-bicycle racer and a former jockey, too, who retired after working with us.  

WLB: What kind of distances do couriers cover in a day?

GK: It really depends on the orders. Sometimes they cover up to 80-100 kilometres, which is definitely very challenging physically. Of course, you get used to riding long distances, but anything more than 50-60 kilometres is quite hard.  

WLB: The choice of a name is important for any company. In your case, it’s perfect…

GK: When I joined Hajtás Pajtás (‘Go, mate!’), we already had a few orders but we weren’t too well-known. Whenever I went round somewhere with an order, and rang the bell, saying where I was from, the answer was always laughter. But they loved the name, and it always stuck.  

WLB: The cycle courier subculture defined the city in the ’90s: the music that they played or listened to, the clothes they wore and the places they went to. Like having the Toldi Cinema as your base…

GK: At that time there were no mobile phones, so after finishing an order, we used public phones to contact the dispatcher for the next ride. The Toldi was one of our favourite spots to do this, as it opened early, kept us warm, did food and plenty of familiar faces. Another good one was the Hungexpo in the City Park, which we especially enjoyed in summer– we could all hang out and sunbathe a little bit while waiting.

WLB: For a while it was really popular to hang out with couriers, to dress like them and use the same places. Why do you think this changed?

GK: When ruin bars started popping up everywhere, couriers used to have community beer nights on Fridays, called Száguldó Cirkusz (‘Racing Circus’). There was a map in the office with the given night’s route from bar to bar. They had a drink, partied, danced on tables at each place, then moved on. The venues used to wait for them to turn up, as drinks went quickly and they brought the place to life. But after the growing phenomenon of party tourism, their usual places changed and prices increased. These days, couriers choose the less popular places to enjoy themselves.  

WLB: How did the whole cult of couriers begin?

GK: The job comes with a unique sense of freedom. Also, the way they used to dress had something to do with it: baggy pants, oversized shirts and bicycle keys. First of all, we thought we were something special, but after attending international courier races in Washington, Spain, Graz and so on, we realised that everywhere around the globe they were exactly the same, with the same way of life and surrounded by the same kinds of people – musicians and filmmakers. It is also common that couriers organise popular bike events and tours, and take part in social actions.

WLB: Do cycle courier races still exist?

GK: Not as much as before, but they still go on here and there. At first, it was exciting for everyone and people were organising their own races, but the enthusiasm has died, not just in Hungary but around the world. Here we have the City Jam, a summer camp at Lake Velence for about 50-100 couriers, who all chip in to put on concerts. The community used to be fairly wild back in the day, now it’s calmer and more relaxing.

WLB: How would you describe a typical courier?

GK: Someone who prefers to ride instead of sitting in the office, who wants to avoid working in a closed space with a boss. This job offers a lot more freedom, but has its downsides as well: sometimes it’s really hot outside, sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s really windy. It’s the life of an urban nomad, but it is the best work you can have for about two or three years. People tend to burn out after a few years, especially when the weather is bad. Many of those who leave come back after a while though, as lots of people consider Hajtás Pajtás the best job that they ever had. 500 people attended our 25th anniversary two years ago, a brilliant, nostalgic night all round.

WLB: How much should any potential new courier know the city?

GK: Some kind of knowledge is important. Roland, who is responsible for recruiting new members, has a few methods to test it. Since the appearance of GoogleMaps and smartphones however, this is not our main priority. It was a completely different when you had a paper map in your pocket and had to storm the city. After one year of active delivering, you could truly say that you knew Budapest, you owned it and all of its corners. Not from a map but by heart. A real courier knows the city in a way not even a born-and-bred local does.

WLB: Couriering is not without its dangers. How do you protect the physical well-being of your couriers?

GK: They are given uniforms with top-quality, resistant fabric. They like them, as well, but the only problem is if they don’t bother to put on the kneepads. They’re useful but get in the way when cycling.

WLB: How do you get on with car drivers?

GK: It varies. It depends on everyone’s mood. If someone does four to five years on the road, whether they’re a bus driver, a taxi driver or a courier, something breaks within them. At least it’s something we’ve noticed. They start seeing others as traffic barriers, and seeing obstacles instead of the people sitting inside of the vehicles. It doesn’t help but after a good few years, it’s understandable.

WLB: How do the couriers get along with other cyclists? Budapest has seen a rise in people hopping on bikes these days.

GK: When cycle companies started appearing, we started coming together in a common cause and create the basis of a good relationship. This is how Critical Mass first began as well, which was first made up of couriers, and later became a social movement for cyclists.

Some are bothered by more people cycling, but without couriers, the movement might have never been created – to work out the first Critical Mass, the only people to turn up were couriers from three or four delivery services.