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'Pedal Pubs' Gain Popularity, Putting Cities on the Spot

Bar-hopping party bikes, which let a dozen or more people pedal through popular destinations, don’t fit neatly under traffic laws.

pedal tavern
Party bikes have become a common sight in downtown Nashville.
They're part party bus, part group bicycle and part mobile bar. The four-wheeled contraptions go by a variety of names: pedal wagons, party bikes, pedal taverns.

They've been entertaining tourists and vexing regulators in U.S. cities for a decade now. But they are still enough of a novelty that state and city lawmakers continue to struggle with whether to allow them and, if so, what rules they should follow.

In Nashville, party bikes have become synonymous with the bachelorette parties ferrying between downtown honkytonks. The vehicles can be spotted near Big Ten university campuses in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. In the resort area of Destin, Fla., a company has even taken the idea to the water, introducing pedal-powered pontoon boats for parties.

But more public officials may soon have to decide how to handle party bikes. Pedal Pub, the country’s biggest operator of party bikes, recently secured an influx of venture capital money and plans to step up its expansion, advertising and marketing efforts in the coming year.

Shane Dunn, Pedal Pub’s chief development officer, says the Minneapolis-based company brought the concept to the United States from Amsterdam nearly a decade ago. It not only began tours of Minneapolis, the company spread the idea to 50 more U.S. cities and became the sole U.S. seller of the brand of bikes it imported from the Netherlands.

Now Pedal Pub wants to move into more markets. One way it’s trying to distinguish itself from its smaller competitors is by highlighting its experiences working with government officials to clear the way for its party bikes to operate.

“Cities are all over the map” when they first hear about the idea, Dunn says. Some are enthusiastic, others are skeptical and many are in between. “We want to institutionalize this industry to ensure the safety of the bicyclists. We’ve written so many ordinances and been to so many city council meetings in the last 10 years that we can put the playbook together to do it.”

Of course, such regulations could also give Pedal Pub a competitive advantage. “We want to discourage one-off companies with one bike from China,” Dunn says.

Not everyone is on board with the idea.

Last week, city council members in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, overwhelmingly voted to block the quadricycles from operating in the suburb’s streets altogether. They worried that the slow-moving vehicles would add to congestion in downtown and in other areas of the city.

“We’re not a community like Nashville,” says Councilwoman Patty Gustin. “I love country music and I love Nashville, but [Naperville is] a different kind of environment. We’re more of a Midwestern, kid-friendly community with a very vibrant downtown. We can’t move our buildings to accommodate more traffic.”

She noted that downtown Naperville already has an electric tuk tuk service to help people get around the city. Part of the issue with the party bikes, Gustin says, was that it wasn’t clear what niche they would serve.

“It was a little confusing to staff and even to the city council. What are you? Are you a pedal pub that serves alcohol or are you a taxi service or are you an Uber?” she says. “But the most important issue was the limitations we have with our infrastructure, and that doesn’t reflect on Pedal Pub owners.”

Dunn of Pedal Pub says an independent operator originally approached the Naperville city government but went about it the wrong way, focusing on securing an alcohol license before building support from local officials and business owners.

The selling point of the service, he says, is that it is “experiential tourism." He adds, "It’s about a tour, gathering a group of friends, having a celebration, with the city skylines and sights as the venue. It’s not about getting completely plastered and falling off the bike.”

But it can take some work to get party bikes authorized, even where local officials are receptive. Several states, such as Kentucky and Michigan, had to change their laws to allow passengers to have open containers of alcohol on board.

Dunn says 95 percent of its operations are BYOB; the others do not allow alcohol. When alcohol is permitted, customers are normally limited to three drinks on board, with no hard liquor or glass containers allowed.

Carolina Beach, a tourist destination on a barrier island not far from Wilmington, N.C., recently changed its ordinances to allow for party bikes to operate. But the operators still have to figure out a viable route. The problem is that most traffic is concentrated on a highway that connects the town to the mainland, and it’s difficult to devise a route that stays away from the highway and out of residential areas.

Ed Parvin, Carolina Beach’s assistant city manager and planning director, says he and his wife rode on a party bike for a birthday party in downtown Wilmington and enjoyed it. “But you don’t want to ride one in four lanes of traffic with an 18-wheeler whizzing by your head. There’s a place for the road them to go, but the highway isn’t the place for it,” he says.

Dunn says choosing the right route is a big part of succeeding, not just in beach towns like Carolina Beach, but also in large cities like Minneapolis. The downtown routes have to consider how the party bikes will interact with city buses, other cyclists and vehicle traffic. But in smaller college towns, it’s not as much of a concern. “It’s a little more free and not so regulated. We can move around just fine.”

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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