Ashlie Stevens is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Slate, Salon, National Geographic, and The Guardian.
The murky laws surrounding pedal saloons.
As night falls, a group of adults decked out in Christmas sweaters pedal through downtown Tucson, beers in hand. They aren’t on individual bikes: The group is sharing a bike built for ten, complete with blinking neon lights, a stereo system—and a bartender.
Across the world, the “party bike” goes by many names: fietscafe, pedal crawler, pedibus, cycle pub, beer bike, bierbike, megacycle, or birriciclo. Yet regardless of name, these bikes have a few similar features: they are built for groups larger than six; they are used for drinking (either on the bike itself or as transport to area bars); and they have a sober driver who steers the vehicle.
The first party bike was invented in 1997 by the Netherlands-based company Het Fietscafe BV, and since then, the pub-on-wheels concept has become incredibly popular in Europe, where most municipalities allow passengers to imbibe while cycling—provided the individual steering the bike and controlling the brakes is not partaking.
The trend was slower to catch on in the United States due to more restrictive, often state-mandated, open container laws. However, there are U.S.-based party bike enthusiasts who are petitioning for these rules to change. One example is Robert Mayer, the owner of both Arizona Party Bike and Pedal Crawler, both based in Tucson. He’s one of the first manufacturers and purveyors of U.S. party bikes.
Mayer first thought about getting into the business of building and renting out his own party bikes in 2011 after he had invested in one called the Trolley Pub, which eventually moved to Raleigh after construction began on Tucson’s new streetcar route. “Then somewhere around the beginning of 2012, I thought to myself, ‘I think I could design my own with all the add-on’s: lights, a stereo, a motor power system,’” Mayer remembers.
It took over a year to design, but in 2013 the Pedal Crawler went on sale in the United States. Up to this point, Pedal Crawler has sold approximately ten customized party bikes. “It’s an expensive, slow-going process; starting price is around $38,000, but it goes up from there depending on the modifications the customer wants,” Mayer says.
They now have bikes in Tucson, Dallas, Nashville, and Philadelphia—and one in Brazil. The bikes have also brought new legal challenges.
“While I would say that vast majority of municipalities allow them on the streets, where you run into issue is with the consumption of alcohol,” Mayer says. “They are a new vehicle on the road, so some complications legally are to be expected.”
And the laws vary from city to city, or state to state.
In Arizona, for example, Mayer was instrumental in petitioning that the laws regarding the party bikes be decided by the various municipalities, rather than a statewide regulation. Now, owners can apply for open container exemption under limousine, bus, and taxi laws. Under this license, passengers have to bring their own beverages, which must remain on the vehicle, a law that was enacted in early 2014.
These exemptions are possible because, unlike in a car, the riders aren’t really in control of vehicle. Sure, they’re pedaling, but a trained—and sober—driver is doing the steering. “On the street itself, it is a public consumption violation, but not on the vehicle,” says Mayer. “There is no DUI or BUI that can occur.”
He says that as long as the driver follows the rules of the road, and passengers are respectful to other vehicles and pedestrians, there should be no safety or legal issues.
Mayer helps potential clients in other cities navigate the legal paperwork necessary to get their party bike company on the streets, while also monitoring the public consumption and open container laws in other states; according to him, California and Michigan are the two latest states to allow individual municipalities to rule on the party bike legalities. In California, for example, Sacramento state Senator Richard Pan was instrumental in getting bill SB 530 on the governor’s desk. It puts forth regulations and promotes the introduction of “brew bikes” to the California streets.
But why go through all the hassle? What is the secret to the party bike’s appeal?
Well, remember that group of ten bikers adorned in their holiday best? They are repeat clients at Mayer’s business Arizona Party Bike—this is their third time this year hitting the streets to cycle and drink. First it was an 80s-themed ride, followed by a superhero-themed cruise.
These types of bikes are popular with bachelorette parties, for instance, or tourists. “We have people from all generations on board—from a college student’s birthday to a retirement party—but if I was to generalize an age group with which this was the most popular, it would definitely be Millennials,” Mayer says. “Research has shown that these people really value experiences over material things and I think that’s something the party bike provides.”
He adds: “Once the party bikes are on the streets it’s a different experience every time.”