It’s a warm, humid evening, and Jessica Luehring is sitting at her kitchen table while her 5-year-old watches cartoons. It’s Thursday, which means the 37-year-old resident of Northeast Minneapolis is bracing herself for the week’s first night of pedal pubs.
For the last half-dozen years, she said, the 16-person, 5-mile-per-hour traveling taps have been pedaling up to the red light at the corner of 17th Avenue and University Avenue, just a few houses away. And each time, as they wait for the light to turn, the staff member steering the bike encourages riders to introduce themselves to the neighborhood.
“When it turns green,” he hollers, “let’s hear it for Northeast!”
The response of passengers is something Luehring has come to expect every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the warm months — at one point in the past, as often as four times each hour from noon to past 11 p.m.
Living on a major street in a city of 380,000 involves a bit of bustle. Luehring, a social worker, understands that. “I bought this house 11 years ago understanding that it was on University,” she said. She chose to raise two children here.
“The noise level never affected me,” she said, “until the pedal pubs started.”
Late last month, a group of six men on bicycles got Minneapolis pedal pubs trending online. Their squirt-gun and water-balloon ambush soaked the wrong people: Riding on one of the targeted vehicles were six off-duty police officers.
For the people who read or watched stories about the botched prank — including maybe the officers, who threw their assailants to the ground with superior force and threatened worse — it may have been a mystery why anyone would want to douse people having a good time and spending money in the city.
“I am so curious about why a group would be a pedal pub hating club,” said one commenter about the Facebook group the pranksters used to organize their attack. “What is going on?”
When pedal pubs were introduced to Minneapolis streets, Pat Hilden said, his team on the city’s licensing department felt the same way.
“It was new and intriguing,” he said. “It seemed like a business everybody would be excited about.”
As it turned out, not everybody. In the two years since the industry was licensed, 65 complaints against “commercial pedal cars” have been investigated by his staff. Hilden’s department has also issued a handful of formal censures to the two companies operating the vehicles, and implemented a host of special requirements for the larger of the two.
Violations and complaints have called out pedal-pub drivers for parking illegally and rolling through stop signs and its passengers littering, vomiting and trespassing on nearby property and even threatening employees at the bars they visit. But the No. 1 complaint, Hilden said, is noise.
For Vonny Kleinman, the noise started in 2012, when she and her husband bought a house in Northeast’s Holland neighborhood to fix up as a rental unit. Since the house was across from the bar NE Palace, “I was prepared for my share of drunken shenanigans,” she said in an email to PedalPub Twin Cities later that year.
The bar across the street never became a nuisance. The PedalPub tours did — despite starting a full block away. “I could hear their screaming from inside my home with the windows closed,” she said.
The following year, Minneapolis adopted rules forcing pedal cars to start and end their tours on private property. To comply, PedalPub Twin Cities moved the start of its tours to the parking lot for NE Palace — right next door to the Kleinmans’ rental.
“It was like a drunken street festival had broken out,” she said of that first day. “Before and after the tours, patrons would open up their trunk or SUV hatch, blare music, and party on the street and in our lawn.
“On that first day,” she said, “we and our renters called 311” — the city’s help line — “repeatedly.”
Kleinman also called PedalPub staff to complain. Soon, she started collecting stories from residents on the “I Hate the Pedal Pub” Facebook page. On the city’s advice she also started filming tours from her property to document infractions.
As a result of complaints by Kleinman and others, when PedalPub Twin Cities’ license was up for renewal in 2014, the city imposed new conditions on the business to operate. The city also helped PedalPub move the starting point for its tours away from the residential area to a more commercial part of the neighborhood.
Lisa Staplin, the PedalPub manager who answered Kleinman’s call, said changes like this show the company listens to residents. It has also changed a route to avoid touring a section of Eat Street that had prompted complaints.
As a principle, Staplin said, “We always try to have people be respectful of the neighborhood.”
There have become a lot more neighborhoods to be respectful of. In 2007, PedalPub LLC became the first business of its kind in the U.S. when Eric Olson and Al Boyce, both of Minneapolis, imported the “party bike” concept to their city. Today, the company has licensed its business to 29 different locations around the country, in addition to managing 11 bikes locally, according to its website.
The new business was given legal grounding in 2009, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an amendment to the state’s open container law. As pedal pubs have moved to different states, so have discussions in their legislatures. This year, California lawmakers have considered a bill that lets cities decide whether patrons can drink alcohol on board pedal pubs. In 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law granting that freedom to all Wisconsinites. Among other states, at least Virginia has considered an on-board drinking law.
Why all the fuss over drinking alcohol outdoors? After all, for weeks now bar-goers nationwide have been heading 10 feet outside the building to drink on patios. Is this really something new?
Luehring said there are several big differences between a neighborhood bar and the pedal pubs. First and most obvious: You can choose to move next to a bar. With pedal pubs, she said, “They’re traveling past my house. I don’t get a choice.”
Second, riders on pedal pubs are not out for a pint at happy hour, or a casual visit to a brewpub. They are usually celebrating something, she said, like a bachelor party or a work function.
“It’s a unique experience,” and at $395 for a weekend tour, “they’re paying good money, so they’re going to live this up. Then add the “the mass consumption of alcohol [and] the excitement of the event.” Then — maybe most crucially — consider that riders would not choose to celebrate a special occasion by touring a neighborhood they live in.
In other words, when it comes to restraining their inner party animal, “Why would they care?” Luehring asked.
Complaints received by 311 show that at least some patrons had trouble imagining themselves living where they partied. One incident in June 2013 typified the range of complaints:
The occupants of the peddle pub were instructed to pour out any remaining open containers before arriving back at the drop off location. This “dump site” happened to be the sidewalk out front of my business. This meant that our clients had to walk through sticky puddles of beer. We also have to endure the jeering of any peddle pub that goes rolling by. If our door is open, they then shout in at us. We have also been mooned. They have even parked directly in front of my business where there is a no-parking zone.
Through the “I Hate the Pedal Pub” page, Kleinman collected stories alleging more extreme violations:
“Drunk people have wandered into my backyard looking for their car.”
“Does the Pedal Pub have some kind of permit to run stop signs and red lights? I see them do it all the time.”
“They have come down my street chanting “Cunt, cunt, cunt.”
“More than once I have been lucky enough to clean up vomit from a Pedal Pub patron, both in my yard AND in my bar.”
Luehring is thankful her family lives only on a pedal pub route and not near a place they stop — where the most shocking stories come from, she said. And at the end of the day, after six years of living on a route, she has become resigned to their presence.
Some things still grate on her nerves. Like riders belting out “Let It Go” to match the volume of speakers blaring the “Frozen” soundtrack well over the 50-foot noise rule. Like having a family gathering interrupted by drunk people whose noise easily carries across her modest front yard.
Or the time two years ago, when she was in the yard with her then 3-year-old, who waved at a passing pedal pub. A man on the pedal pub stuck out his back, yanked his pants down, and mooned them.
“If there was a bar in Northeast allowing this kind of shenanigans,” Kleinman said, “they would have lost their liquor license.”
Kevin Reich was elected to the Minneapolis City Council two years after pedal pubs were introduced in what would become his ward. Since 2009 he has represented Ward 1, which includes PedalPub’s popular “Nord’East” route. In 2013 his office helped broker changes to the conditions attached to its operating license.
Reich takes the long view of the party bikes’ place in Northeast. The reason they’ve generated such controversy, he said, comes from how they bring different neighborhood sore spots and “concentrate them into one phenomena.”
With pedal pubs, “You don’t just have a bunch of people congregating next to other people who are trying to be more private.
“Now throw in that the people are there to have fun. And now they’re congregating on the street in this slow moving vehicle, and you’ve got to go around it — and you can hear them.”
Despite the tension, he is optimistic. In an old neighborhood like Northeast, he said — a place where bars abut backyards and churches built before cars existed fill the streets on Sundays in the absence of parking lots — there is always the potential for conflict.
The potential was fulfilled throughout 2013 and into 2014 when Reich’s office and the city brought PedalPub Twin Cities to the table in March of that year. Enough calls and complaints had been received and a series of conditions would now be added to the renewal of its license: no more running stop signs, no more dumping beer on the sidewalk; “conduct monthly, self-monitoring observations [of] tours,” and train drivers with some bartender skills to keep customers safe and under control. Moving the starting point for tours was tacked on as a “gentleman’s agreement.”
“They’ve very readily complied,” he said, and even made connections with businesses to find its new starting spot. “They kind of became part of that Northeast network.”
In the year since the deal, Reich said, “the volume of my calls has gone way down” compared with two or three years ago.
“To say that the issues and concerns have gone away, no, [but] it seems like it took something that was pretty hot a few years ago and it turned down the dial.”
Luehring agrees that things have gotten better — specifically, that tours now stop just before 10 p.m. They also come a bit less often — maybe once or twice each hour, instead of every 15 minutes. But she is frustrated that her main option for holding pedal pubs accountable is lodging potentially constant complaints.
“I’m not going to call 311 every time the pedal pub comes by and is loud,” she said, and emailing PedalPub Twin Cities, something she tried twice years ago, got her only a vague apology for her “negative experience” with the business.
Council Member Jacob Frey, whose third ward includes Luehring’s house and part of the “Nord’East” route, said residents like her need to be persistent. Holding pedal pubs accountable “is more of an enforcement piece. If nuisance and/or illegal activity is occurring,” he said, “you should call 311 or my office.”
Reich also encouraged Luehring to call Frey’s office or 311. He mentioned that the second option has the potential to automatically trigger inspections, which Hilden confirmed. If six complaints are called in at one location, Hilden said, staff will investigate and, if complaints follow a pattern, inspectors may monitor the route in person.
Staplin, the manager for PedalPub Twin Cities, was not aware that of the complaints against party bike businesses in 2013 and 2014, nearly 9 in 10 were lodged against her business and not Traveling Tap.
Still, she said, 56 complaints is a low number “when you consider the number of tours that we do every year.” (According to the company’s website, it ran more than 2,900 Twin Cities tours in 2012 alone.)
Before city regulations or licensing requirements, PedalPub was taking steps to make its tours peaceful, she said. In 2008, its second season, it introduced a speech “that all the pilots go through prior to the tour,” she said. The drivers set expectations for before, during, and after the tour. Riders are asked to think about if the tour route was their own neighborhood, and that pedal pubs came by 10 times a day.
For the most part, she said, customers have listened. And the “handful of times per year” when someone is found in violation of its rules, they are charged a (minimum) $300 fine, which the company donates to a neighborhood organization where the rider misbehaved.
“I feel that we do a good job of maintaining control,” she said.
When drivers are part of a complaint, Staplin said, they receive retraining, and are sometimes suspended. No PedalPub Twin Cities driver has ever been fired.
Because pedal pubs are rented for special occasions, are customers more likely to get out of hand? “Not if you set expectations early on,” she said. Plus, “Every group isn’t just a bunch of drunk wahoos. It’s just people out having a good time.”
Staplin also dismissed the claim that pedal pubbers let loose because they aren’t in their own neck of the woods. More than 50 percent of customers come from the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, she said. She did not specify if customers ever live in the neighborhood they’re touring.
In 2012, St. Paul passed an ordinance requiring pre-approval of pedal pub routes in the city. Companies had been drawing complaints for using residential streets, and city staff were eager to get pedal pubs off of them to prevent more trouble.
Council Member Dave Thune, whose Ward 2 includes St. Paul’s two main PedalPub routes, said the city is happy with the regulation. “We’ve had a good experience so far,” he said. “Our departments have gotten very good at not being wet blankets.”
(The number of official complaints recorded by the city do not match anecdotal reports from Thune and licensing director Dan Niziolek. In 2012 there was just one official complaint listed; in 2013 and 2014 there were five and four, respectively.)
Staplin said St. Paul-style rules would harm its business in Minneapolis. “Most of what we do is mixed use,” she said. If a pure definition of “residential” was used, only one of its six routes — the downtown route — would not need to change to fit a commercial streets-only rule.
“People wouldn’t be happy” to be told where they can and can’t go on tours, she said.
Asked about the St. Paul rules in Minneapolis, “I’d have to look at the impact of something like that,” said Frey.
While Reich said pedal pubs are on the right track, he did not rule out the option for limiting the businesses to commercial streets. “If, for whatever reason, pedal pubs can’t settle in and be part of the neighborhood, it could certainly come to that,” he said.
For the time being, there does not appear to be popular demand for that kind of change. Between residents who are critical of the pedal pubs and those who support it, Reich said, “My sense is that it’s pretty equal, actually.” Even larger, he suspects, is the contingent which, after overheated discussions a couple years ago, agree with a sign he saw posted: “WE HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT PEDAL PUBS.”
Then there are the people, he said, who outnumber all three of those groups: “Those who aren’t following the issue and don’t even think two seconds about it.”
Not unlike competing mandates for City Council members, the regulators at City Hall consider factors apart from safety and preserving quality of life for residents.
“You have to balance that with businesses being successful,” Hilden said. “Minneapolis is a great place to do business and a great place to visit. We want people to come in and have a good time.”
That said, Hilden sympathizes with annoyed residents. He told a story about getting complaints on the dinging music of an ice cream truck. “Really?” he thought.
Then he realized: It’s a different story when that dinging truck is circling your block five or six times in a row. “That’s disruptive,” he said.
(And the clientele of ice cream trucks are likely not reported for “being disorderly and yelling obscenities at passersby,” as one resident told 311 in a complaint against PedalPub last month.)
The potential for disruption notwithstanding, Hilden said the PedalPub and Traveling Tap “have been open and we’ve been open with dialogue.”
“They’re a good business, just like anyone else,” he said of PedalPub. “It’s just making sure they’re working within the rules and following them just like anybody else.”
He isn’t under any illusions, though, and is glad that the drivers are licensed in addition to the businesses overall. “If you don’t give drivers accountability,” he said, they run amok.” Like making a habit of pedaling through stop signs and stop lights to keep the bike’s momentum.
In Northeast Minneapolis, “pubs have existed right in people’s backyards for 100 years,” said Reich. In a blended space, he said, “If you have a bar and you’re newer to the game, you very soon know you have to have a compact with the neighborhood.”
Even though PedalPub Twin Cities has amassed more complaints than established bars, Reich said he sees the business as learning the ropes in the same process. “I think they’re in the growing phase,” he said. “They’re the new kid on the block.”
While Reich drew a parallel with other Northeast bars, Luehring cited them as an example of what pedal pubs could be doing but aren’t.
Grumpy’s Northeast, a bar several blocks north on University Avenue, is also in a residential area. She said the bar makes an effort with signs telling patrons to respect the neighborhood.
The pedal pub drivers don’t take the same responsibility, she said. “They’re egging customers on.”
One of the conditions of PedalPub Twin Cities’ relicensing last year is that it give its drivers training, Reich said, “to the degree that a bartender would in a traditional pub or club.”
For Kleinman, the issues go beyond training. She suggested to city staff a rule against tipping drivers, she said, because “It creates a situation where the driver is being paid by the people he or she is supposed to be managing.”
She also recommended that PedalPub take a page from the playbook of its rival Traveling Tap, which puts two staff on board each bike: a driver and a bartender.
“The driver cannot possibly both pilot the pedal pub and deal with the patrons,” she said. “Having two people would help that.”
Hilden confirmed that city staff has encouraged PedalPub Twin Cities to put two drivers on each bike as a way to keep order. While there are not rules barring the businesses from doing so, city staff also encourage pedal pubs to stay off residential streets.
Is there anything for Luehring that would make this uninvited summer tradition a little less unpleasant?
Asked for a dream solution, she admitted “I would like them to go away, honestly.”
She knows that won’t happen, and even if she had the power, she said, “I don’t want to bring down someone’s company.”
What’s hard for Luehring is that while pedal pubs have gotten better at following the letter of the law (sometimes), they are still, in practice, regularly disruptive.
“It could be worse,” she mused. “I could have really terrible crime in my backyard.”
But that doesn’t obscure the smaller things, like being embarrassed at a family gathering or having to watch out for mooners in your front yard. “In the future,” she said, “I would never buy a house on a pedal pub route.”
An hour hour later into the humid evening, the only noise is TV cartoons and Luehring’s five year-old asking if tomorrow they can use the Hello Kitty popcorn maker. There’s less than a half hour before tours have to be off the streets. It looks like there won’t be any pedal pubs.
“That is bizarre to me,” Luehring said, “because it’s such a nice night.”