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You Can Now Drink and Ride a Pedal Pub in Detroit

Working in Detroit: Entrepreneurs launch a new service in Motown

In a decision that is sure to please some Detroit visitors, the Detroit City Council voted this week to allow people to drink alcohol on pedal pubs, those unusual-looking quadricycles found in cities nationwide.

Until now, pedal pub customers who drank alcoholic beverages while on the cycles could have been cited for disorderly conduct under a 1984 ordinance. The newly amended ordinance mimics a state law passed in 2015 that defines commercial quadricycles as nonmotorized vehicles and thus subject to less onerous regulation.

“It’s definitely been a long road, but Stephen and I are pumped that Detroit City Council worked with us and ultimately recognized the benefit we provide to the city,” said Brian Lindsey, who co-founded The HandleBar with his brother, Stephen Lindsey. The brothers are one of three commercial pedal pub operators in Detroit, and their story is featured in the Mackinac Center’s “Working in Detroit” video series.

The HandleBar opened for business in Detroit as soon as Michigan passed a quadricycle law, and it now operates four cycles. Until this week, the company had to tell its customers they might run afoul of the disorderly conduct ordinance if they wanted to drink while on board. The company leases out the vehicles, typically to groups that want to go pub crawling. Many customers also like to bring their own wine and beer.

The pedal pub is such a unique concept, said Stephen Lindsey, that the city wasn’t sure how to deal with it. So his company worked with officials to draft an ordinance that follows state law. Demand for the rides was so high in August that the company ran cycles from morning until midnight seven days a week. Lindsey foresees adding up to four cycles to the business next year.

It’s been great for Detroit, he said, adding that people who live downtown appreciate it, and suburban residents enjoy themselves when they come on a tour.

The Lindseys are mechanical engineers who were looking for a business outside of their day jobs. They started it four years ago in Indianapolis, where Stephen Lindsey was working as an engineer for Rolls-Royce. Brian Lindsey currently works for Toyota in Ann Arbor.

The brothers have deep roots in Michigan. They grew up in the Detroit area, sons of a Detroit police officer. They both attended the University of Michigan. Once their business was going, they dreamed of expanding it into Michigan. But they needed clarity in the law, such as they found in Indiana.

Indianapolis, for example, permits drinking on public streets.

“In Indianapolis, they have an open-container law but it pertains only to motor vehicles. Obviously, we are purely pedal-powered, so we don’t fit that bill. So in Indianapolis, you’re allowed to bring alcohol on the bike,” said Stephen.

Michigan law permits drinking on a pedal pub as long as its driver has a zero blood-alcohol level. Pedal pub companies supply a driver who steers, brakes and watches over the group.

“I won’t lie,” said Stephen. “Sometimes you get some people who had a little too much fun.” In that case, company’s drivers play an important role in keeping everyone else safe. “We haven’t had any issues to date,” he added.

One October afternoon, a Detroit business leased one of the cycles for an employee outing. The team toured the city and visited five pubs.

“It was a workout that first 15 minutes, getting used to it,” said Alicia, who declined to give her last name. She said that she and her fellow passengers spent the time listening to music, laughing and taking photos. “It was great.” 

Her co-worker Joel Bond was visiting from the firm’s Chicago office, and he thinks the cycles are a great way for Detroit to improve its reputation. He said that the city suffers from a perception that not much happens there. But his experience suggests otherwise, he said.

Pub owners are also fans.

“They roll through all day long. They bring happy, fun customers. They stay for a few minutes, have a couple of drinks, maybe have something to eat and then they move along,” said Sean Harrington, owner of the Town Pump Tavern.

Harrington doesn’t believe “bring your own” alcohol on the cycles will detract from his business. He says customers will still want to stop and most times, they do bring business.

Others are not so sure drinking on the cycles is a good idea.

“They stop at enough pubs, so honestly, you don’t have to drink on board,” said Christine, a registered nurse who was on a tour with friends from out of town.

Motorists, too, may not always welcome pedal pubs. In cities with heavy traffic, they can slow down cars. Experienced pedal pub drivers tend to pick roads with fewer cars.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.