In Defense of the Pedal Pub

[Anything Diane Hofstede is against, I'm for it.]
I remember the first time I saw a Pedal Pub in Minneapolis, and how quickly the smile spread across my face. It was early in the Pedal Pub era, and the sight of a giant snail-speed vehicle of people chatting and drinking beer, oblivious to the vehicles whirling around them on the street made me almost dance as I walked along on the sidewalk. It was a little bit of Amsterdam in Minneapolis. What would be next? A red light district? Gorgeous brick-lined streets? 25% of the people bicycling everywhere?

Since then, Pedal Pubs have become almost commonplace, proliferating through the Twin Cities like Dutch Elm Disease, appearing in Uptown and St Paul and who knows where else. Until recently, I've never had much reason to question their merit.

[One of the IHPP memes.]
That is, until some time ago, when I was spending seven hours or so surfing around on Facebook, and happened across the "I Hate the Pedal Pub" Facebook page. The page is vaguely amusing, in the internet meme kind of way. Here's how the CityPages recently described it:
Who knew so many people harbor hilarious hate in their hearts for the pedal-powered outdoor bars that first debuted in Minneapolis in 2009?

The page asks nobody in particular to "PLEASE STOP RENTING THE PEDAL PUB AND GO BACK TO THE SUBURBS!"

"The Pedal Pub is a complete waste of money to do something that is essentially free," the page's description says. "On top of that, most of the people that partake are over the top, bar tourists who over work the staff and rarely tip. The people that go to these bars on a regular basis hate you and would like to see the Pedal Pub on fire."
But as I read deeper into the page of Pedal Pub hate, I found myself reacting to it like an Coon Rapids bro reacting to Campari. Don't get me wrong. I’m not going to start an "I hate the I Hate the Pedal Pub Facebook Page" Facebook page or anything, but in my opinion, hating the Pedal Pub is a symptom of the anti-urban disease that afflicts the Twin Cities. Pedal Pub hate smacks of hipster snobbery like a mix-tape on vinyl.

You see, the Pedal Pub is not that bad. The gripes are overblown, and it seems like nobody is thinking about its positive benefits. While it can be trying, overall the Pedal Pub is good for Minneapolis. It's one of the trends that's making our city more urban, more diverse, more exciting and unexpected. It's opening up minds and bodies to new experiences, and providing a bridge between the core and the periphery.

The Specific Gripes: Bad Tips, Noise, and Bad Taste

[The main difference b/w the Stupor Bowl and the Pedal Pub is speed & PBR.]
Reading through the hate, you start to get a sense of varieties of the beef. Pedal pubs can cause chaos in bars when they show up. One of the biggest problems is that people riding the pedal pubs don't tip very well, and people riding on them don't treat their servers with much respect.

Here's a typical Pedal Pub script from a libidinal columnist who happens also to be a bartender:
"What's a good shot?!"
Rumple Minze.

"It's my friend's bachelorette party!"
Sucks to be her.

"What do you do for birthdays?!"
How much do you plan on tipping?
I guess the key question here is whether or not pedal pubs are good or bad for business. When I was a server, the best tables appeared in my station, ordered something relatively simple, and disappeared just as quickly while leaving a nice tip. It might seem that Pedal Pubs could fit that model, as the people riding on them seem to like shots and getting the hell out of the bar. There must be a way around this. Why not institute a 20% minimum gratuity for all group vehicles - Pedal Pubs and party buses? Do people running Minneapolis bars really hate getting business? Do they become too crowded? Why not open more bars? It's a good problem to have.

A similar gripe is the noise. Pedal pubs are loud, and doubly so if they are populated by a bridal party. Let's be honest: bachlorette parties have always existed, and will always exist. It used to be that they were confined to places in downtown (the Gay 90's) and Uptown (Williams peanut bar), but somehow the Pedal Pubs have allowed them to break free from their usual haunts, and seek other bars on level ground. (Little known fact: Pedal Pubs cannot go up hills. If you want to be free from them, find a bar on an incline.)

Look, you can hate on bachelorette parties if you want. It can be a nice hobby, like coming up with hipster jokes. But in the end, it lowers you as a person. The thing to do is to show mercy. This is probably the best night of most of their lives. When faced with an obnoxious cart full of Wooo! girls, I try fill my heart with empathy, and a smidgeon of vicarious joy. I feel better for it.

[Jane Jacobs at the Whitehorse Tavern.]
Overall, when it comes to noise in cities, I think people should lighten up. I like to think of Jane Jacobs' great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her famous passage describing the "urban ballet" in Greenwich Village in the late 50s, she narrates the changing temporal patterns of her street, how people wake up in the morning, open up shops, leave for work, take their kids for walks, etc...

The craziest part of her story is that, late at night, while she's sleeping in her apartment, she's woken up by some noise on the street.

I'll let her describe it:
Deep in the night,  I am almost unaware how many people are on the street unless something calls them together, like the bagpipe. Who the piper was and why he favored our street I have no idea. The bagpipe just skirled out in the February night, and as if it were a signal the random, dwindled movements of the sidewalk took on direction. Swiftly, quietly, almost magically a little crowd was there, a crowd that evolved into a circle with a Highland fling inside it. the crowd could be seen on the shadowy sidewalk, the dancers could be seen, but the bagpiper himself was almost invisible because his bravura was all in his music. He was a very little man in a plain brown overcoat. When he finished and vanished, the dancers and watchers applauded, and applause came from the galleries too, half a dozen of the hundred windows on Hudson Street. Then the windows closed, and the little crowd dissolved into the random movements of the night street.

Picture the moment. Jacobs, and most of her Hudson Street neighbors, are woken up by a bagpiper (!) in the middle of the night in New York City, and greet him not with hate but with applause. People who want to live in neighborhoods resembling cemeteries should live in Plymouth, not Northeast Minneapolis. The recent regulations limiting Pedal Pubs were welcomed by the companies, and will require the pubs to be home by 10:00. That seems perfectly reasonable. 

[US craft beer market share is almost as small as Mpls bicycle mode share.]
And, finally, the most prevalent complaint on the IHPP page seems to be that people on Pedal Pubs have truly bad taste, in booze, music, and clothing etc. This is a semi-legitimate concern. But again, this is an area where compassion is required.

Like it or not (in this case, not), most of the USA still thinks that MGD is a good beer. Despite all the progress that foodies and craft beer brewers have made over the past few decades, the vast majority of our nation is still stuck in weak lagerland, and needs to be rescued.

You see, people from the burbs (especially young ones) aren’t really very good at knowing how to act in a civilized place like Minneapolis. They grew up in sheltered 2000 sq ft sensory deprivation homes, surrounded by fences and endless lawns where their only access to the outside world was the Jersey Shore on TV. For most of them, an "urban experience" was going to the Metrodome. They don't know how to behave in a real bar, they don't know how to get around the city. (This is one of the reasons why first- and second-year college kids are about the worst neighbors on Planet Earth.)

I think of it as I would someone just learning English, who may have moved to Minnesota from some faraway land. When they go to a bar, the only words that they know are "Michelob" and "Jag Bomb." They literally don't have any other vocabulary, can't think of anything else. Learning to have taste, just like learning how to not be a d-bag, is a skill that takes practice. If you spend all your life going to B-dub or TGIF for kicks, you're not going to know how to speak "Mayslack's" right out of the gate.

The good things about Pedal Pubs: Non-repression, Traffic Calming, and Street Life

[The Pedal Pub is the opposite of the MN State photograph.]
All the problems caused by the Pedal Pub need to be weighed against the good things that they do for our cities. And these might be a bit less specific, but let's give it a try.

First, the Pedal Pub flies in the face of the Twin Cities' prudish tradition of blue laws and protestant repression. For too long, the Twin Cities (and Minneapolis in particular) has had a reputation of being a land of Lutheran Protestant reserve, a place ruled by common sense and alarm clocks. Minnesota, to hear some tell it, is a land of Scandinavian practicality. It's a place where, until somewhat recently, most bars closed around midnight. It's a place where you can't buy booze on Sundays, where people don't approve of dancing in the streets, and everyone is expected to go to church weekly to pray for their sins.

Well, the Pedal Pub serves as mud in the eye of those who'd frown on the pleasing nexus of alcohol and bicycles. There's really no way of depicting the Pedal Pub as a non-boozy situation. On top of that, the Pedal Pub is the exact opposite of efficiency. It has so little in common with the typical Minnesotan symbolic palette (e.g. the state seal, the state photograph) that I can't help but be proud that when the contraption emigrated to America, it chose Minneapolis instead of New Orleans or San Antonio or San Francisco or Austin. The Pedal Pub declares that Minneapolis is a place where people party. Our streets aren't all about efficient movement of vehicles. They're places for people, and even our suburban soccer moms will get out of the house once in a while and enjoy an unabashed libation. (No more than one, though.)

[The Pedal Pub on Nicollet Mall.]
Which brings me to the second great benefit of the Pedal Pub: the traffic calming effect. I was walking down Hennepin Avenue last summer, and happened to see a Pedal Pub traveling South down the street, clogging up the outer lane of traffic. Now, most people would see that and curse the slothful machine, but I was delighted. For me, Hennepin Avenue is the best and worst of Minneapolis streets, a place that combines walkable contiguous density and diversity with a terrifying amount of impassable car traffic. And, despite some interesting ideas about how to improve the street for pedestrians and cyclists, there's really nothing that's ever going to be done to Hennepin Avenue because of the huge amount of daily car traffic. There's no way the city or county is going to do a road diet, or close it to cars, or add bumpouts or bike lanes. It's the city's great lost cause, with no hope of remediation.

Except that, in one fell burp, the Pedal Pub can appear on Hennepin one day and calm traffic down to reasonable non-fatal speeds. The Pedal Pub is like a giant speed bump, a clunky moving road diet, changing the feel of our streets like the Mayday Parade or a couple of tall bikes. The Pedal Pub is a piece of traffic calming performance art, and for every fuming cursing commuter, there are three semi-comatose drivers who wake with a jolt, and can't help but smile when they see it. The Pedal Pub can single handedly change the tenor of our streets from one of speeding cars, to one of happy people pushing their comfort zone.

[Really, you're gonna hate on this lady?]

I'm sorry, but your Pedal Pub Hate is mostly Misanthropic Snobbery

Like it or not (and the answer is "not"), the Twin Cities is a vast suburban wasteland surrounding a neat little nugget of urban quality. It's like a Regina's dark chocolate truffle stuffed into the hole of a two-day old Supermom's donut. The vast majority of our metro population lives in places with no sidewalks, where all shopping takes place at Target, and where bicycles are strictly for kids. Minneapolis, St Paul, and a few inner ring neighborhoods are an exception to this suburban rule, and as a result, those of us that love our cities guard them jealously, fiercely, like a wild animal stuck in a corner.

Much like Segway Tours, Nice Ride bikes, Food Trucks, Target Field, the cat video festival, or the LRT train, the Pedal Pub is one of the things that's starting to change this dynamic. It's one of the examples of what I like to call "gateway urbanism," experiences and moments that can start to seduce and reshape how the great blob of suburbanites perceive the core city. For people pushing Pedal Pubs, Minneapolis transforms from a place filled with crime, depravity, and broken glass to a place with historic churches across the street from historic bars, a place where you can actually bike down the street at 3 miles per hour without being run over, without having things thrown at you. For every pedal pub experience that ends up with you stepping in vomit, three or four people have ridden on a quasi-bicycle through Minneapolis for the first time, and just realized that West 7th Street has more character and charm on one block than the entire suburb of Apple Valley.

[My most favorite place.]
Hating the Pedal Pub and those who use it may be therapeutic, but in the end, it's not going to make our city any better. I think of Amsterdam, where the Pedal Pubs (or bierfiets) first originated. The question isn't whether or not Dutch people love or hate the fietscafe in Amsterdam. In fact, I’m sure most self-respecting Amsterdammers hate them. (But then again, Dutch people hate almost all of the tourists in Amsterdam, most especially the British ones.)

The thing to remember is that, no matter how Dutch people feel, Amsterdam is one of the best cities in the world to visit and spend time. It's on every list of cities with the best street life. It's drop dead gorgeous, and its sidewalks are alive.  While it might sometimes suck to actually be a Dutch person living there dealing with completely obnoxious British tourists (flying in on Ryan Air for $50 and behaving in ways that would make most TC suburban bachlorette parties look like your great aunt’s bridge game), I'd bet that most Amsterdammers who live there love it. I do too.

Living in a real city saturated with street life, means sharing the city even with people you find culturally repulsive. Overall, the Pedal Pub is going to do more good than harm to the streets of Minneapolis. Living with the Pedal Pub is like knowing when not to go to Nye’s Polonaise Room. Any great city gets too crowded at times, and the best bars in any great city will have moments (on weekends) when they’re overrun with the world’s most annoying people. This isn’t a sign of the apocalypse, but a sign of progress. A true urban dweller might loathe these people from afar, but will also know the off the beaten track, even divy-er hole in the wall around the block.

The Twin Cities needs more night life and more people going out to have fun. We don't need elitist attitudes about who belongs and who doesn’t, based on whether or not Uggs are still popular. If you want to live in a city where everyone has the same hipster taste, where everyone is between the age of 22 and 38, and everyone drinks only craft beer, then move to Portland. (Similarly, if you want to live in a place with no night life, where the streets are empty after seven, and you can get plenty of sleep in your carpeted cocoon, move to Maple Grove or Maplewood.) Unlike Portland, Minneapolis and St Paul are real cities with real demographic and economic diversity, places (unfortunately) regionally dominated by suburbanites. The Pedal Pub is a sign that, after years of hostility, maybe people who work at US Bank and live in White Bear Lake are starting to warm on the idea of urban life. The Pedal Pub is a sign that our city is coming back, and is no longer going to be the asterisk at the end of the freeway. The next time you see one, try and crack a smile. You'll be better off in the end.


Julie K said...

I think the Pedal Pub is less offensive than the utter tone-deafness of a bachelorette party at the gay 90s.

Burtldy said...

Clearly Councilmember Tuthill needs to take advantage of all this Pedal Pub angst. This is right up her alley.

Unknown said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Why does everything have to devolve into "You're being a hipster, I'm being real"? Yes, I can see the reason for hipster hate, and the pedal pub is such an easy target, but as a longtime NE resident I know plenty of 50-somethings with families who chose to buy a house in a residential neighborhood, not next to the Gay 90s, Uptown, or any other bachelorette party destination. On a summer weekend the pedal pubs are a visual and audible nuisance with only one real purpose, to get as fucked up as possible. So lame. Get off your fat asses and ride a bike sometime if you really want to enjoy the sights and bars in our neighborhood, and drink responsibly. I would welcome that.

anon said...

This article is a Tour de Force. Bravo Bill.

Anonymous said...

That was not unambiguous, eh Bill? Am I right?

Er no, wait! Maybe its non not unambiguous. Know any good Protestant interpreters?

Bill Lindeke said...

Yeah, first anonymous, I was trying to describe the actual other purposes of the Pedal Pub. One my my friends described her experience riding it on my fb page thusly:

"I loved your piece. I had no idea I was such a loser for riding one, but you are right on about the positive aspects. Really fun to slow down (& slow traffic down) and be out on a beautiful fall evening appreciating our gorgeous city with friends. We were having fun and people would honk and wave at us from cars or the sidewalk and it just felt like this joyful experience we were sharing."

jinwen said...

"Learning to have taste, just like learning how to not be a d-bag, is a skill that takes practice. "
I do not know it needs to learn how not be a d-bag!!Is that mean I am a d-bag because I never learned how not to be......

Anonymous said...

If you think that the suburbanites who come to NE Mpls to rent a Pedal Pub are looking for an opportunity for their views to be changed about what they consider a poverty and crime-stricken area covered with broken glass every other day of the week when they're sober, then you're horribly mistaken. They aren't coming with thoughts of giving the city any sort of chance at all unless it involves an obnoxious drunken time with 15 of their suburbanite friends. Personally, I could think of better forms of urban tourism that don't involve a slow moving vehicle of drunken d-bags passing by my house weeknights and weekends from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. I would gladly take a bagpipe player any day than a group of disrespectful, self-absorbed drunks who will just end up peeing or vomiting on my lawn after the tour is over and they get back in their cars to drive drunk back to the suburbs.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your lawn might deserve to get peed on.

Bill Lindeke said...

Well, I pee on my own lawn, so ...

Rick Ellis said...

So, I'm a little confused. Is this piece a defense of Pedal Pub or another reason to write a bit of passive-aggressive scorn at suburbanites?

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Anonymous said...

I live down the street from their base in St. Paul and quite frankly I think they suck. At first I thought they were a novel idea, but over the past couple of years my opinion of them changed. I can hear them a block away from my house and they have little respect for the neighborhoods they travel through. Since their arrival I've seen public urination and people vomiting on traffic. Nice. They aren't 'calming' traffic (and for what it's worth, I've never had any issues crossing streets in St. Paul or Minneapolis)- they cause traffic delays and the potential for accidents as motorists try to get out from behind them. Just this week I was on a city bus that got stuck behind one of them for several blocks. The bus driver couldn't pass them, it slowed the bus enough that the route fell behind schedule and many of us on the bus missed our transfers as a result. Thanks for that, Pedal Pub driver. If you want to tour the city while getting trashed, why don't you just rent a party bus instead?

Anna said...

I do have to say, they are SO LOUD. I am not a hipster, but an employed professional who showers regularly, and I have to say they are uniquely loud. There's no need to bitch about them or start a facebook page though. Call the cops for excessive noise after 7 pm and they will come right out and tell the noisy drunks to STFU

Bob Roscoe said...

This pee pub article by Bill Lindeke is one of his best, and says as much about urban America today as Jane Jacobs did a generation ago. He could have named his treatise 'Paradise Lost' - wait - that's already been taken.

Anonymous said...

Why all the hate you're the definition of a hipster. Anyways the Twin Cities is like Gomorrah without all the fun of Sodom. I mean it's alright but let's be honest the Twin Cities are like a jumped up Milwaukee.