Over a Barrel: Why is City Hall Barring Pedal Pub From Operating?

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The Emanuel administration has been doing a terrific job of promoting biking, so it’s bizarre that the city seems to be stonewalling a bicycle-powered business that supports local retail districts and helps prevent drunk driving. Pedal Pub leads bar crawls on sixteen-person vehicles, operating legally in 27 other cities. In a few cities they are even permitted to serve beer from a keg onboard, although they’re not proposing to do that in Chicago.

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) has twice denied them a license and hasn’t acted on their most recent application for a year, and Pedal Pub says they haven’t been told why. Last summer the business ran trips in Chicago, expecting to eventually get a license. The city wound up fining them $15,000 for operating without a license and for deceptive practices, because they ran a Groupon that failed to mention their status as an unlicensed business. The former charge was eventually dropped and the penalty lowered to $2,000. I called Pedal Pub’s Chicago manager Matt Graham for his perspective on the issue.

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Photo by Samantha Arnold.

How does your business operate in Chicago?

We rent a sixteen-person bike to groups to conduct either pub crawls, progressive dinners or tours of the neighborhood for birthdays, bachelor / bachelorette parties, business outings and the like. Ten of the passengers can pedal. We do not drink onboard but the passengers drink in the bars. We provide a designated driver who does the steering.

People enjoy it because it’s kind of like your own personal parade. Bystanders are waving and taking pictures. It sounds corny but we spread smiles through the neighborhood. People just can’t help but grin when they see the Pedal Pub. Even if they’re shaking their heads in a “What is that?” kind of way, they’re still amused by it.

So what are the problems you’ve been having with the city?

In 2011 we applied for a license that BACP denied. We had a physical address but we hadn’t actually moved to the city yet. Their decision was that we were operating a tour company and that you can only operate a tour company with a public passenger vehicle, and that’s defined as a motor vehicle. Obviously we don’t fit that description.

We told them we’re just pedaling around the neighborhood, we’re not doing tours per se, and we shouldn’t fall under that category, because a motor vehicle is something we’ll never be. But we’re having no problem operating in any other city in the United States.

We lost our appeal because they said we couldn’t introduce any more evidence. We only could base our appeal on the information on our original application. So we reapplied and were denied again. And then in early 2012 we applied for this season and we’ve yet to hear from the BACP whether we’ve been approved or denied.

And this summer we operated expecting the city to approve our license, because we applied exactly as Bobby’s Bike Hike [a longtime local bike tour company that leads pub rides] did – we did a Freedom of Information Act request to see their application – so there should be no reason BACP is having a problem with our application. And I feel the reason why BACP hasn’t replied to our application is because it’s not deniable. The way it’s written there’s no room for them to defend a decision to deny it.

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Why do you think they want to deny it? What’s their motivation for not giving you guys a license?

I don’t know. Every person in the city that we speak to – aldermen, chambers of commerce, merchants, customers – they all get it, they all want this to be licensed in Chicago, they’re all having a great time and reaping the benefits of $100,000 per bike [per year] coming into their neighborhood being spent in the bars. They love it.

The only one that doesn’t get it is the BACP. We’ve yet to figure out exactly why. So all we can do in the meantime is try and write an ordinance that will allow us to operate. Part of their argument is there’s no license that exists for us, even though we know perfectly well that a limited business license is more than applicable to us. It’s already being used by other businesses that are as similar as you can be to us without having a sixteen-person bike.

Right now we’re working with [1st Ward] Alderman Joe Moreno on an ordinance that will allow the pedal pub to operate. They’re editing the ordinance now – it takes a long time to edit. They’re working with Commissioner Rosemary Krimble from the BACP they’re working with the Department of Public Safety to make sure all their concerns are addressed, which is all we ever wanted. Tell us what is an issue for you and we’ll make sure we address it.

So we don’t really have a reason why we haven’t been granted a license yet. Otherwise we would be a lot less frustrated. BACP just keep telling us no, but they don’t seem to want to work with us to say, “Hey, if you would do this instead of this, we would have no problem with you.” They don’t even really give us options. In the past they’ve just denied us and now they won’t even entertain the denial. They just don’t want to talk to us all.