What Drunken Bicycling Means For Transit Planners

Post by Steven Dale


Such a bad (good?) idea. Image via Wikipedia.

Last week I had the good fortune to be in Madrid for one of my oldest, dearest friend’s bachelor party. Suffice it to say, hosting a bachelor party in Madrid—with its notoriously raucous nightlife—is roughly equivalent to putting Kanye West on stage at the MTV VMAs. Bizarre things are going to happen.

Our evening began in downtown Madrid with a few casual drinks . . . atop a mobile pedal-powered bar.

If you haven’t seen these contraptions before, I can assure you they are terrifyingly real. Whether you call them Party Bikes, Pedal Taverns or Beer Bikes, they are basically a series of tandem bikes welded to the sides of a mobile pub.

And as the word “pub” implies, these are fully-operational bars with working beer taps that allow passengers the ability to pour their own pints while cycling through downtown traffic.

Somehow these things are street legal in numerous jurisdictions around the world. The company we rented from operates from 10am in the morning till 10pm at night. The only restriction we were informed of was not to pour beer on passing cars or pedestrians. We had to sign a waiver.

(In our hometown of Toronto, Canada, it is illegal even to share a bottle of wine with friends at a picnic in a park, so I suspect we won’t be seeing any Trolley Pubs in the Great White North any time soon.)

Based upon various readings from our various personal electronic devices, our top speed in Madrid was somewhere in the 3-5 km/hr range. And again, we weren’t in some specially reserved “Party Bike Diamond Lane.” We weren’t in a park. We weren’t on the sidewalk. We were in the midst of thick, dense urban traffic in the most heavily-touristed part of a city of 6 million people.

We had to navigate this monstrosity through a multi-lane traffic circle while pouring alcoholic beverages for ourselves.

And here was the shocking thing — no one seemed to mind. We screwed up traffic along the way worse than a donkey-powered ambulance. But everyone we passed took pictures, cheered us on and just generally enjoyed the absurdity of what they were seeing (ourselves included).

The only people who seemed even remotely annoyed by our existence were the occasionally disgruntled bus and taxi drivers—which was ironic given the fact that they had the benefit of driving in a dedicated lane that avoided all other traffic disturbances.

Whether you believe that bicycling drunk with a dozen of your friends through downtown traffic at any given time of day is the worst idea in the world or the best idea in the world (it’s both), I think we can all agree on one thing — this is a transit planner’s worst nightmare.*

I don’t know this for certain, but I’d wager fifty dollars right here and now that there isn’t a transit or traffic planner’s model on the face of this earth that has a Party Bike variable. Not one. Such a thing is too outside the norm to bother. And yet I can 100% assure you traffic in Madrid was significantly and adversely affected by a bunch of inebriated idiots on a mobile tavern.

The company we rented the bike from appeared to have around three or four of these bikes in their garage. Logical reasoning tells us therefore that there could be up to four Beer Bikes circling around downtown Madrid at any given time.

Again, a transit planner’s worst nightmare.*

Here’s the thing: While the Beer Bike unquestionably causes a disruption to the rest of traffic, I want to live in a world where asinine nonsense like the Beer Bike exists. The very reason people choose to live in cities is because—as famed urbanist Jane Jacobs put it—“cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

In other words, asinine nonsense like Beer Bikes exist because there exists a contingent of people who want to ride it. It’s no different for artisanal mustard shops and cat cafés.


A bachelor party in Berlin. Photo by (a gobsmacked) Steven Bochenek.

A transit planner cannot possibly plan for all eventualities. There’s simply no way a planning professional could anticipate the popularity of something so stupid, juvenile, yet unquestionably awesome as a Beer Bike. All that can be done is to plan around it. That’s why you separate public transit; so as to allow things like the Beer Bike to exist while inconveniencing as few people as possible.

We all know that transit works best when it’s in its own dedicated rights-of-way. Whether it’s in specific bus-only lanes, underground in tunnels or overhead in cable cars, transit can only truly function when separated from the unpredictably wonderful carnivalia of urban life.

Great cities—world-class cities—get that. Great cities don’t need to agree with the Beer Bikes, themselves. Great cities do, however, agree to their right to exist and simply plan around them.


*Editor’s note: Planners are a pretty clever bunch. Leaving room for the imagination, perhaps beer bikes are only the urban planner’s second-worst nightmare.


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