New RI law could legalize alcohol-free party bikes called quadricycles

Sea Shell Motel’s party bike in Misquamicut has room for 12, a large canopy, and daytime LED displays that owner Tom Riley says “light up like a disco at night.”

It doesn’t carry beer or wine, but unless Rhode Island lawmakers agree to make it street legal, this non-alcoholic twist on “pedal pubs” popular elsewhere will be stuck in mothballs when visitors will return to the beach this summer.

Riley and co-owner Debbie Stebenne bought the option-packed party bike last spring for around $30,000, started a business to sell rides, hired a guide and cleared it with the police chief of Westerly.

Just as it arrived from the manufacturer in China, attorneys from the Division of Motor Vehicles stepped in.

The party bike couldn’t use public streets without a license, but they had no license to give it. It is too big to be considered a bicycle and too slow to be considered a motor vehicle.

He’s been under a tarp in the motel parking lot ever since.

“These things are popular all over the country,” Riley said Friday. They operate in Connecticut and Massachusetts and we were surprised to learn that we could not operate here.”

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Luckily for Riley, legislation inspired by her predicament is on the way in the General Assembly. This would create a new class of unconventional pedal vehicles, technically described as “quadricycle passenger vehicles”, allowing people to use them on Rhode Island roads without having to register them as a car or truck.

It passed the House of Representatives 64-3 Thursday night without debate.

If you’ve been to Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, or other cities outside of New England in recent years, you’ve probably seen quadricycles, even though no one would call them that. Pedal crawler, beercycle, beer bike, and pedal pub are more common ways to describe them if not a party bike.

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Because party bikes aren't legal in Rhode Island, Tom Riley is permanently parked at his Sea Shell Motel in Misquamicut.

The vehicles have four wheels and counters in the center with drivers on each side pushing pedals underneath. A driver steers the van-sized contraption and operates the stereo system. Some have room for a bartender between rows of runners or a keg above the front bumper.

A Wikipedia entry on party bikes indicates that they are popular with tourists and also for corporate team retreats.

Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, said voters had expressed interest in operating party bikes in Providence in the past, but gave up after being thwarted by the DMV.

He plans to introduce a senatorial version.

Rhode Island seems to be one of the few states where party bikes are banned.

DMV Administrator Walter “Bud” Craddock said his agency has no problem allowing quadricycles to be used on Rhode Island streets, according to committee testimony, as long as the legislature amends the law and establishes certain rules,

The rules, included in the bill passed by the House on Thursday, would allow party bikes to operate without having to register with the DMV as long as they carry no more than 16 people, including the driver. This driver must have a driver’s license and the owner must have $1 million insurance coverage.

Most party bikes have a battery-powered electric motor to help with climbing hills or sinking when riders – for whatever reason – stop pedaling. The House bill states that the engine must stop at 20 mph and that a party bike cannot use any street with a speed limit higher than 30 mph.

And the bill would require every city and town to pass a resolution authorizing the use of party bikes “subject to the approval of the local police chief.”

Passengers of the party bike can sit down, pedal and have a drink.

None of these rules generated much debate, but the bill’s ban on selling alcohol to party bikers did.

“I think you should be able to use alcohol on it quite frankly. It’s part of the party experience,” West Warwick Republican Rep. Patricia Morgan said during a January committee hearing on the quadricycle bill. “Because everywhere I’ve seen it in use, people have been drinking from it. They’re having fun and they’re not the ones using it. That’s for sure. They’re just pedaling.”

Cranston’s Democratic Rep. Arthur Handy, the bill’s sponsor, said it wouldn’t work in New England, with its penchant for strict liquor laws and aversion to public celebrations.

“I think there’s kind of… public drinking in the Northeast, in New England, we kind of have a thing about it,” Handy said, noting he’s from the south.

It’s unclear if Bring Your Own Booze would be allowed on party bikes.

Miller said bans on open liquor containers could stop it even if the party bike law itself doesn’t.

Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, who worked with Riley on the party bike bill, noted that even in New England liquor laws were slowly liberalizing.

“Before, you couldn’t drink on the beach,” he said. “Now they can give you a drink to go.”

The party bike bill passed the House last year and died in the Senate.

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza took no position on party bikes. If the bill passes, it will “work with city council, licensing departments and the police to understand the impact and feasibility of allowing quadricycles citywide,” spokeswoman Theresa Agonia wrote. in an email.

If the DMV hadn’t blocked it, Riley said he planned to use the party bike on routes around Misquamicut, Weekapaug and near Taylor Swift’s Watch Hill home.

But this is only the beginning. If legalized, he said they could buy more for Narragansett and Newport.

“If we can’t have alcohol, it’s fine,” Stebenne said. “We have three businesses in Misquamicut, all family businesses. We’re not party people like that.”

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