Spend any time in Philly on warm weekends and you’ll find yourself confronted with a stark example of the chaotic lawlessness that pervades our city streets.
First, you hear them from blocks away, roaring at a pitch that makes conversation, sleep, even thought, impossible. Then you see them — legions of ATVs and dirt bikes in packs, speeding down boulevards, weaving through traffic, running through red lights, sometimes hopping onto sidewalks and riding the wrong way, from Hunting Park through Center City to South Philly.
You wouldn’t know that these vehicles are — it’s true — illegal, even to park, in Philadelphia. And why would you? In the 10 years since Mayor Nutter banned them, ATVs and illegal dirt bikes have become increasingly prevalent. And they are not just a nuisance; they’re dangerous.
Take what happened in the span of two weeks this spring: First, two men riding an ATV in a group of around 100, according to news reports, sped through a red light on Hunting Park Avenue, crashed into an SUV, and were critically injured.
Even when no one is killed, the chaos these mobs of riders bring is another sign that our laws are meaningless, our sense of urban togetherness has frayed (if it ever existed), that we are living by rules unenforceable by choice or necessity.
Then, 17-year-old Jesus Gomez Rosario, riding his skateboard on Allegheny Avenue, was hit and killed by a dirt bike rider who, according to police, was popping wheelies and speeding before the incident — and then fled the scene.
Then, that same week, 29-year-old Victoria Rose Walker was driving her ATV the wrong way on State Road when she collided with a car. She too died, of head injuries, while the other driver was injured.
Even when no one is killed, the chaos these mobs of riders bring is another sign that our laws are meaningless, our sense of urban togetherness has frayed (if it ever existed), that we are living by rules unenforceable by choice or necessity — something some contend played a part in the shooting on South Street a couple weeks ago, after a night of mayhem.
“Every year has progressively gotten worse,” says City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district encompasses many of the areas most affected, from Kensington to South Street. “People come from all over. They look to our streets as a playground.”
Are there solutions out there?
To be clear, this is not a simple issue to solve. For one thing, ATV issues mean different things to different people. In many primarily Black and Brown communities around the city, #bikelife is a passion, made more so by Philly’s own Meek Mill, who rose to fame with a 2011 Ima Boss music video now viewed 111 million times that featured urban riders. And the slogan “Wheels up, guns down” has become a national rallying cry that encapsulates the value of bike life at a time of horrific gun violence in city neighborhoods.
Billy Penn’s Layla A. Jones wrote a terrific piece about Philly bikelife a few years ago, in which some riders made a distinction between hobbyists who follow traffic laws and drive safely, and those whose actions cause mayhem and danger.
And it is true, as one rider, Montana, told Jones, that there is no place in Philadelphia where people who want to learn or practice tricks — or even just go for a ride — can go. “We used to go to a strip called Beach Street, that’s behind Port Richmond,” Montana said. “It was nothing bad happening back there. Everybody went there on Sundays. Then after a while, cops started shutting it down, so that started forcing people out onto the street.”
The 2012 legislation signed by Nutter banned ATVs from Philly’s streets or sidewalks, even parked, except on private property. Since then, police have sometimes conducted sweeps, which have resulted in hundreds of bikes being confiscated each year. If caught, riders are subject to $2,000 fines. But police are also instructed — as they are everywhere in the country — not to chase them down at high speed, as that can be even more dangerous to passersby and other drivers.
Last summer, City Council empowered the police department to start an ATV detail, which uses a helicopter to monitor gatherings of riders. That has resulted in some vehicles being impounded, though it’s unclear how many. But it is under-resourced and so far has been fairly ineffective. (Squilla, who sponsored the legislation, says he is working on getting more funding to the detail.)
The ATV conundrum is shared by cities around the country; it’s even starting to become an issue in Bluefield, West Virginia, population 9,800.
The ATV conundrum is shared by cities around the country; it’s even starting to become an issue in Bluefield, West Virginia, population 9,800. They have taken different approaches to solving the problem: New York City last year declared all ATVs illegal in the city and, after offering a $100 reward for every bike confiscated and crushed around 3,000 by year’s end.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the City Council passed an ordinance last month, similar to one New Haven enacted last year, that would fine gas stations $250 for allowing riders to fill up their ATVs.
Cleveland last month started a new approach to enforcing its ATV laws, with police arresting bikers as they gathered in a city park before starting a group ride, a way to get around the fact that they can’t give chase.
Squilla has proposed taking an idea that Paris is piloting to combat this issue, using sound meter cameras — essentially noise radars — on light posts that would ticket vehicles making excessive noise, the way red light cameras fine people who run traffic lights. This would, Squilla acknowledges, make a small dent in the problem; the worst ATV offenders tend not to register their vehicles legally, which would make it hard to trace them.
Baltimore may have the best answer of all
The most creative solution may be one that comes from what is considered the dirt bike capital of the world: Baltimore. There, after the death in Baltimore police custody of Freddie Gray — and the uprisings that followed — native Brittany Young founded B-360, which uses dirt bike culture to teach science and engineering to young people, keep them out of jail, and allow for a safe space for them to ride and enjoy their off-road vehicles.
“When you think about the science behind popping the best wheelie, that’s a physics equation,” Young told the Today Show last year. “When you think about math and dirt bikes, there’s the best gas to oil ratio. And there’s engineering. Mechanics fix a product every day. So do dirt bike riders.”
B-360 has worked with 7,000 youth under age 16, held more than 30 organized rides and, according to the organization, contributed to an 81 percent decrease in dirt bike arrests in Baltimore city.
Since its founding, B-360 has worked with 7,000 youth under age 16, held more than 30 organized rides and, according to the organization, contributed to an 81 percent decrease in dirt bike arrests in Baltimore city. The organization also has a partnership with the state attorney’s office, which will dismiss some nonviolent cases if the suspect agrees to join B-360. Now, B-360 is raising funds to build the country’s first dirt bike campus in Baltimore that would include classrooms, event space and indoor and outdoor riding tracks.
In the meantime, last summer, Baltimore’s B & O Railroad Museum offered Young a parking lot for her program, where kids as young as seven were able to ride and learn tricks. (Surely we have one of those somewhere?)
What steps are being taken in Philly?
In Philly, councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones, along with other city leaders, have talked for at least a decade about setting aside land for an ATV park, as some counties have done in midwestern states, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, usually on roads that ring cities. (Helen Ubiñas at the Inquirer tried to rally readers to advocate for an ATV park in 2018.)
That requires land, preferably not near any residential neighborhoods; money to build and keep it up, which could be solved through a public-private partnership; and a number of logistical issues that no one seems ready to resolve, including the question of how riders would get to the park since even having the vehicles on city streets is illegal.
Johnson’s spokesman Vincent Hughes says the councilmember is still working on the issue, and that he has reached out to Young at B-360 to talk about how to bring a version of her program here. Squilla, meanwhile, says he, too, is in favor of finding a resolution that allows for riders to co-exist with the rest of the city in a safe and reasonable manner.
“A lot of these riders are amazingly talented,” he says. “It could be an X-Game sport one day. I’m very supportive of finding a place to go.”
All of which is fine — but none of which gets us anywhere any time soon. As Squilla says, “It needs to be a priority.” So everyone seems to be saying. In the meantime, we wait, and hope that no one else gets killed or hurt by speeding ATVs — or the chaos that goes with them.
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Header photo by Raul De Los Santos on Unsplash