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Illegal dirt bikes and ATVs are turning Philadelphia streets into scenes from a Mad Max movie. June 28, 2021
Public safety
Politics and law

Five years ago while on assignment, I was riding with a police officer in Philadelphia’s Kensington section when we saw a large all-terrain vehicle (ATV) drive onto the sidewalk. A crowd watched as the rider performed a series of wheelies and tricks. The carnival atmosphere of the scene attracted an additional ATV rider intent on outperforming the first performer. The officer stepped out of the squad car and quietly told the drivers not to block the sidewalk. As the officer left the scene, I saw both ATVs merge with traffic, presumably to restart their wheelies and tricks.

The scene prompted more questions than answers: ATVs are illegal for street use, so why did the officer chide them only for driving onto the sidewalk? The officer told me that the Philadelphia Police Department had instructed its officers to go easy on ATV and dirt-bike riders because it was “a culturally sensitive issue.” The underlying message: officers should not take direct action because that might be deemed “racist.”

This incident occurred when the ATV/dirt-bike problem in Philadelphia was just beginning to mount, and members of the “street-riding community” were beginning to feel their strength in numbers. In those early years, riders in the city generally stuck to back roads or isolated bike paths along the Delaware River. The few renegade vehicles that made their way onto congested city streets were regarded as anomalous.

As the years passed, the numbers of riders slowly increased. After all, these were easy-to-get recreational vehicles that can be purchased online or at Walmart. You can order a TaoTao dirt bike, for instance, online for $779.95 (free shipping); a kids' ATV goes for $1,555, while the bigger Strokeshaft ATV goes for $2,939.95.

The pandemic and the June 2020 George Floyd riots seemed to quadruple the number of riders in Philadelphia. The riots set a tone of freewheeling anarchy. Riders traveled in larger and larger contingents and became much bolder in their disruptions of local traffic flows in neighborhoods and throughout Center City. Pedestrians had to contend with the sudden appearance of invading bikers, 30 or more at a time, blazing through crosswalks or taking sudden detours onto sidewalks.

In March 2021, a viral video captured a violent confrontation between an armed ATV driver and a driver of an SUV on Broad Street in South Philadelphia. A number of illegal vehicles driving in front of the SUV driver had stopped suddenly, causing the driver to hit the back of a bike. When the driver left his vehicle to see if the dirt-bike rider was okay, an altercation occurred that ended with the driver sustaining minor injuries. The 27-year-old dirt-bike rider was arrested and found to have a long record of assaults.

Last month, a community meeting of the Queen Village Neighbors Association drew more than 1,100 people to complain to city council members and the Philadelphia Police Department about illegal racing along pedestrian sidewalks, commercial corridors, and residential streets. Residents of luxury high-rise condos complained of the noise from dirt bikes rising from the street and imploding midair in a kind of “Sensurround.”

Metro Philadelphia reported last fall that the Philadelphia Police Department had deployed a detail dedicated to confiscating ATVs and dirt bikes. “Since May, they have taken 263 off the streets; however, the program can’t be utilized on a daily basis and may not be able to continue indefinitely due to budget constraints,” Metro reported.

On June 10, as a result of citywide protests against these vehicles, the city council unanimously passed a bill aimed at cracking down on them. The bill altered the city code so that dirt-bike riders face the same consequences as ATV riders: a $2,000 fine and police confiscation. At-large councilmember Allan Domb, one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “There is a safety issue here. We’ve seen people ride on the sidewalks. The safety is not just for the residents, it’s also for the people actually operating these vehicles.”

Two days after the bill’s passage, more than 1,000 bikers congregated at 3800 Aramingo Avenue in a spectacle of noise, fireworks, drag racing, and “civil disobedience.” During the event, biker Angel Rodriquez, 21, was fatally shot by an anonymous rider who left the scene and remains at large. The incident, happening as it did just days after the city council’s crackdown, was further proof that the illegal bike problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Skeptics now wonder if police will continue to look the other way or find excuses not to fine or confiscate the bikes of lawbreakers. What’s the use of a new law if it’s not enforced?

As if to underscore the skeptics’ concerns, district attorney Larry Krasner has called for a more nuanced understanding of how dirt bikes and ATVs are used in Philadelphia. “It is very (important) for us not to lump everyone together and for us not to stereotype,” Krasner said. “There is a big difference between driving a vehicle down the street and endangering people by driving up and down a sidewalk. There’s a difference between traveling at a normal speed and going at an extremely high speed, or going against traffic, or blowing through traffic lights. We have to be willing to see those distinctions if we’re not going to fall into some of our old traps.”

Local media outlets report that bikers say they are riding because they are “trying to get out of neighborhoods riddled with violent crime.” They said that police crackdowns won’t stop them. One rider told NBC10 News: “I’ve been doing this for years. This is my stress reliever. I’m not going to stop. I’m never going to stop.” Another rider said that if his ATV were confiscated, he would just go out and buy another one.

The city council, in an attempt to appease the bikers, is considering creating an ATV and dirt-bike park somewhere in the city. A park of this sort would have to be built from scratch, and many questions linger, like how bikers would transport their vehicles to and from the location. “I think realistically that could take some time. We want to find a location that’s not going to be in a residential or commercial setting,” Domb said.

But for many riders, performing in a public environment for an “unwilling” audience seems like the whole point. If that’s the case, then any effort to contain riders in an enclosed, theme-park setting, where they are expected to obey the rules of containment, is bound to fail. As the rider said, street biking is a “stress reliever.”

Photo: Aleksandr Potashev/iStock

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