Five years ago, I found myself riding with a police officer in Philadelphia’s Kensington section when we saw a large ATV drive onto the sidewalk. A crowd of people watched as the ATV preformed a series of wheelies and tricks. The carnival atmosphere of the scene attracted an additional ATV intent on outperforming the first vehicle. The officer stepped out of the squad car and quietly told the drivers not to block the sidewalk.
When the officer left the scene, I could see that both ATV’s were merging with traffic, presumably to restart their wheelies and tricks. The scene created more questions than answers: If ATVs were illegal for street use, why did the officer only chide them for driving onto the sidewalk? The officer informed me that the PPD had informed all Philadelphia officers to lay low with ATV and dirt bike riders because it was “a culturally sensitive issue.” I turned to the officer in disbelief.“Culturally insensitive?” I asked.
The underlying message here, of course, was that officers should not take direct action because that might be perceived as “racist.”
This incident occurred when the ATV/dirt bike problem in Philadelphia was just beginning to be a problem, when riders—or members of the so called “Street riding community”-- were beginning to feel some strength in numbers and take to the streets to show their “power.” In these early years, ATV and dirt biker 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 anomaly bikers and no real threat.
As the years passed, the number of ATV and dirt bike riders slowly increased. After all, these were easy-to-get toy recreational vehicles that can be purchased online or at Walmart. A so called Taotao dirt bike (free shipping), for instance, can be ordered online for $779.95; a Kids ATV for $1,555.00 while the bigger Strokeshaft ATV goes for $2,939.95.
The pandemic and the June 2020 George Floyd riots in the city seemed to quadruple the number of riders in the city. The riots set a tone of free-wheeling anarchy and thumbing your nose at authority. Riders now seemed to carry themselves with an air of self confidence while traveling in larger and larger armies. They were also bold in their disruption of local traffic flows in neighborhoods and throughout Center City. Pedestrians attempting to cross a street on a green light had to contend with the sudden appearance of invading bikers, thirty or more at a time that often took sudden detours on sidewalks. I’ve seen women guard their children as dirt bikes sped past them, and dirt bikes ignore red lights and force their way into pedestrians crossing a street on a green light. In many cases the illegal biker armies became so large that traffic stood at a standstill until the invading army passed.
In my neighborhood of Port Richmond-Fishtown, people tolerated the riders at first, but as their numbers increased tolerance gave way to anger. Residents complained on Facebook, blamed Larry Krasner and the mayor and the general downward spiral of life in the city. They associated it with gun violence and crime.
The situation became so intolerable that in May 2021 a community meeting of the Queen Village Neighborhoods Association drew more than 1,100 people to complain to City Council members and the Police Department about the illegal racing of dirt bikes and ATVs along sidewalks and residential streets. Residents in luxury high rise condo towers complained of the noise from dirt bikes rising from the street and imploding in a kind of midair “sensurround.” All sections of the city, it seemed, were getting hit.
In March 2021, a violent confrontation between an armed ATV driver and a driver of an SUV occurred on Broad Street in South Philadelphia when a number of illegal vehicles driving in front of the SUV driver stopped suddenly, causing the driver to hit the back of a bike. When the driver left his vehicle to see if the dirt bike driver was okay, an altercation occurred that ended with the driver sustaining minor injuries. The 27-year old dirt bike rider was arrested and was found to have a long record of assaults.
"Like most, I was both shocked and sickened by the utter lawlessness I saw in that video," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said of the incident. "The individual responsible is in custody, and I want to thank our detectives for their quick work in identifying the suspect. I also wish a speedy and full recovery to the victims of this senseless assault."
Metro Philadelphia reported earlier in 2021 that the Philadelphia Police Department began deployment of a dedicated detail in an attempt to confiscate 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.
The budget constraints stem from Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration decision to nullify a planned $19 million increase to the police budget when $14 million was shifted away from the PPD following the protests and rioting in response to the death of George Floyd. City Council, aping the lead of other left progressive cities, had orchestrated a partial defunding of the police.
On June 10, as a result of citywide protests against these vehicles, Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a bill aimed at cracking down on people riding dirt bikes on city streets.
The bill altered the city code so that people caught riding dirt bikes face the same consequences as ATV riders--- a $2,000 fine and police confiscation.
At-Large Councilmember Alan Domb (D), 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.”
A mere two days after the bill’s passage over 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 is still at large.
The incident, happening as it did just days after Philadelphia City Council’s crackdown, was further proof that the illegal bike problem was not going to go away soon. Skeptics now wondered if police would continue to look the other way or find excuses to not fine and/or confiscate the bikes of lawbreakers. Many asked: What’s the use of a declaration of illegality from City Council if the new law is not going to be enforced?
Local media outlets have reported that bikers say they are riding because they are “trying to get out of neighborhoods riddled with violent crime.” 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 was confiscated, he'd just go out and buy another one.
City Council, in an attempt to please the bikers, is exploring the option of creating an ATV and dirt bike park somewhere in the city. While a park of this sort would have to be built from scratch, many unanswerable 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.
ATV and dirt bike riding might be described as a lawless exercise meant to take place in a public environment. Any attempt to contain riders in an enclosed Disneyland theme park setting, sans audience, where riders are expected to obey the rules of containment— riding around like amusement park bumping cars in hypnotic circles--- is bound to fail. Part of the thrill of street biking is infiltrating regularized traffic flows and creating shock and awe.
Immediately after City Council’s crackdown on illegal vehicles, DA Larry Krasner 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."