Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dirt-bikes - Scourge or Urban Culture?

Once again Baltimore thinks that only it has the problem and fails to look around to see, the problem is, if not universal, at least national.

This problem is the urban use of dirt-bikes. For those who don't know what we are talking about, dirt-bikes are all terrain mopeds with screaming 50cc engines that make them fly under the radar of motor cycles and the requirement for licenses but makes them also illegal on public streets in many cities. Since there is little dirt in cities, the bikes are used in other ways.

Few items have fired up my Facebook page as much as this one. People fall neatly into two groups: Those who see the dirt bike cult as part of urban culture, see wheelies and bike acrobatics as art and compare it to many of the other illegal activities in cities that are either part of a certain counter-culture or underground economy.

And then there are those who are terrified by dirt bikes, their riders, their law defying acrobatics, angered by the noise, the fumes, the unruliness and the dangers these bikes and their riders pose to motorists, bystanders or whole neighborhoods.

Few see a middle ground such as a legalized court or concourse for the bikes that would take the activity off the streets.

For anybody who is still puzzled what this is all about, here a few newspaper quotes from cities around the country:

Maj. Marc Partee, the Northwest District police commander, called the dirt bikes a "scourge" that need to be removed from the streets.
"What I really would like to talk about is the danger that this reckless sport, as some would call it, is posing to the community," Partee said. "I would also encourage the community to continue to call, to continue to email, and let us know if they see these dirt bikes being stored in homes and sheds and things of that nature. A number of these dirt bikes are stolen, and they pose a very immediate and extreme danger to the community."
Many in the crowd and on social media complained that the weekly bike rally is harmless and gives people something to do on a Sunday afternoon.
"You hear them before you see them, the loud bursts of buzzing growing close like an angry swarm of bees heading your way — bzzzz.
And then they come into view, a pack of 20, 30, 40 young men on dirt bikes and four wheelers whizzing by, winding through curious onlookers and cars on the streets of the near-eastside, with complete indifference to traffic laws and, seemingly, their own safety.
The riders lift up their front wheels, leaning back as far as they can, cruising on rear rubber while peeking their heads out to the side to see what's coming. Wheelies, after all, reign supreme for the Mt. Pleasant Wheelie Kings."
Washington DC:
"Riding a dirt bike on city streets creates dreams of YouTube glory for 16-year-old Jacquan Brown. Joseph Wilkinson cruises for stress relief. And Terry Cain finds brotherhood when a pack of riders falls in line, suddenly free from the petty beefs of neighborhood rivalries. All of them have a problem — the rides they love violate D.C. law."
New Haven:
In the war against the scourge of illegal dirt biking, the city may have unearthed a new weapon—the ability to seize bikes and impound them.
That was one idea to emerge from a brainstorming session last week with three aldermen, a police lieutenant, and a lawyer with the city’s corporation counsel office. The group convened in City Hall as part of an ongoing effort to explore legal options the city might pursue to make it harder for dirt bikers to tear around the city frightening neighbors, flouting traffic laws, and even hitting children.
New York:
The young man tore down the asphalt, the roar of his dirt bike trailing like a comet’s tail. When it seemed he could not go any faster, he went higher, hauling the bike into a near-vertical wheelie but never slowing down. A dozen other riders crisscrossed his path, their own front wheels aloft to the perfect fall sky.
The dirt bikers were not blasting through the Bronx and Upper Manhattan neighborhoods where, over the past few years, the noisy bikes and riders who flout traffic laws have provoked increasing public ire. Instead, that late October afternoon, they did their tricks on a desolate road on Long Island that ended at a quarry.
NPR Movie Review:
"This is our tradition, our culture, our release."
So says one of the 12 O'Clock Boys — a large group of dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts who, depending on your perspective, either grace or terrorize the streets of Baltimore each Sunday with acrobatic feats on their motorbikes. They weave through the city traffic, popping extended wheelies, the line of their bikes almost at vertical, approximating the hands of a clock at noon.Lotfy Nathan's documentary seems, at first, to be something we've seen before. Over the course of three years, he follows Pug, a sweet, small-for-his-age 13-year-old who aspires to two things: to parlay his love of animals into a veterinary career, and to one day ride with the big boys.
This last quote, finally gets us to the culture aspect of the phenomenon, which Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake used aptly in Wednesday's Midday Radio show with Dan Rodricks. She spoke of the two interests, culture versus danger, and how they "butt heads" in the debate and that following either view could make things worse. On the idea of providing dirt bike parks she said: "It depends what the people who ride those bikes think of it. I could find this the best thing out there, but if the people that ride around out there have no interest in it we would have an empty park".

I am reminded of urban debates we had some twenty years ago about skateboards which many equally saw as an urban scourge. Today real hip places flaunt their skate parks as hip assets. This isn't to say that dirt bikes aren't a few notches up in terms of noise, nuisance or real danger, but still, this discussion is being had in a city that just recently promoted Indy car races downtown.

I am not in the position to propagate a particular solution, just to point out that this isn't a   problem special to Baltimore, as much as we like to claim things to be authentically our culture, even the things about which we are more than ambivalent. Further, I'd like to say that in the debate of what to do with a large urban, African American male subculture in which jobs are rare and "records" common and in which about half of whole age cohorts has served time in a penitentiary, a haughty approach about legal and illegal and just enforcing the law doesn't get us anywhere.
Maybe dirt bikes can be one of the few bridges the mainstream culture could build to reach out to those forlorn youngsters that have so little future to hope for.

Like the NPR movie reviewer says:
Nathan's film defies easy categorization; he's interested in neither telling that fairy tale nor painting issues in broad strokes. He leaves the latter to the characters in the film, characters who excel at presenting the rigid, dueling perspectives on two sides of a wide divide; Nathan is more keen on challenging the viewer to jump into the gray area between.
Maybe his review, the other newspaper articles and my comments can engage the one or the other in a similar manner to see that there is a territory between fully engaging dirt bikes as fun and culture and demonizing them as deadly weapons. In the post Ferguson and post Baltimore riot mode we need those extra efforts on all sides to see more than we have learned to see growing up.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Mayor Rawlings Blake:
For every suggestion, it does not come without costs,” Rawlings-Blake said. “You know how dangerous dirt bike riding is. If we say, ‘Let’s close down the Highway to Nowhere and let them do whatever they want on Sundays,’ what happens when there’s an accident? I think there’s a lot of great-sounding ideas. I think the solutions are much more difficult to reach.”


On the Road with the Wheelie Kings of Cleveland 

Smoke and tires


  1. I have as friends two "old guard" vintage dirt-bike rally racers. They would both not hesitate to shoot down most of these "riders" for their antisocial, criminal behavior tarnishing their hobby's otherwise good name, just as outlaw motorcycle gangs made all motorcycle riders look evil years back.
    The fact remains that any enclosed course, track, etc. would do nothing to "solve" the problem and, in fact, would exacerbate it. The only way to allow such a track would be to make the bikes legal--and then they would have to ride the bikes to and from whatever track/course ON PUBLIC STREETS, especially after whatever course closes (late at night, naturally). Then let's discuss liability insurance and maintenance--they'd have to charge each user $25 a day, at least. Not a problem for legit riders like my old friends, but when you consider that the punks steal bikes to ride, that's not gonna happen.
    And further, the entire "culture" of riding is built COMPLETELY around evading police, being an "outlaw," flipping off cars, breaking traffic laws, etc. A sanctioned riding place is completely counter to their entire purpose for riding--to be an arrogant twat a**hole and get others to laud you for it.

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