On any given summer night in Philadelphia, the roar of big ATVs and dirt bikes announce a posse of young men and women doing tricks on city streets, leaning back so far it looks as if they’re about to fall flat and be crushed. But at the last moment, they steady themselves and ride on, as friends film their tricks for social media and marvel at their skills.
Not everyone is so impressed.
While some onlookers ignore the off-road vehicles, which can number in the hundreds at a time, many have grown sick of biking culture here in the city. They hate the revving at all hours. They don’t like how riders weave in and out of traffic. They want the activity stopped.
With officials cracking down once again on the bikes, which are illegal on city streets, here’s a look at the controversy surrounding a culture that continues to flourish in Philadelphia.
What is an ATV?
ATV stands for “all-terrain vehicle.” According to Philly traffic code, these vehicles have three or more tires and fit within one of the following two categories:
Is a maximum of 50 inches wide and when not submerged in water weighs 1,000 pounds
Is over 50 inches wide or weighs over 1,000 pounds when not submerged in water.
These vehicles are not allowed on the streets of Philadelphia. Or the sidewalks. Or any public land like a park unless it is specifically stated. Owners are not allowed to operate, park, stop, or stand these bikes except for the sole purpose of transporting them somewhere outside the city or somewhere they are allowed, such as private property.
What happens if you are caught riding in the city?
In 2012, then-Mayor Michael Nutter banned ATVs on the streets and gave police the power to seize the bikes and ticket anyone caught riding them.
Last year, more than 200 ATVs and dirt bikes were confiscated in sweeps by police.
Police officers are not allowed to chase riders or pursue them on foot, to avoid accidents or injuries.
This both frustrates and angers residents who wonder what police are doing about the issue.
“We understand their frustration, and we’re frustrated, too,” Police Sgt. Eric Gripp told The Inquirer recently. “But also, we have to balance everyone’s safety.”
What drives the culture?
Last weekend, city officials estimated that more than 1,000 people — many on ATVs and dirt bikes — gathered in Port Richmond. Over the years, people within the biking community have talked to reporters about the movement, and one of the themes that comes up often is a desire to escape from other, potentially more harmful activity.
Meek Mill emerged as their champion. The rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams popularized the #bikelife culture with videos like “Ima Boss.”
“When the bikes is all together no fights take place,” the rapper and Philly native said back in 2015. “No violence takes place. All that takes place is a little bit of reckless riding. I’m not even going to say it’s not dangerous. But this is the one thing that these kids from the ghetto got, and they using to get away from being on the corner selling drugs, shooting guns, things like that.”
In 2015 he codeveloped a Bike Life mobile game for kids to play as himself riding through the streets and running from the police. Mill helped to ease tensions between riders in Baltimore and Philadelphia when he signed a young rider and featured him in one of his music videos. Biking wasn’t just a fun hobby for the North Philly native — it was a way for people to come together and represent his beloved city.
“People may get hurt some time,” he said at the time. “People may die every once in a while. But people die at anything you do. I just don’t like the way they portray it as being a negative thing.”
In part, riding is what returned him to prison on a parole violation in 2017.
“Like you know on the street, there’s a lot of violence going on. People beefing and they want to hurt each other. But when the bikes is out, everything turns off. All beef is off. Any drama goes off. That’s just the rules,” he said.
But it’s not just the celebrity who has that mentality.
Organizations like the Philly Hang Gang, which was formed in 2011 by older riders tired of seeing the negative attention they were getting, brings together people of all varieties to ride in the city.
What is happening now?
Last week, City Council passed a bill cracking down even more on ATVs. Before, vehicles like dune buggies were not subject to the $2,000 fine imposed on ATVs, but that loophole is closing with the passing of this bill. Mayor Jim Kenney is expected to sign the measure into law.
Over the weekend, a man was fatally shot while on a bike, further heightening Council’s desire for more restrictions.
Politicians around the city said they have been getting more and more complaints from their constituents regarding the riding.
“They don’t feel safe. It’s a very dangerous situation,” Councilmember Allan Domb said previously to The Inquirer.
Simply enforcing the laws and seizing bikes isn’t the best way to approach bike life in the city, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Monday. The idea of bike parks has been floated over the years.
The city is looking outside, to Baltimore and Cleveland, which have experienced the same tensions, for inspiration.