Thomas Gamba was eating dinner at an outside table at Pizzeria Stella in Society Hill this month when a caravan of about 10 ATV and dirt bike riders, in their teens and 20s, roared by on Second Street.
Police had blocked off the entrance to South Street, where it appeared the riders wanted to head, so they turned onto Lombard Street but returned two more times in front of the restaurant, Gamba said.
“They kept circling and circling,” said Gamba, 69, who was eating with his wife and another couple. “We were on the sidewalk there. These vehicles were just revving and distracting everyone.”
In Center City, Tom Ayers, who lives on South Broad Street, frequently hears the loud noises of riders from his 10th-floor condo. “This is a big safety issue," he said. “They are menacing to pedestrians and motorists.
“They weave in and out of traffic, run the red lights,” said Ayers, 58. “They stop traffic coming north on Broad so they can turn on South. They usually start late in the afternoon, then carry on in the evening through the wee hours of the mornings. Sometimes it’s so loud ... I can’t hear a sound except for all of this racket.”
Sallie Gorohoff, who lives near South Broad, started an online petition that says “Center City Philadelphia has become overrun with joy riders” and asks residents to help her “take this issue straight to City Hall!!” It has garnered more than 1,600 signatures.
ATV and dirt bike riders on Philadelphia streets have been an ongoing source of complaints for years, and affect all parts of the city — from the Northeast to South Philly, from Old City to West Philly.
It is illegal to ride ATVs and dirt bikes on city streets, said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. “We take resident concerns seriously and understand their concerns," she said. "These complaints are investigated by police, however, with all moving violations, they are not always easy to track down. Police have been working to get these illegal vehicles off the streets.”
The Police Department has a no-chase policy because the pursuit itself could cause an accident or endanger someone. That also frustrates residents, who sometimes see police standing outside or in a vehicle, but doing nothing when the illegal riders roar by.
“We understand their frustration, and we’re frustrated, too,” said Police Sgt. Eric Gripp. “But also, we have to balance everyone’s safety.”
At City Council’s first fall hearing last week, Councilmember Allan Domb introduced a resolution calling for another Public Safety Committee hearing related to illegal ATV and dirt bike riders, and to explore the idea of creating an ATV park in the city, an idea previously proposed by Councilmembers Curtis Jones Jr. and Kenyatta Johnson.
In 2012, Council held a hearing to address the dangers of ATV riders, and heard about the pros and cons of creating an ATV park in the city. That November, then-Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law a bill giving the Police Department the authority to confiscate vehicles found to be in violation.
“We need to hear from both sides” of the issue, Domb said.
“I definitely think it’s escalated in the last three to four months, especially at night, the revving of engines. It’s really loud,” he said. “You worry about, God forbid, somebody’s going to get hurt here. We’re trying to find an alternative venue that’s safe.”
The Police Department has conducted sweeps to confiscate dirt bikes and ATVs. So far this year, they have confiscated 216 such vehicles.
Police routinely field 911 calls about dirt bike or ATV riders. Department officials said they have received 159 such calls this year, more than in any of the last five years. In addition to confiscating some of the vehicles, police have issued an unspecified number of traffic citations.
But not everyone calls police. Chris Garrison, 68, and her husband, Stephen, 73, live in an Old City condo on Columbus Boulevard.
“People have called police,” Chris Garrison said, and “nothing seems to be deterring [the riders]. The situation seems to get worse.”
While walking their dog at night, they’ve frequently seen and heard groups of riders on Columbus Boulevard.
“They tend to be more on the weekends. Gangs of ATVs, gangs of dirt bikes,” she said. “Their demeanor is very aggressive, very threatening, terrorizing.”
Garrison posted about the Columbus Boulevard “racers” on a neighborhood website, generating about 60 comments from other residents.
In another post, she included a note from Councilmember Mark Squilla, who told her he has been working with Police Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales on a police ATV detail to address the citywide issue and also with the Streets Department on potential traffic-calming measures in high ATV areas.
Squilla said in an interview that “consistent enforcement” by police is needed. He said he would also support an alternative site in a nonresidential area for riders, if one can be found.
Mike Harris, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, said police in the Third District have been closing part of South Street on certain Friday and Saturday nights to vehicular traffic, to hopefully send the message to ATV and dirt bike riders to not go there.
“Our fear is someone is going to get hurt or worse with this kind of driving," he said. "We’ve had a lot of complaints, emails from business owners.”
In Northeast Philadelphia, Donny Smith, executive director of the Mayfair Business Improvement District, said ATV and dirt bike riders have been an ongoing problem on Frankford Avenue. “Residents are disappointed, frustrated, they want to see it come to an end," he said, adding that people have been injured and killed riding unlicensed dirt bikes on city streets.
For Travis Fields, an ATV park would be a good idea. Fields, of North Philadelphia, is a graphic designer who has done work for members of the Philly Hang Gang, an organized group of riders. He said he’s previously ridden with them on his ATV.
At 39, he says, he doesn’t ride much.
“To the outside looking in, it’s just dudes riding bikes,” he said. “But there’s a culture — dude camaraderie.”
Dirt bikes and four wheelers attract younger guys and are more of an “urban demographic thing,” he said. But the Philly scene also attracts “a lot of the white dudes that come down from Jersey or Poconos, they want to be part of what’s going on here. To get more street cred,” he said.
Social media allows riders to organize and has “definitely given an uptick” to the number of riders on the streets, who post photos of themselves on Instagram and get hits, he said.
Asked why ATV and dirt bike riders ride on city streets, he replied: “Why do guys do anything that guys do? Young and reckless. Why do we go to war, why do we fly planes and race Jet Skis? ... You know a man never wrestled an alligator without an audience."