If you live anywhere in Philadelphia, you have been disturbed and deterred by the sight, sound and fury of thunderous street-illegal dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles teetering on four non-pneumatic tires – ATVs.
Since the pandemic’s start – that’s when all streets were emptied with everyone working, schooling, living and fearing from home – clear roads have offered ATV and dirt bikers freedom to roam, roar and race while Philly police, initially told to lay back and lay off (even though Philly City Council passed laws in 2012 prohibiting riders from operating, parking, stopping, placing or standing ATVs on a public sidewalk or public property, including parks and recreation centers), could only watch as the ensuing noisy melee went on. Tumult as such has meant everything from densely-packed, dozens of bikers at once making noise in one small space (in front of restaurants, homes and gas stations), to blocking everyday car and bicycle traffic en masse, to pursuing altercations with drivers and pedestrians with whom they have perceived beef.
While it can indeed be amazing to hear the thunder and watch 70 to 80 bikers at once cruise down roads, wide and thin, popping wheelies, provoked by #bikelife flash mob social media postings and buoyed by the celebrity of dirt bike culture enthusiasts Meek Mill and Lil Uzi Vert, it can also be a mess.
And though Councilperson Mark Squilla introduced legislation that eventually was passed to crack down on ATV and dirt bike riders, group all illegal vehicles into one (uni)form and provide police the jurisdiction and authority to give chase and confiscate illegal bikes, even he seems to want friendly outlets for these racers. “There are some truly talented dirt bike guys out there,” said Squilla. “There’s got to be a way to get them their own space to ride.”
With that, Philadelphia Weekly not only spoke to Squilla about the trouble with illegal ATVs and dirt bikes, but one Philly motorcyclist and bike organizer who’s gone about riding the right way.
“Because there is a right way, and a wrong way, and the wrong way gets your bike confiscated, your blood pressure up, and all your buddies in your riding angry,” said Allan “Black Moses” Lane, a local motorcycle industry veteran. Philly’s Lane, is the publisher of the internationally renowned SportBikes Inc. Magazine since 2010 (as well as this city’s pop cultural Dosage Magazine), the host of the Life in the Fast Lane podcast, and the hardknocksmoto.com biker merchandising site, all of which, in his words, embrace the motorcycle lifestyle and the passion possessed by those that ride.
During a series of races and demonstrations in Atlanta, Georgia, in which he participated recently, Lane – an owner of several legal Ducati sport bikes and cruisers (“as a journalist, I’ve driven them all”) – spoke adamantly about the need for speed and the civic obligation of legality and safety. Lane is a biker badass, but he’s got the public’s interest and the matter of policy at heart. He gets the freedom and charge of an ATV’s revved-up engine and a low-to-the-ground hog, but not if it’s against the law or the grain.
People ride illegal dirt bikes and ATVs for a number of reasons, as far as Lane is concerned, the first being, “accessibility,” which usually means stolen and uninsured.
“To get a street legal motorcycle is not necessarily a difficult thing – but they’re not cheap,” stated Lane. “Along with that cost, there’s other things that come with that in order to be street legal – insurance, gas, registration, like any other motorist. With all that, it’s probably easier to just jump on something because it is…. there. Let’s keep it 100, in fact: most of those bikes are stolen.”
As a professional motorcyclist and moto-journalist, this expert witness believes at least 50 to 60 percent of the bikes on those “illegal ride outs,” are stolen. “And most of these kids riding – and I know there are 30 and 40 year olds mixed in with the millennials – aren’t looking to do the right thing. I’m not being harsh. They could do the right thing. They’re smart enough. There just happens to be a thrill in being this outlaw.”
Being a bike outlaw goes back to Marlon Brando in the ‘50s, the Hells Angels in the ‘60s, and the Wheels of Soul in the ‘70s. One of my favorite cinematic moments harkens back to Brando, in 1953’s The Wild One. When asked by a townie what he’s rebelling against, Brando’s leather jacketed character asks, without a glint of irony, ‘Whattayagot?’
In the 21st century, however, that outlaw mentality is on trend, not with film, but with Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube and fast and furious social media-ization. “Mob scenes, flash mobs, they all get together, quickly, through Instagram posts and Tweets,” said Lane. “Then everything from the gathering to the ride outs make their way onto follow up Instagrams detailing the ride-outs and YouTube. I know because I see them all on my feeds. And I know because I have spent a lifetime legally organizing my own street rides throughout all parts of the city of Philadelphia – long before I had the magazine or the podcast,” he said. “I did these same sorts of rides, but, always, always, in a legal way.”
That way, according to Lane, was one where the City celebrated its bikers, bike culture and what motorcyclists’ lifestyles are all about.
Speaking for myself, I remember forever how the City sanctioned everything from Toy Runs for needy children, Philly’s Fallen Heroes Memorial Motorcycle Rides for the families of police officers killed in the line of duty, to the Miles of Smiles Ride to aid special needs families.
“Any time I was preparing to have a city-wide ride, I contacted City Hall, always reached out to its councilpeople,” said Lane, pointing out supporters such as Bob Allen, Giselle Jones, and Michelle in the Office of Special Events. “They helped me coordinate the rides and make sure that all aspects of it went smoothly. I let them know our dates and our routes for coming into the city; say, typically from King of Prussia, through Manayunk, hitting Kelly Drive, going through the Parkway, until we wound up in South Philly in front of Pat’s and Geno’s Steaks. We have had upwards of 2,500-3,000 bikes with us on one ride. No tragedies. If something like the Dad Vail Regatta coincides with our time on the Drive, I would get our group to detour, to find another route. The point being is that the City never said ‘No’ to me. We worked with all departments within the City, including the police, so that when we pulled into Pat’s and Geno’s, we were allowed to park, to occupy that cross section. We celebrated the #bikelife. So to see now, how the #bikelife gets celebrated when you do it all wrong…”
Lane is genuinely angered by street illegal dirt bikes and ATVs, illegal because they have no turn signals or brakes, let alone licenses and insurances. “It infuriates me because they either don’t know the right way, which is ignorant, or do know the right way and just choose to ignore it, which is stupid.” Lane is so annoyed he has all but given up on organizing mass motorcycle rides throughout town.
Other than paying big bucks for a motorcycle and its insurance, Lane claims there are different answers for ATV and dirt bike riders, all dependent on who is asking the question.
For instance, for the City, several years ago Councilperson Curtis Jones held discussions in City Hall (“10 years ago – it’s not a new problem,” laughs Lane) to promote a bikers’ park; something that is great, conceptually, but might not be what these bikers want. “They have a park in Fairmount Park, one of America’s largest, all that greenery. They want to ride on a street. There’s another park in Jersey – New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, the Field of Dreams where they have go-kart racing. Dirt bikes and ATVs could go there. If you’re in downtown Philly, you’re like 50 minutes away. Why not go there? Ride your heart out.”
Lane knows why: the thrill of taking over the streets rules supreme. Even when dirt bike drivers could modify their bikes with kits of head and tail lights to make them street legal, they don’t. They could register their bikes, but they would have to show proof of purchase, which they often can’t. And ATVs will never be street legal. They are against all codes. To be on trend on social media means filming your bike in all its funky glory and its ride outs with your crew – that’s the shit.
“There’s no discussion about what’s right or safe,” said Lane. “Every biker wants his or her moment in the social media sun. Even when they honestly don’t know how to ride – and there are a ton of videos out there of them smashing into parked cars, stopped cars and moving cars. With that, there is their level of aggression. There’s one recent video from two weeks ago, where one ATV rider rammed into the back of a van, the guy driving the van jumps out, and all you see is hand motions and other riders getting off their bike surrounding the guy in the van. Then boom, they were gone. That argument didn’t escalate into violence. Some have.”
Lane gets the need to ride hard and free, but doesn’t see the need to engage with police unnecessarily, and doesn’t send out red flags. “Not causing trouble isn’t about ‘growing up’ or being an adult. It’s about being smart. ATV and dirt bikers have spoiled the road for legal bikers. And, I know the frustration too of everyday citizens who come out of their house to see damaged vehicles from ATVs. I know the nuisance factor of bike noise levels. I own a house. And I hear the bullshit excuses from their defenders: leave the kids alone. Let them ride. There’s worse crimes. You know what, that’s a piss poor excuse and a load of fuckery. Wrong is wrong. Crime is crime, low level or not – especially when the path to legality is not so difficult, and its road not so far away.”
The path to righteousness, paved in part by Squilla’s newly passed legislation (co-sponsored by Councilpersons Derek Green and Allan Domb) give Philly police the pull to chase and confiscate, to crack down on both ATVs and dirt bike riders by placing the two wheelie-popping, revved-up vehicle classifications in one uniform category.
The conversation between Squilla and the complaining constituents of City Council’s First District – a group of people “stretched along the Delaware River from his native South Philadelphia across Center City, Chinatown, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond” (as goes his Phila.gov bio) – truly started in earnest in 2020.
“I heard it first in Kensington and Harrowgate, the Northern end, then down into Center City and into South Philadelphia,” noted Squilla. “Mostly, I heard complaints about safety issues of the riders on these ATV/dirt bikes and dune buggies that were riding on the wrong side of the road, erratically, on the wrong side of the road. Or going through stop signs. Or driving on sidewalks. They weren’t just being a nuisance. People genuinely feared for their own safety, as well as plain old quality of life issues – legal bikes are responsible for that last issue too, what with loud, over-amplified music over a certain decibel count at all hours of the day and night, modified muffler systems. Maybe, that’s not breaking the law, per se, but people have a right to a decent quality of life. It was, as if, we were living in a scenario of lawlessness where people would do whatever they wanted, without consequences. That built up.”
Though the winter of 2020 held its ground where ATV, etc. complaints hit Squilla’s desk on a regular basis, reports escalated greatly come March of this year, with a citizenry’s non-stop objections growing greater in number ever since. “Seriously, EVERYBODY complained, and on a daily basis, as to what were we, City Council and the police, going to do about this.”
The issues then quickly became, for Squilla and his fellow councilpeople, one geared toward the police’s ability to seize illegal bikes and to get noise controls in place, to not disturb the peace.
The conversation around police wearing kid gloves through every interaction, small and big, sensitively and sanely, is of the utmost importance to City Council. “Other things get thrown into the messaging, I know, but if this is considered an illegal activity, are we going to enforce it,” said Squilla. “And then, how do we enforce it?”
Squilla quickly notes that police have priorities in this city: “Murder, gun crimes, robberies; those priorities come first. Safety too is a priority. If an ATV biker is going the wrong way down a one way street or they’re blowing through red lights or they’re riding on sidewalks, that’s a crime. We need to enforce those. The noise issue? We used to have signs on South Street for $300 fines for loud radios over a certain decibel. That used to be enforced, and the loud volumes stopped. We need the ability to do that again. The police need to enforce all that. Are the administration and the mayor’s office willing to support the enforcement of these quality of life issues and illegalities?”
If you’re wondering why Philadelphia Weekly didn’t bother phoning the D.A.’s office (Krasner has turned down all of my interview queries, along with other PW inquiries), or the police commissioner, or the mayor – c’mon, man. Their answers remain clear.
With all that, Squilla – “and I know people think I’m crazy when I say this” – is a huge proponent of a bike park in city limits, the likes of which Allan Lane stated was available in New Jersey, where riders can rev and do their thing. “There are so many talented riders who can do all sorts of tricks. If we had a place where they could perform, where people could go see them and pay to see them, I think it could be popular. The City should partner with someone to build a space that could work. You could have big events with say, sponsors such as Kawasaki. It wouldn’t stop everyone on an illegal bike from staying on the street.”
The other option for Squilla where ATVs and dirt bikes and loud ass motorcycles are concerned is very real, good old enforcement.
“That illegal riding will not be tolerated, that it will be enforced, and that all the messaging around that is consistent – as is the enforcement,” said Squilla. “I know the City has a ‘no chase’ policy. We don’t have to chase them. There has to be some form of technology, even drones, to find and pursue them. As for the legal bikes that play loud music or modify their mufflers so that the boom rattles your house when they go by, we have to re-start and enforce the fines again. This is an issue that must be dealt with. We know that this is not as huge as the high crimes of murder, the prevention of gun violence, and the issues of social justice that this city must take care of. But, we – the police, City Council, the mayor – can do more than one thing at a time. We can care about dirt bikes and murders in this city.“