Philadelphia dirt bikes: New law would let police confiscate more vehicles

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Councilmember Mark Squilla introduced legislation Thursday to help the city crack down on dirt bike riders, a plan he announced at a virtual town hall the evening prior.

Squilla said his legislation, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Derek Green and Allan Domb, will focus on creating a uniform category so police can treat ATVs and dirt bikes the same. Currently in Philadelphia, Squilla said via email, only ATVs are eligible for confiscation and fines in Philadelphia, so two-wheelers that “did not meet the definition” are just being returned.

“What this legislation actually will do,” Squilla told community members Wednesday, “is group all the illegal vehicles into one one form and then give the police the authority to confiscate them.”

Hosted by the Queen Village Neighbors Association and moderated by association president Eleanor Ingersoll, the virtual town hall was attended by PPD Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales and several other city officials.

Dirt bike and ATV riding is a longtime tradition with a rich history in Philadelphia. Riders, who are of all genders and ages, have credited the hobby with keeping them out of trouble.

But the vehicles aren’t street legal.

About 1,000 neighbors joined Wednesday’s Zoom meeting, per Ingersoll, to air grievances and discuss solutions to what some attendees described as escalating quality of life concerns due to dirt bike and ATV riders on city streets.

Deputy Commissioner Dales outlined steps his department has taken to help alleviate the neighbors’ discomfort.

Normally PPD starts rounding up riders’ bikes in May, but after an earlier conversation with Queen Village Neighbors, Dales said the police began this year in March. They’ve so far confiscated more than 200 vehicles, he said — ATVs, dirt bikes and miscellaneous ones like minibikes.

When a bike is confiscated, police don’t assume the rider owns it. They often list it as “stolen” and attempt to get it back to the rightful owner. If the bike operator does own the vehicle, that person must argue their case in court or pay a $2,000 penalty. Otherwise, the vehicle is destroyed.

Some officers are being trained to ride dirt bikes themselves, Dales said, calling the method an “effective” way to crack down on illegal riding.

But there are setbacks: far more serious crimes like shootings and homicides are up citywide, and police staffing is stretched, Dales said. Dirt bikes are also easier to get back than ATVs, Dales said. Squilla hopes his legislation addresses that.

ATV and dirt bike riders zoom around a bus at 52nd and Pine streets in West Philadelphia
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Philly’s not the only city with the culture. There was a long, mostly friendly competition with riders from Baltimore, a rivalry that reportedly relaxed when Meek Mill signed Baltimore rider Chino Braxton to ride professionally with his Dream Chasers label in 2012. Braxton now rides professionally for Jay Z’s Roc Nation.

Urban ATV and dirt bike riders are also prevalent in Washington D.C., New York City, Miami, and Oakland, California.

What that meant to neighbors sounding off in the Zoom meeting chat box, and to officials charged with responding to community concerns, is that other municipalities are also grappling with how to quell tension between riders and other neighbors.

“I’m sure if cities around the country are dealing with this issue…,” Councilmember Green said, “members of Congress from around the country are having the same issue for the constituents that they represent.”

Squilla hopes his legislation will be one step in Philly’s fix for some. But that step is punitive. It aims to give police more authority to confiscate, and to issue citations and fines. Squilla proposed a more cooperative future solution, too:

“Maybe it is an option to have them go to a park somewhere.”

Calls for a dirt bike and ATV park aren’t new. In 2018, Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas elevated a grassroots call to build Philly’s first dirt bike and ATV park.

“Bikers I talked to wondered if the city closes streets for certain events,” Ubiñas wrote on Instagram, “[and] if naked bike riders are allowed to ride…then why can’t they?”

In 2019, a rider named Montana told Billy Penn that, if given an audience with Mayor Jim Kenney, he’d ask for “a private area to ride in.”

While Squilla lauded some bikers as “talented” and “amazing,” there’s no word on legislation about building a dedicated park for bikers to ride.

Billy Penn