This week’s dustup in City Council over penalties for vandalizing skateboarders (see Eric Mayes’ Council report here) caused me to reflect on the slow action from lawmakers concerning Philly’s other vehicular nuisance: ATVs and dirt bikes.
Council members David Oh and Jannie Blackwell’s difference of opinion on skateboarders mirrors much of Philly residents’ complaints about the noisy, gas-powered ATVs – and the lack of decency often displayed by their riders.
Oh’s bill would increase penalties for skateboarders’ destroying public memorials and art spaces to $1,000, or a short stay in city jail. This is an amendment, we should note, from Oh’s original bill, which placed the fine at $2,000.
Skateboarders, according to city officials, cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage every year, often to revered public spaces like Love Park and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I suspect it was the last one that really stuck in Oh’s craw, he being a U.S. Army veteran who regularly hears complaints from fellow vets about the time and expense wasted in repairing the memorial after skateboarders wear gouges and grooves into the marble and stone.
The boarders, who have found a champion in Blackwell, say there just aren’t enough approved places in the city to practice their hobby, and the architecturally appealing curves and ramps of public spaces are equally appealing to them.
Blackwell, echoing the complaints of both the skate fans and the ATV riding crowd, says the city has an obligation to try to accommodate the hobbyists if it can, but in any case shouldn’t force steep, burdensome fines on the perpetrators.
Just last month, council member Blondell Reynolds Brown held hearings on the ATV/dirt bike controversy, which drew supporters and detractors alike – each with opposite and angry points of view.
At he risk of sounding like an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn, I find it difficult to summon much sympathy for either the skateboarders or the ATV riders.
I realize that the city doesn’t provide enough facilities for them to indulge their hobby to the fullest, but why is that the city’s responsibility? If you like to hunt deer, do you complain that the city doesn’t have enough deer hunting grounds, or do you go to hunt out in the boonies where it’s legal and relatively safe? If your hobby is skiing, should the city import snow for your benefit, or should you just go to the Poconos like everyone else?
See, this is a big city, and big cities cannot, and should not, adapt themselves to every hobby or sport engaged in by its residents. It’s impractical, and it’s a grand waste of taxpayer dollars. Don’t think so? Well ponder this:
Let’s say our cash-strapped city government invests several hundred thousand dollars to build a dirt bike/ATV track somewhere. Who’s going to perform the constant maintenance to the track, and how much will that cost? And if ATVs are still illegal on the streets, how do you think the riders are going to get them to the track? Pack them on someone’s pickup truck, or zoom through the streets? And finally, what happens when someone is injured ‑ and you just know someone will be. You know what happens. The city is on the hook for a few multi-million dollar lawsuits, that’s what.
While most residents find the ATV and dirt bike riders annoying, to say the least, the skateboarders are far less hazardous to pedestrians, but wreak havoc on the surfaces they skate on. When those surfaces belong to a piece of public art, or worse, the hallowed ground of a war veterans’ memorial, folks tend to get riled up.
This is not a case of generational misunderstanding; it is a case of respect for your neighbors and the law.
I did a story a few years back on Philly’s illegal street racing scene, and the drag racers’ complaints mirrored those of the ATV riders and skateboarders. If the city doesn’t want us doing it on public property, they said, they should build us a track to race on.
Well, the city isn’t about to build a track for unlicensed drag racing, and they’re not about to build a track for ATV and dirt bike riders, either. And mostly for the same reasons.
There are places to ride your ATV; just like there are places you can go to legally see how fast your car can do a quarter mile. Those places, by law and by common sense, aren’t located in crowded cities.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.