Atlanta Grapples With How To Handle Dirt-Bike Problem | WABE 90.1 FM

Atlanta Grapples With How To Handle Dirt-Bike Problem

Mar 28, 2017

In Atlanta, the buzzing of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles grows loudest on Sundays. That's when a loose group of riders called ATL Bike Life gets together.

“It’s going to get bigger and bigger,” said Quint, one of the riders with the group, standing outside a park in Atlanta’s Oakland City neighborhood.

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Quint – who doesn’t want to give his last name, because their dirt bikes and ATVs aren’t street legal – is watching a stream of riders fly down a hilly road to join him. Many are doing wheelies along the way.

These riders are the target of new legislation at the Georgia State Capitol and Atlanta City Hall.

Local leaders want the bikers' activity to stop. But as about 50 riders showed up to the park and the sound of the revving of engines rose, Quint explained the naysayers have it wrong.

“It’s so much bad publicity about us, that say we’re the bad guys,” Quint said. “It’s nowhere near true.”

He said these bikes are what the riders here are passionate about. For one thing, you can tell by the cost. Quint said he spent $10,000 on his ATV.

He said in the city, there isn’t anywhere else to ride but in the streets.

“You understand. We out here doing what we love,” Quint said. “We also keep a lot of people out of trouble. Like you see all these young guys right here.”

Quint points to four or five wide-eyed kids who just walked over.

“They look up to us. You know like, of course we’re breaking the law, but it’s better than having them going in someone’s house robbing and killing,” he said.

Some riders said that’s the alternative in neighborhoods like this, around southwest Atlanta. There isn’t much for young people to get excited about.

“Like we don’t mean no harm on bikes,” Quint said. “Our movement we have we call ‘Bikes up, guns down.’ We promote putting the bike up in the air instead of a gun.”

Quint’s group even made a rap song with the “Bikes Up, Guns Down” slogan.

This message – that dirt bikes and ATVs prevent more serious crime – is something you’ll hear among riders not just in Atlanta, but around the country. Dirt biking has become popular in just about every major city.

A lot of people don’t buy the riders’ argument that what they’re doing is positive.

“They’re making noise. It’s scaring motorists. These are people who basically it’s all about thrill for them,” said Joyce Sheperd, an Atlanta City Council member.

She said she’s against the practice not only because the bikes aren’t street legal.

It’s also because of the way the young people ride the bikes. In groups of one- or two-hundred people, they take over city roads, ignoring red lights, for example.

“They’re doing wheelies. They’re doing all kind of stuff to show out," Sheperd said. “They’re doing things even typical motorists don’t do.”  

Sometimes that leads to accidents, she said.

The dirt biking started as an issue around Sheperd’s district on the Southside. She said it’s grown to a point where people are complaining all around the city.

“If we don’t stop and control it now, what’re we going to do? We’re just going to let them be like the wild, wild West, and let them just have the streets?” Sheperd said.

Atlanta can’t allow that, she said.

Riders with ATL Bike Life cruise the city on Sunday, sometimes traveling from Bankhead all the way to Buckhead.
Credit Stephannie Stokes / WABE

It’s why Sheperd is lobbying the state Legislature to increase the fines for urban dirt biking, from $25 to as much as $5,000. She said she will also seek new regulations at the city level this spring.

Sheperd has the support of many Atlanta residents who said the bikers are unpredictable on the roads or make them afraid to walk down their street.  

Tripp Rawls, a member of a new Buckhead group against crime called Concerned Citizens United, said he is worried the dirt bike and ATV rides send a message that Atlanta isn’t serious about crime.

“We just support the enforcement of the law,” Rawls said. “If someone wanted to graze their livestock down Peachtree, we’d be concerned about it.”

Some doubt that stiffer penalties or more aggressive enforcement will keep all riders off the streets.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Jeff Glazier, a deputy chief with the Atlanta Police Department.

He said officers already apprehend riders when they can. They have a policy not to chase the riders, however, and sometimes they literally can’t, since the riders’ vehicles are designed to go off-road and police cars aren’t.

Glazier said police in other cities are grappling with ATVs and dirt bikes. He knows New York likes to destroy them. Baltimore tried impounding them.

“They’ve had to purchase larger lots because they continue to seize these ATVs and their lots are becoming too small," Glazier said. "So that isn’t really helping, right? So that hasn’t solved the problem."  

At this point, Glazier said he doesn’t believe law enforcement can solve the problem – at least on its own. He said the city has to address the root cause: why these young men are turning to the bikes.

“I think you have to look at the individual, and look at their situation and what they’re up against and some of the hardships and challenges they have,” Glazier said, “that they use this as an outlet, as a way to express their freedom.”

Bike life, as riders call the use of ATVs and dirt bikes in the city, has grown in popularity in urban areas all over the country, from New York to New Orleans.
Credit Stephannie Stokes / WABE

There are residents who would like to see the city make an effort to accommodate the riders.

Shalom Johnson, who lives by Oakland City Park and often sees the riders from her living room window, recognizes her opinion puts her in the minority.

“They should have a place just like a skateboard park,” Johnson said.

The idea of an urban dirt bike park has come up before. Some in other cities, like D.C. and Baltimore, have also explored the option.

But Atlanta is not interested in funding the project, according to Sheperd. She said that would basically be rewarding bad behavior.

Still, in Oakland City, Quint said that dirt bikes and ATVs are here to stay.

“This is us: bike life. We’re going to be around," Quint said. "They ain’t going to get rid of us."

Later in the afternoon, he and the other riders take off to cruise around the city and do wheelies.

On the park’s grassy field, they leave behind a couple of young kids, who are riding around on their own toy ATVs.