The Lack of Organization – Not the bike
Please note: This was intended for a local newspaper in my area. It was a class project I worked on last semester.
BMX riders are often chased, kicked out and arrested for using skate parks, but experts say it’s not necessarily the bikes they ride it’s the lack of organization and advocacy keeping them from legally using such facilities.
Bicycle motocross, commonly referred to as BMX, started in southern California in the 1970s when kids raced their bikes around dirt tracks emulating their motocross heroes. The sport quickly gained national attention, and by the 1980s several organizations were created and holding weekly races around the country. In 2008, BMX racing made its Olympic debut in Beijing, China, crowning male and female participants with medals.
As many BMX racing enthusiasts look forward to the upcoming Olympic Games in London this year, the freestyle participants are faced with obstacles of acceptance and recognition.
BMX freestyle developed alongside the racing discipline during the 1980s, but it was the introduction of ESPN’s X Games in 1995 that helped propel the sport’s popularity.
Within the realm of BMX freestyle, there are several different disciplines such as street, park, vert, trails and flatland. Each aspect involves riders completing tricks while progressing and interpreting the disciplines as they see fit. There are no rules or regulations in the sport of freestyle, and it is often the riders themselves who determine winners at competitions. However, for many riders BMX freestyle is not a competition, it’s a passion and love that links a common bond with friends who truly enjoy riding 20 inch wheels.
The riding and tricks can be dangerous and extremely difficult, but for many BMX riders the hardest part of the sport is finding legal places to safely perfect their craft.
Ben Burkett, 31, has been riding BMX for 20 years. In 2004, while attending college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., he was arrested for criminal trespassing for riding his bike in the local skate park.
“It was a misdemeanor charge,” Burkett said, adding, “I paid about $400 in fines and court fees, and I chose to pay $750 to post bond for myself or else I would have spent the weekend in jail.”
Two years later, the city of Flagstaff opened the first public BMX exclusive facility in the country, giving BMX riders a free, legal park to use without the fear of law enforcement.
After graduation, Burkett moved back to his hometown of Phoenix and was given a warning by police for trespassing at the Tempe, Ariz., skate park.
“The rule is if you get caught there again within two years of your first warning you get a ticket,” Burkett explained.
Within those two years Burkett was caught again for using the skate park and was issued a $180 ticket for trespassing.
“If you get caught three times in two years you get arrested,” Burkett said. “Two years and a day after my ticket in 2007, I got another warning. After almost five years of writing tickets to BMX riders, the police officer was much more understanding and actually relieved that he could just issue me another warning.”
Avoiding fines and possibly being arrested is part of a daily occurrence for many BMX riders looking to use these concrete facilities.
In 1976, the first skate park was built in Carlsbad, Calif., as skateboarding had grown quickly in popularity. During the 1970s and 1980s, BMX riders and skateboarders could be seen using the facilities together. In 1986, a BMX inspired movie titled, “Rad,” shot its opening credit sequence of BMX riders using the Pipeline skate park once located in Upland, Calif.
Skateboarding has grown immensely since the 1970s. According to market research firm American Sports Data, Inc., there were 12.5 million skateboarders in 2002.
As skateboarding numbers climbed over the years, skateboard advocacy groups such as Skaters for Public Skateparks were organized to help skaters work with municipalities to get facilities built across the country.
Skateboard advocates have been instrumental in skate park success, and according to Carter Dennis, the executive director of Skaters for Public Skateparks, this may be one reason why BMX is often banned from skate parks.
“Educating city officials is key,” Dennis said. “If [BMX riders] want access from day one, then they need to be on the ground floor. I think the number one thing is getting organized and forming an advocacy committee.”
However, BMX riders haven’t always been on the sidelines while skateboard advocates lead the charge.
BMX Marketing and Team Manager for Etnies Footwear John Povah, has ridden BMX bikes since he was child growing up in London, England.
“Growing up, skaters and BMX riders in the U.K. were all friends who used different vehicles to enjoy and express themselves,” Povah said. “We all knew we rode the same terrain and obstacles, and in our mind we had admiration and respect for each other.” -
In 2003, Etnies worked alongside city officials of Lake Forest, Calif., to build the largest skate park in California, Povah said. The skate park was the first public and private collaboration built in the U.S.
“BMX was allowed at the grand opening and then quickly banned from the park shortly after,” Povah said. “Because Etnies sponsors BMX riders, we are 100 percent committed to BMX. We fought the matter after the park opened and eventually BMX was allowed very limited use and only access to the skate park on a trial basis, at first four hours a week and then later six hours a week.”
The city of Lake Forest began adding features and investing more into the park, which eventually led to Enties having less control over managing it, Povah said. In 2011, the city expanded the park and shortly afterward completely banned BMX use from the facility.
“[City officials] came back claiming some mistake had been made with their insurance and they had not seen a clause stating BMX was not allowed in the park,” Povah said.
“I went to countless city meetings with riders, parents and residents,” Povah explained, adding, “We fought hard to lift the ban but we were unable to do so.
“The owner of Etnies still donates a sizeable amount of money yearly to the park to keep it free for kids, and has a contract with the city until 2020 to keep the Etnies name on the park,” Povah noted.
One of the founding members of the BMX Riders Organization, a BMX advocacy group, and longtime BMX rider, Sam Pederson, has also worked for years to help BMX gain access to skate parks.
Pederson helped organize the group, along with others, after BMX riders were a part of the planning committee of a skate park in Alameda, Calif., but BMX was banned from using the facility at the grand opening, Pederson said.
Povah and Pederson are examples of BMX riders working with skateboard groups and city officials from day one, only later to discover BMX being pushed out of such facilities.
Programs Director for the Tony Hawk Foundation Peter Whitely said liability and wear and tear are two monstrous factors to overcome in the minds of city park officials.
“Most administrators understand that the cost of creating a new public facility is only a portion of the expense,” Whitely said. “Maintenance and operational expenses, for some facilities, can surpass the initial cost of creating a facility. Skate parks are still foreign ideas to many communities and frugal administrators may overestimate the cost of operating a concrete skate park. Areas where there is not a lot of experience with concrete skate parks will be more susceptible to BMX significantly adding to the maintenance expense.
“Liability is always a concern and is not BMX-specific,” Whitely explained. “Most arguments linking BMX inclusion to added risk of injury to skate park patrons come from skate park advocates that desire BMX-free skate parks. To our knowledge, we only have anecdotal evidence that BMX introduces risk to a skate park environment. Most risk we’ve encountered associated directly to BMX is due to park design.”
However, Whitely agrees with Dennis and said, “The lack of BMX representation is the primary reason that BMX is excluded from skate parks.
“Policymakers fail to understand the appeal of skate parks to BMX riders,” Whitely noted. “Many of them believe that most likely BMX patrons will be a small number of users who will compromise the experience and safety of the majority users who are skateboarders.”
Brad Siedlecki, owner of Pillar Designs Studios, an architecture firm that specializes in designing and building skate park facilities, said, “BMX often gets involved late in the planning process or after the park is already built, which is far after the rules have been made.”
Siedlecki said cities often write insurance policies only to include skateboards in the park because it’s usually local skateboard groups who approach officials to get parks built.
“Imagine one football field in a city that is used for football every day and then soccer players want to come use the field at the same time,” Siedlecki said. “From my experience, a large part of this problem is due to overcrowding.”
Siedlecki said that BMX bikes do cause more wear and tear to parks than skateboards do, but both groups are guilty.
“Parks can be built to withstand heavy use from both bikes and skateboards, but that involves using more and stronger materials, which drives up the cost,” Siedlecki explained.
Siedlecki, Whitely and Dennis who are all longtime skateboarders and advocates for skate park facilities agreed that BMX can use these skate parks harmoniously alongside skaters, but they must organize, go to meetings and work with skaters to get the parks built.