You’ve seen them, groups of young teens on BMX bikes popping wheelies on a street near you. Some of these cyclists have become masterful at trick riding, like this amazingly athletic video posted by @bikeliferex on East Market St.:

Rex, the self proclaimed “The King of Philly” Instagram, offers an amazing inside view of this phenomena along with the enthusiasm and love that “wheelie kids” have for bicycling. He has raised nearly $10,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to supply and repair bikes for kids.

But you won’t see universal praise for wheelie kids, unfortunately. They have boldly challenged the access and order to public space that society has allocated to motor vehicles. For city drivers, they are one of many groups accessing the streets, but in the “car is king” suburbs this behavior has been viewed by some as anarchy and they are often referred to as “swervers.”

In New Jersey, this is especially egregious, with the state’s requirement for everyone under 18 to wear a helmet (except on beach boardwalks) and the ability of municipalities to pass whatever bike regulation give police the tools to arrest kids for riding bicycles.

In Northern New Jersey, two incidents caught on video are textbook cases of how local bike laws have enabled police to target young Black and Latinx children.

Last July, in village of Ridgewood, NJ, a fifteen year old was physically thrown on the ground by a police officer. He was not charged but received summonses for numerous traffic violations.

In a video posted on Twitter on April 19th in working class Perth Amboy, Police arrested one teen and confiscated four bicycles.

This 17 minute video on You Tube records the ride and several interactions with Police before the arrest shown at the end.

Both Ridgewood and Perth Amboy require that each bicycle operated in the municipalities has a license. Owning 3 bicycles means you have to obtain three licenses. However, this regulation is often interpreted by police and civilians alike as a license to operate a bicycle, similar to motor vehicle licenses. Bicycles are legal vehicles and can cross borders, which makes the whole municipal licensing scheme impossible to enforce equitably.

Although we do not have similar laws here in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania side of the Region, it’s not for our legislators’ lack of trying. Back in 2009, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia opposed a bicycle licensing requirement proposed by then-Councilmembers DiCicco and Kenney. Similar laws have been proposed in the Pennsylvania state Legislature.

“With regards to laws requiring registration and licensing of bicycles, the Bicycle Coalition does not support a mandatory program,” we said at the time. “Among other issues, we are concerned about the potential for a registration program to discourage riders, impose financial disincentives, and expose the City to numerous legal issues. Peer cities and states have passed and then repealed registration and licensing programs. We recommend a thorough investigation of registration and licensing programs in other cities to determine whether such programs would help or hinder efforts to achieve peace on Philadelphia’s streets.”

We similarly opposed mandatory bell and helmet laws for similar reasons, and have noted in testimony before City Council that we should be reducing interactions between police and people on bicycles, not giving police more reason to pull people over and dole out tickets. Keeping bicyclists safe — whether we’re talking about commuters, families riding with children, or wheelie kids — means providing them with the space to be safe, separated from (slowed) traffic.

Charles Brown, MPA, spoke about this issue of over-policing Black people on bicycles, walking, on transit, and in motor vehicles, at the 2021 Philadelphia Vision Zero Conference. He additionally speaks of this social problem, which he has coined as Arrested Mobility, on his Twitter page.

Wheelie culture is not going way anytime soon, nor should it. The best way to deal with the issue is to open up more spaces for them, especially on our road network. An easy fix: more open streets! Innovative road design could be another tool. In 2019 the City of Oakland, CA collaborated with the Scraper Bike Club to create the 90th Ave scraper bike lane. This street mural/bike lane in the center lane is definitely not in the MUTCD.

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