‘Urban dirt bikes saved my life’ – a photo essay

“This is to dirt bike culture what the Grammys are to hip hop,” beamed veteran rider Albert “Al Capone” Elkerson as he took to the stage of a swanky historic theatre in Manhattan for the second annual Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards.

It was a family-friendly event, packed with young fans ogling their role models. Smartphones broadcast to millions of followers while Oscars-style trophy girls handed out accolades for best swag, best swerve and longest no-hander.

Standing between two mounted dirt bikes frozen into wheelies, Elkerson sported a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Don’t Chase” – a reference to riders’ run-ins with police and a clue to the sport’s origins.

Dancers on stage at the Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards



A girl poses for a picture on the red carpet



New York City police keep watch over the event



Fans at the awards show



  • The Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards: (clockwise) dancers on stage; a young girl poses on the red carpet; fans at the awards show; New York City police keep watch

In cities from New York to Paris, Philadelphia to its spiritual home in Baltimore, urban dirt bike riding is considered by many a crime and a dangerous public nuisance.

The same skill and bravado that might now earn them lucrative sponsorship deals frequently lands riders with arrest warrants and bike seizures when performed on the city streets.

Teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil watch a dirt bike rider pull a wheelie



  • Teenagers in Argenteuil, Paris, watch a dirt bike rider pull a wheelie.

Urban dirt bike riding has its roots in predominantly African American, low-income neighbourhoods of US cities with few recreation facilities.

“There was no place for us to go ride,” says Shea Evans, founder of the Motocross Freestyle Streetriders Association (MxSFA), who formed the Go Hard Boyz in 1999 while growing up in Harlem. “There was no place to release our stress. To ride bikes for four hours, not killing each other – that was the premise. There was no arguments, no gang violence …”

“Living in the hood was crazy,” adds veteran rider Steve Honda of Baltimore’s WildOut Wheelie Boyz. “Everything was negative … junkies, drugs, killing, shooting. It was nothing positive. You could easily not care. Dirt bikes saved my life, and gave me a reason to want to live and go on.”

Baltimore police supervise the road. Many riders challenge the notion that clashing with cops is an end in itself



  • Baltimore police supervise the road. Many riders challenge the notion that clashing with cops is an end in itself.

Riders acknowledge a rebellious element – magnified by already-fraught relations between minorities and police in inner-city communities – but many challenge the claim that clashing with cops is an end itself.

Police crackdowns, though, are the most common response in cities around the world. In Washington, DC, authorities released photos of 245 wanted dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle – or quad bike – riders, while New Haven, Connecticut upped the ante by hitting riders with fines and reckless endangerment charges. A year-long hunt saw more than 1,000 bikes seized in New York City, and in Britain Merseyside police released video of hundreds of seized dirt bikes and ATVs being crushed.

Baltimore’s Dirt Bike Task Force – which former police commissioner Kevin Davis launched in 2016 calling riders “gun-toting criminals” – has seized more than 400 dirt bikes. It has also found eight handguns and dished out in excess of 50 arrests and warrants.

The Sunday pack rolling through Baltimore. It sometimes consists of hundreds of bikes, moving en masse, with a team of chase cars filled with photographers and fans



  • A Sunday ride in Baltimore, which sometimes consists of hundreds of bikes, swarming through traffic.

Loud, fast and unpredictable, the pack swarms through traffic on a Sunday ride out in Baltimore



A rider manages traffic on a Sunday in Baltimore. Different riders take turns holding traffic for the rest of the pack



On weekends, dirt bikes can still be counted on buzzing down the streets of Baltimore like a swarm of bees. It’s been going on as long as Jacqueline Caldwell – president of Baltimore’s Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council, which advocates for some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods – can remember.

The riders drive her crazy, but she’d like to see designated bike parks or closed-off roads. “Running up on the sidewalk, scaring old people and running into traffic, it’s very disrespectful,” she says. “It’s like a blatant slap in the face to police officers. Terrorising neighbourhoods is not the way … but I think there is a way it can be done that’s a win-win for everyone.”

A young Baltimore rider at a wheel deal. Dirt bike riders are heroes to many kids in the city



  • A young Baltimore rider at a wheel deal. Dirt bike riders are heroes to many kids in the city.

City councillor Leon Pinkett’s West Baltimore district – which encompasses the area where unrest broke out in 2015 – has “more dirt bikes per capita” than anywhere else in the city.

He says he is seeing – and hearing – less of them since the latest police crackdown, but believes zapping the scene is not the answer: “If we are going to aggressively [outlaw] dirt bike riding on the street, we have to take an alternative option for individuals who, if they could, would ride legally.”

Masked to protect his identity, a WildOut Wheelie Boy waits for the pack to arrive



  • Masked to protect his identity, a WildOut Wheelie Boy waits for the pack to arrive.

In New York, “Al Capone” has floated the idea of a designated bike park. Cleveland has come closest to giving it a try, earmarking $2.3m for a dirt bike track with an eye to getting riders off the streets – but it is struggling to find a venue.

While Baltimore has unsuccessfully put itself forward to host Amazon’s headquarters, embraced Elon Musk’s levitating high-speed transport system, Hyperloop, and offered generous development deals to Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, the idea of a dirt bike park is yet to gain traction. Dawayne “Wheelie Wayne” Davis’s efforts to get a feasibility study for a bike park funded in Baltimore lost steam after he agreed to community service for running a “chop shop” full of stolen vehicles parts out of his basement (he claims he had titles to all but one of them).

Fans record a non-handed wheelie in Argenteuil



  • Fans record a non-handed wheelie in Argenteuil.

At home in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, charismatic 23-year-old Algerian-French rider Mous unloads a box of sponsor swag from ScootFast motor oil. Mous and members of the Dirty Riderz Crew have their bikes seized by police regularly – but they also recently starred alongside footballers in an Adidas commercial.

He doles out the freebies to his friends while they play video games and snack on baguettes in a dimly lit apartment: personalised caps, stickers, T-shirts and a case of engine oil that, bought in a shop, would set him back hundreds of euros.

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A short while later he is perched on his bike as riders kick up chunks of grass practicing wheelies on a soccer pitch. Do they want a bike park too? “Absolument!” says Mous.

He brazenly weaves through traffic – his bravado on the streets is unquestionable – but insists he’d rather be riding elsewhere. He is eager to talk about all the “positive vibes” of urban dirt bike riding: “I see a lot of parents with kids come to car shows – why not our show? We can show them the nice part of this sport.”

Mous toys with French police as his friends look on



  • Mous toys with French police as his friends look on.

It’s not long before members of his Dirty Riderz Crew are intercepted by police at an intersection. They regularly document such interactions on their Instagram account, along with videos of trips to Baltimore and Miami, where riders who met on social media crash on each others’ sofas.

“You’re really a good French citizen, huh?” one officer asks in French. “Is this what you want people to think about the blacks and the Arabs in the banlieues?”

Algerian dirt bike fans pose in Argenteuil, where bikers gather in a field in the shadow of massive public housing complexes



A woman looks on as Mous whips past



The resentment is mutual, and spreads well beyond dirt bikers. Like other centres of dirt bike culture, police relations are tense. Argenteuil, a low-income, predominantly North African and Arab area, erupted in weeks of violent protest after a black man accused police officers of raping him.

Mous says when his bikes are seized, it takes him three times as long as his white counterparts to get them back. He gestures at a tower block in the distance, Cité des Indes. “When police go there, the residents throw rocks,” he adds.

Pausing briefly on the Baltimore block where he used to hustle, Jules ‘Beeper’ Perry keeps an eye out for the police



  • Pausing briefly on the Baltimore block where he used to hustle, Jules “Beeper” Perry keeps an eye out for the police.

The rise of social media has birthed a clutch of hashtags (#bikesbringbonds #wheelsupgunsdown #bikelife). An Android game simulates riders performing “sick tricks as they mock and evade police apprehension” – unhelpful for those looking to shift perceptions of urban dirt bikers.

Recently, the best dirt bike riders have picked up sponsors such as Monster Energy drinks. Celebrity fans include Fetty Wap, who has ridden in Baltimore, and the rapper Meek Mill, who signed the well-known Baltimore rider Pachino “Chino” Braxton (765,000 Instagram followers) to his Dream Chasers record label.

In 2016, Chino survived a gunshot to the head in a drive-by shooting; a few months later his brother, who managed the murdered Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota, was himself killed. Today, Chino’s Instagram account features positive affirmations about goals and success, his Loyalty clothing line, and scenes of him riding into clubs in LA atop a gilded bike branded with logo of a clothing label.

“I never expected this bike shit to take me this far in life and I’m still dream chasing … Shit a blessing,” he commented.

Chino – the most successful urban dirt biker in the world – pulling a vertical wheelie



  • Chino – the most successf urban dirt biker in the world – pulling a vertical wheelie.

MxFSA founder Evans says the sport can’t grow its brand without finding ways for riders to do so legally. He has big plans, spending much of his time lining up sponsorships and events, and meticulously moulding a cleaner reputation for the sport (he went out of his way to apologise for “some of the profanities that were said on stage” at the Manhattan awards).

While dirt biking’s reputation may deter some would-be sponsors, others are more than happy to attach their names to street riders on the strength of their skill and growing social media influence.

Sitting front-row at the awards show was Shomari Hearn, managing vice president of Palisades Hudson Financial Group. He looks at the riders and sees “future stars”. His firm distributed gift bags including a packet labelled Top 6 Financial Tips for Street Riders and Their Families.

Mous picks up the best international rider award in New York



Baltimore’s Lil Steve holds up his award for best swerve and his True Religion gift bag. The awards show had a number of sponsors



  • Mous picks up the best international rider award in New York, while Baltimore’s Lil Steve takes home best swerve – and holds up a gift bag.

Hearn, who grew up watching dirt bikers in the Bronx, sees the early days of another street sport that made it big: Nascar, which has its origins in the prohibition-era stock cars that illegally distributed moonshine before it got the tracks, sponsors and unspeakable sums of money. “This could evolve into something along those lines over time,” he says.

Keyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty, who scooped the title of best female rider, sees the potential to earn a living regardless of whether cities embrace the sport. She has signed with a manager who gave her a dirt bike for her birthday, and has a starring role in Lost Kings, a TV pilot about Baltimore dirt bikers.

“Whether they make a park or not, bike riding is never going to stop,” the 22-year-old says. “They treat us as criminals – but a lot of people would love to pay to watch us.”

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What would a truly disabled-accessible city look like?

To David Meere, a visually impaired man from Melbourne, among the various obstacles to life in cities is another that is less frequently discussed: fear.

“The fear of not being able to navigate busy, cluttered and visually oriented environments is a major barrier to participation in normal life,” says Meere, 52, “be that going to the shops, going for a walk in the park, going to work, looking for work, or simply socialising.”

That’s what makes an innovative project at the city’s Southern Cross train station so important to him. A new “beacon navigation system” sends audio cues to users via their smartphones, providing directions, flagging escalator outages and otherwise transforming what previously a “no-go” area for Meere.

“I no longer have to hope there’s a willing bystander or a capable staff member to provide direct assistance,” he says. “And on a very personal and powerful level it allows me to use this major transport hub in one of Australia’s largest cities with certainty and independence as a parent with small children. It’s a real game-changer.”

Meere is just one of the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who live in cities around the world. By 2050, they will number an estimated 940 million people, or 15% of what will be roughly 6.25 billion total urban dwellers, lending an urgency to the UN’s declaration that poor accessibility “presents a major challenge”.

For the physically disabled, barriers can range from blocked wheelchair ramps, to buildings without lifts, to inaccessible toilets, to shops without step-free access. Meanwhile, for learning disabled people or those on the autistic spectrum, the cluttered and hectic metropolitan environment can be a sensory minefield.

A staircase at Stanmore tube station.



Revolving doors in an office block on the Strand, London.



Cobblestones near the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.



A wheelchair user prepares to attempt to board a train at a London station.



  • Stairs, revolving doors, cobbles and steps on to trains are a few of the features that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs to access their cities

Although the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Britain’s Equality Act and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act aim to boost rights and access, the reality on the ground can be very different, as Guardian Cities readers recently reported.

And yet, cities benefit from accessibility. One World Health Organisation study described how, like Meere, disabled people are less likely to socialise or work without accessible transport. Cities also miss out on economic gains: in the UK the “purple pound” is worth £212bn, and the accessible-tourism market an estimated £12bn.

Some cities, however, are leading the way.

Seattle: a sidewalk mapping app

AccessMap Seattle with inclines mapped by colour. green = 0 percent incline 10 = 10 percent incline. Sidewalk Maps for Low Mobility Citizens



Mapping apps make navigating cities a doddle for most people – but their lack of detail on ramps and dropped kerbs mean they don’t always work well for people with a physical disability.

Take the hilly city of Seattle, where several neighbourhoods have no pavements at all, and many streets have a slope grade (or tilt) of 10% or even 20%.

The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology has a solution: a map-based app allowing pedestrians with limited mobility to plan accessible routes. AccessMap enables users to enter a destination, and receive suggested routes depending on customised settings, such as limiting uphill or downhill inclines. The image above shows Seattle streets coloured by incline: green means flat; red means a slope of 10% or above.

For example, while Google Maps sends pedestrians from University Street station to City Hall via Seneca Street, with its steep 10% grade, AccessMap sends them via Pike Street instead – a slope of less than 2%.

The OpenSidewalks project is crowdsourcing information such as pavement width and the location of kerb dropdowns.



  • OpenSidewalks is crowdsourcing information such as pavement width and kerb drop-downs

It also supplements data from Seattle’s Department of Transportation and the US Geological Survey with information from mapathon events. Now the Taskar Centre’s related OpenSidewalks project is taking it further by crowdsourcing extra information, such as pavement width and the location of handrails.

Singapore: universal design

The reception area of the CapitaGreen building has a lowered front desk. The building has won numerous accessible design awards.



By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be over 60, with this “silver tsunami” driving awareness of ageing and disability. The city may not historically be known for inclusive practices, but has recently won praise from the UN for its accessible “user-friendly built environment”.

The Universal Design principles drawn up by Singapore’s Building Construction Authority have encouraged accessibility in new developments since its launch in 2007.

CapitaGreen, in the central business district, is a 40-storey office block that has won a host of UD awards. Completed in 2014 at a cost of S$1.3bn (£700m), the Toyo Ito-designed structure features column-free spaces and a low concierge counter to help disabled people move around the building more easily.

CapitaGreen Braille handrail. Accessible building for cities



  • Braille directions on handrails in the award-winning CapitaGreen office block

Lift doors stay open longer, handrails flank both sides of staircases, and the chairs have grab handles. A hearing induction loop enables clearer communication for those using hearing aids, while Braille directions, tactile guidance and easy-to-read pictographs help the visually impaired. Routes into the office from underground pedestrian walkways and two Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations are barrier-free.

Singapore’s MRT has also been working to improve accessibility over the past decade. The 30-year-old nework has been getting more lifts, wider gates and tactile guidance, and more than 80% of the 138 stations have at least two barrier-free routes.

The title of world’s most accessible metro system, however, probably goes to Washington, DC. All 91 subway stations are fully accessible, along with its rail carriages and the entire bus fleet.

Sonoma: autism-friendly design

The Sweetwater Spectrum Community is a net-zero energy model of housing for adults with autism in Sonoma, California.



People with autism can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. Sweetwater Spectrum, a $6.8m supported-housing project in Sonoma, California, aims to address this.

The site, which opened in 2013, includes four 4-bed homes for 16 young adults, a community centre, therapy pools and an urban farm – all designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects according to autism-specific principles recommended by Arizona State University to promote a sense of calm.

Inside the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project.



  • Inside the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project

Along with simple, clear lines, the homes are designed so residents can clearly see spaces across thresholds. Noise is kept to a minimum thanks to quiet heating and ventilation systems and thoughtful design, such as locating the laundry room away from the bedrooms. Fittings and decor reduce sensory stimulation and clutter, with muted colours, neutral tones and recessed or natural light.

Korsør: sport for all

Musholm sports, holiday and conference complex in Korsør.



The Musholm sports, holiday and conference complex in Korsør has won numerous awards, most recently from the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, for its 2015 redesign of the basic 1998 site.

At the centre of the venue, owned by the Danish Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, is a vast, circular sports hall, with an aerial ropeway and climbing wall for wheelchair users and an integrated pulley system. Outside, a 100m ramp spirals up from the base of the hall to a sky lounge. (The ramp can also be used as a wheelchair racing track.)

The 24 hotel rooms each have ceiling hoists, electronic curtains, beds that can be automatically raised or reclined, adjustable height sinks and accessible toilets. By the waterside, a private bathing jetty is wide enough for wheelchairs and accessible via a ramp.

The multi-purpose sports hall in the Musholm complex.



  • The multi-purpose sports hall in the Musholm complex

“Accessibility must be felt but not seen,” says foundation director Henrik Ib Jørgensen. Musholm, which cost €14.5m (£12.9m) to build, is run as a social enterprise. “Lack of accessibility, other people’s assumptions, body ideals and a lack self confidence among people with disabilities are often the biggest barriers for diversity,” he adds. “We wanted to create a place where there is space for differences.”

Denmark is also home to what is widely regarded as the world’s most accessible office building. The House of Disabled People’s Organisations in the Copenhagen suburb of Taastrup is the shared headquarters of some 30 different disability groups. Built in 2012 for 178m krone (£21m), the Universal Design includes drive-through lifts so wheelchair users don’t have to turn around, and small, tactile knobs on railings so blind people can easily tell which floor they are on.

Chester: an accessible historic city

Accessible shopping on the elevated walkways of Chester Rows



Chester in north-west England is renowned for its two-mile circuit of Roman, Saxon and Medieval walls and its elevated walkways, called Rows. But the city’s historic status belies its role as an accessibility champion: last year it became the first British city to win the European commission’s Access City award.

The Rows are accessible with ramps, a lift and an escalator, while the council’s 15-year regeneration strategy prioritises accessibility in new developments.

Take the £300m Northgate shopping and leisure development, to be completed by 2021. The site will include accessible stores, restaurants, housing and a 157-room hotel including eight accessible rooms with ceiling hoists. The hotel will include a changing places facility for people with complex or multiple and profound disabilities. (Unlike standard accessible toilets, these include a height-adjustable changing bench, adjustable sink, a toilet designed for assisted use and hoist.) Chester already has six such changing places facilities, including one at the recently opened bus interchange, and more are planned around the city.

The Storyhouse cultural centre has flexible seating, audio loops and accessible backstage changing rooms.



  • The Storyhouse cultural centre has flexible seating, audio loops and accessible backstage changing rooms

The accessible design of Chester’s year-old cultural centre, Storyhouse, was created after feedback from disability groups and the council’s access team. The £37m theatre, cinema and library complex has seven accessible toilets, a changing places facility, flexible seating for groups of disabled theatre-goers, audio description and hearing loops. Backstage, there is an accessible toilet, accessible changing rooms and lift.

Melbourne: Bluetooth audio cues

Users of Melbourne’s beacon scheme receive audio directions via their smartphones.



As David Meere discovered, in Melbourne, Australia, an eight-month pilot scheme is currently transforming how visually impaired people navigate public space. The project at Southern Cross station rail terminal uses Bluetooth and free GPS smartphone app BlindSquare to create a beacon navigation system.

Users receive audio cues via their smartphones, providing directions or real time information about issues such as escalator outages. Outside, the app provides real time directional information; inside, where GPS is unreliable, 20 wireless Bluetooth beacons means users still receive information. Audio cues include advice such as: “Approaching three escalators on left, followed by a set of doors – the doors on the left are automated.”

The trial is led by the charity Guide Dogs Victoria, which plans to install similar systems at Melbourne Zoo, Albert Park (home to the Australian Grand Prix) and the Docklands area.

“In many situations, the person with low vision and blindness will have greater knowledge than the sighted person,” says Alastair Stott of Guide Dogs Victoria. “It’s a complete role reversal.”

  • Saba Salman is editor of Made Possible, essays on success by people with learning disabilities

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