SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — Mayor Domenic J. Sarno has used a few choice words to describe people like Joshua Diaz and his friends. Words like “miscreants,” “negative individuals,” and renegade thrill-seekers.
Diaz, of Springfield, prefers to call himself an urban cyclist.
A sophomore at Commerce High School, Diaz is president of 413 BikeLife, a loose collective of like-minded pedal pushers. Perhaps you’ve seen them in downtown Springfield, riding in groups of 10 or more — sometimes in traffic and often defying the laws of gravity, if not the rules of the road, with wheelies, swerves and other stunts that are not for the faint of heart.
“We call each other urban cyclists,” he said. “It’s a new way to ride.”
When Diaz talks about riding his bicycle, he speaks in terms of the skill, dedication and devotion that athletes use to describe their sport.
“A bike has been a big part of my life since I was a little boy,” he said. “It took me a month to learn how to wheelie. Once you learn that, you’re determined to do more and more, and to be better.”
Sarno will have none of it.
“I have no patience for that whatsoever,” he said recently of the groups of teen bicyclists in the city. “They just want to be lawless. Plain and simple.”
The mayor and his office have had to contend in recent years with increasing complaints about packs of bicyclists and motorized off-road vehicles tearing through the city — riding with, alongside and around traffic, ignoring traffic laws, and sometimes harassing pedestrians.
Last year, the police department responded to some 700 complaints about bikes and off-roaders. If the number of calls this year since the school vacation in the middle of February are any indication, spring and summer will be more of the same.
Sarno has directed the police to do something to combat the problem. Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood said a special unit has been created to seek out people riding off-road, motorized vehicles illegally during peak times when the weather is good.
Police are under orders not to pursue riders on bicycles or off-road vehicles; instead, they monitor groups of riders and move in once they are stopped somewhere.
Officers confiscate unregistered dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles — which are illegal to operate on city roads — if the owner cannot produce proof of ownership. The operator can then be cited or even arrested for motor vehicle violations. When police see teens on bikes riding recklessly, state law allows them to confiscate the bike and hold it for up to 15 days or until a parent or guardian pays a fine. In Springfield, it’s $20.
Since the middle of February, officers in Springfield have seized eight bicycles and issued seven citations.
Five were from a group who allegedly surrounded a PVTA bus and spit at the driver downtown on Feb. 19. Three more were seized Feb. 22 on Morgan Street. Two of the owners were a pair of 15-year-olds, who were cited. The third bike belonged to someone who left it behind and ran when police approached; officers took the bike as abandoned property.
Police spokesman Ryan Walsh said police are not cracking down on every bicyclist — just those who show a disregard for the safety of themselves or anyone else.
“We urge parents to speak to their kids about bicycle safety and the rules of the road,” he said. “If you are 16 or younger, it is the law to wear a bicycle helmet. You also have to obey all traffic laws when you are riding a bicycle.”
Too often, he said, officers encounter teens who are not doing either.
Diaz distinguishes between bicyclists and the riders on motorized vehicles. He said they are two different groups, although each uses the 413 BikeLife moniker. He said he speaks for only the riders on bicycles — around 100 people.
He understands why Sarno and city drivers are upset with some of the teens on bicycles, and admits there are those who ride recklessly and perform dangerous stunts in traffic. Those are the ones, he said, who give all of 413 BikeLife a bad name, and who are attracting so much heat from the police and City Hall.
As a leader with 413 BikeLife, he said one of his responsibilities is to stress to younger riders about how to ride properly.
There is an unofficial code of conduct with street riding, he said: don’t put yourself in harm’s way, don’t harass anyone in traffic or on the sidewalk, and don’t damage any cars.
“You can do the sports stuff,” he said. “But be civilized about it.”
Other cities, including Worcester and Boston, have also reported problems with packs of kids on bicycles. In 2017, Worcester police created a task force to deal with the issue.
Diaz said there are unofficial BikeLife chapters around the world, with riders posting and sharing stunts via social media.
“They have it in Colombia, in Japan, in London. It’s global,” he said.
For all the hostility they receive, Diaz said the BikeLife crew is doing what parents always say they want their kids to do. They’ve put down the Xbox controller, logged off the internet and gotten out of the house. They’re getting fresh air and exercise, and are socializing with people their own age.
“It’s just a group of kids getting together to spread positivity and unity,” he said. Riders come from all over the city, regardless of neighborhood, race, color or economic class, he said. “This is just unity, as best as I can explain it.”
As recently as 2015, the city of Springfield was encouraging bicycle use.
The Pedestrian and Bicycle Complete Street Plan, a 167-page document prepared with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, proposed ways to make the city more attractive that included making it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to coexist with vehicular traffic.
The bicycle lanes now running up and down Main Street and many other major roads in the city resulted from that plan.
Under state law, it is not illegal to ride a bicycle on a public road, except for state highways. And outside of a central business district, it’s not even illegal to ride on a sidewalk.
Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 11, Section 11B, bicyclists riding in traffic are merely expected to follow the same rules as vehicular traffic. In other words, stop for stop signs and red lights, yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and use directional signals for turns — unless both hands are needed on the handlebars for steering.
Bicyclists under age 16 are required to wear helmets. Two bicyclists are allowed to ride side-by-side in the road, but the law draws the line at any more than two riding abreast — and they have to yield to any faster traffic that wants to pass.
Popping a wheelie on a bicycle and then holding it for 100 yards or more may defy gravity, but it is not a violation of state law.
“Wheelies are legal,” said H. Alex Weck.
Weck, director of Rad Springfield, said as long as a kid on a bicycle is in a bike lane or is not whipping out into traffic or causing pedestrians to scatter, state law does not expressly forbid a bicyclist from riding on one wheel.
Rad Springfield is a mobile community bike shop in operation since 2016. It helps people fix their bikes by providing tools, materials and expertise.
The group has come in contact with many of the 413 BikeLife crew, Weck said. They use the opportunity to educate the BikeLife riders about how to ride properly and safely. He said he is aware of no effort by the police department to reach out to BikeLife members to do the same.
He said the language used by the mayor is not helping, nor are the police department’s heavy-handed tactics in confiscating bikes.
On Monday afternoons, Rad Springfield has an open workshop on Worthington Street, and many teens show up to work on their bikes. He said for the last few workshops, a police cruiser has been parked right nearby, which he said can only be seen as an attempt at intimidation.
Ward 1 City Councilor Adam Gomez said he favors education to teach the BikeLife riders about safety.
“The police department has taken it upon themselves to curb this reckless behavior, but I believe there is a way for the city and the police department to partner with these kids and make them feel supported,” while at the same time helping everyone — including drivers — feel safe on city streets, Gomez said.
He said he has spoken with Council President Justin Hurst about creating a committee of city officials and residents to consider ways to address the issue.
Diaz said kids ride their bikes in the streets because they don’t really have anywhere else to go. They have tried getting up early to ride in parking garages or empty parking lots, only to have security shoo them away.
One of the common retorts from critics is that they could just ride on the bike path.
The Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway — which runs 3.7 miles from the Chicopee line to a spot near the South End Bridge — is paved, offers a great view of the river and has no vehicle traffic.
Diaz said the path is fine for one or two people out for a ride. When you have 10 people riding together and looking to perform stunts, it can be a little narrow.
“We need a bike park,” he said. That would give riders a place “to keep their skills up and keep drivers calm,” he said.
Betsy Johnson, a member and convener of WalkBike Springfield, a group that promotes bicycling in the city, said she is very supportive of a bike park in the city.
“A lot of the youth riding around, they need a place,” she said. “Getting a new park doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve been trying to move along as fast as possible.”
She does not condone reckless stunt riding, but WalkBike Springfield has been talking with younger riders about what they need to ride in the city. “We continue to get the word out that you can ride in Springfield,” she said.
Rad Springfield has launched a petition on Change.org to call attention to the need for a bike park. It cites a lack of safe space in the city, and the challenge of sharing roads and sidewalks.
“Self-expression through tricks is a positive outlet to promote in Springfield where urban constraints limit access to active, outdoor exercise,” the petition reads. A bike park would be “a regional draw to the city in the name of healthy activity and economic development,” and be in contrast to young people being exposed to “video games, drug activity and gang recruitment.”
As of Friday evening, it had 130 signatures.
The city Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management this week floated the idea for a bike park, either on city land near the Boys & Girls Club on Carew Street or behind the Greenleaf Community Center on Parker Street in Sixteen Acres. Officials are studying the idea and expect to apply for funding for a feasibility study and schematic designs from the Springfield Community Preservation Commission.
It is too soon to talk about a timetable, but it is safe to say it will not be done this summer.
Gomez said that while the two proposed locations would work, a more centrally located park might be more effective in drawing riders away from downtown. He suggested that Gurdon Bill Park, an under-utilized city property at Genesee and Liberty streets, “would be a great location for this.”
“Most of these kids just want to ride bikes and practice tricks,” Gomez said. “We just need a safe place for them to do that.”
Diaz said when he and his family moved to Springfield from Puerto Rico when he was little, he looked around and saw every kid in the neighborhood had a bike — and he wanted one too.
“Bikes were everywhere,” he said.
They were a part of the social scene. Kids with bikes hung around and rode together. A bike park would give teens a place to hang out rather than on Main Street, he said.
“I’m not saying a bike park would get everyone off the street, but it would lower the numbers,” he said.