AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This has become a lot more common in cities around the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT BIKE ENGINE)
CORNISH: That's the sound of a dirt bike. Most cities don't allow off-road vehicles on their streets, but that's not stopping riders of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs. They're often found in packs doing stunts and blocking traffic. To some, it's aggressive and threatening. Riders, though, say there's more to it. Stephannie Stokes of member station WABE has our story.
STEPHANNIE STOKES, BYLINE: In Atlanta, the buzzing of dirt bikes and ATVs grows loudest on Sundays. That's when a group of riders called ATL Bike Life get together. I meet about 50 of them outside a park in Southwest Atlanta. They're doing wheelies and revving the bike engines.
Do you get - do you...
All of the noise makes it hard to ask a question, so one rider, Quint Grimes, waves for his friends to stop.
QUINT GRIMES: Cut it out. We're doing an interview for the radio. You know, there's so much bad publicity about us. They say we the bad guys.
STOKES: And you don't think that's true.
GRIMES: No, that's nowhere near true.
STOKES: Grimes says these bikes are what they care about. And in the city, there isn't anywhere else to ride but in the streets.
GRIMES: We out here doing what we love and also keep a lot of people out of trouble. Like, you see all the young guys right here?
STOKES: He points to several wide-eyed kids checking out the bikes.
GRIMES: 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 house and robbing and killing them, you know?
STOKES: This message that bikes prevent more serious crime is something you'll hear from riders across the country. Urban dirt biking has become popular everywhere from Baltimore to San Francisco, but a lot of people don't think its rise is positive.
JOYCE SHEPERD: They're making noise. It's scaring motorists. These are people who basically - it's all about thrill for them.
STOKES: Joyce Sheperd's an Atlanta City Council member. She says it's not just that dirt bikes and ATVs aren't street legal. It's the riders in packs of sometimes 200. They take over city roads, ignoring red lights.
SHEPERD: They're doing all kinds of stuff to show out. They're doing things that even typical motorists don't do.
STOKES: And there have been accidents - deadly ones. Just recently, riders were killed in Miami and Cleveland after colliding with cars. It has officials like David Hartman with the New Haven Police Department fed up.
DAVID HARTMAN: These are criminals perpetrating criminal acts. And they are dangerous. And people die, and people get hurt. And it has to stop.
STOKES: The question, though, is how to stop it. Hartman says New Haven now fines riders up to a thousand dollars and even takes away their bikes. But the hardest part is catching them.
HARTMAN: You can't chase these folks. It's impossible. They'll weave in and out of traffic. A pursuit would just add to the danger.
STOKES: His police department relies on community tips to find riders. Others follow them from above with helicopters. But in the end, some leaders don't think law enforcement can be the full answer.
FRANK JACKSON: We have to engage young people.
STOKES: That's Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.
JACKSON: People look at dirt bike riders as this monolithic group. But people who ride dirt bikes are not all thugs.
STOKES: Jackson believes some do just need an outlet. So Cleveland's building a place where they can legally ride, a separate park for dirt bike and ATV riders kind of like there are for skateboarders.
JACKSON: We're not just looking at this and being permissive about it. We're just saying that if we're going to deal with this, we have to deal with it in a holistic way.
STOKES: Critics question whether urban dirt bikers would use a park when there isn't the thrill of breaking the law. Quint Grimes with the Atlanta riders assures me they would. But until there's one here, he says they'll be on the roads.
GRIMES: This is us, the bike life. We're going to be around. They ain't going to get rid of us.
STOKES: Grimes and the other riders take off to cruise around the city. A couple of kids are too young to follow. They stay behind, riding around on toy ATVs instead. For NPR News, I'm Stephannie Stokes in Atlanta.
(SOUNDBITE OF P.O.S. AND ASTRONAUTALIS SONG, "WANTED-WASTED")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.