Dallas Anderson, 14, rides his bike about six hours a day, mostly through the streets of his hometown of Springfield.
He has fun doing it, and has met friends while riding in groups downtown, but he does worry about his safety, and he said he doesn’t get support from police who are supposed to uphold the laws of traffic.
“People driving are disrespectful and try hitting us on purpose,” Anderson said, adding his bike was once hit by a car. While he was uninjured, his back tire got bent.
He’d like a safer place in the city to ride — a bike park — and he’s not the only one.
Bicyclist Joshua Diaz, 15, is part of a movement in Springfield called 413 Bikelife, a group of teens and young adults who share the same love for bikes. He said, “We ride throughout the city. Riding to West Springfield, Chicopee, and Agawam because we don’t have anything here in Springfield. A bike park would be a place for us to meet up and display our tricks in a safe way where there are no cars around.”
At the same time, comments from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, which some have called hostile to bicyclists, have riled bicycle advocates like Alex Weck, 35, of Springfield. Weck runs bicycle meet-up events in the city geared toward youth, known as RAD (“Ride All Day”) Springfield. He is a proponent of a park for bicycles and skateboards.
“I think it is dangerous out there; the city has been designed for decades exclusively for car use,” he said. “The mayor made comments there to incite … but he has no plan whatsoever to fix the problem.”
In a public statement posted to the City of Springfield’s Facebook page on April 17, Sarno wrote, “Like the vast majority of law abiding citizens here in Springfield and around our country, I have no patience and/or use for these miscreants’ actions, who create dangerous public safety issues by harassing drivers and pedestrians who are just going about their daily business.”
Weck took issue with that language, which he called racially charged, as many of the young bicycle riders in the city are members of racial minorities.
“To judge all riders as miscreants under one banner flatly like that. We’re trying to push back,” he said of the mayor’s comments. “We’re struggling not only with the basic infrastructure improvement, but barriers that further limit opportunities for youth bicycle riders in Springfield.”
Sarno declined to comment for this story.
Yolanda Cancel of the South End Citizens Council has been working with local elected officials, city council, Mass Bike, and Mass DOT on creating a non-motorized wheel park to include skateboarders and disabled riders on Carew Street by the Boys & Girls Club.
She said, “A city of over 155,000 people in our city and we don’t have a bike park — nowhere for our children to congregate. This is the time that we should utilize our resources.”
Cancel wants the young riders to be a part of the process from the ground up, asking them what kinds of pump tracks, trails, or jumps they would like to see in this wheel park.
On May 9, Cancel held a 413 Wheel Park Committee meeting at the South End Citizens Council. Law enforcement, city leaders, and members of 413 Bikelife voiced their concerns related to bicycling safety and ideas on the wheel park. The committee will continue to have monthly meetings.
Cancel said, “The wheel park is a sure thing. We won’t stop until we get it and we have the backing of the parks and recreation department, city council, school committee, and most importantly the police department.”
Sgt. Mel Kwatowski of the Springfield Police attended the meeting and is supportive of the wheel park. But he asked for bicyclists to not interfere with traffic and obey the rules of the road.
During the meeting, School Committee member Maria Perez of the Springfield Public Schools said, “We need to have more meetings like this so we can have better communication in our community.”
Weck feels there are few options for riding on a bike path in Springfield and very few options for getting out of Springfield into any of the more bikeable communities such as Northampton and Amherst. He said Springfield is the largest city in New England without a commercial bike shop.
Weck started RAD Springfield because he wanted to create an organization where young people have access to bike tools and the knowledge on how to fix bikes. RAD Springfield offers a safe space for people to come in, work on their bikes, and talk about what’s going on in the streets. He said that having groups of young bicycle riders is a positive thing for the city, as it gives young people a positive activity to do.
“Bikelife is the way of the future and people need to feel that they’re riding safely and protected in this community,” he said.
At the same time, however, Springfield Police Public Information Officer Ryan Walsh said, “Illegal dirt bike riding and reckless groups of bicycle riders is likely the number one quality of life complaint in the city.”
Walsh said that the police department is having to respond to these complaints, but is not targeting lawful recreational or competitive cyclists who ride and obey traffic laws. He stated, “Some of these individuals have disrupted traffic, at times damaging cars and verbally threatening drivers or people just walking in the city. Not stopping at red lights. Riding on both sides of the streets and in the wrong direction of traffic. They are riding in groups more than two side by side in a lane, which takes over the roadways and causes a public safety issue for both the bicyclists and the drivers.”
Bikelife member Stephan Heathman Guidry Jr., 19, said, “That’s not all of us.” He went on to say, “A lot of us are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making sure everyone is safe. We just want to go outside and enjoy riding our bikes.”
Gabriel Rondon, 16, another Bikelife member said, “We are trying to have fun, teach each other new tricks and have each other’s back all the time. At least we’re not selling drugs on the streets. We’re just teenagers doing something positive.”
Anderson said that bicycle riders are provoked by drivers, too, and sometimes respond after being harassed.
“Them being disrespectful gets us angry and we do stupid things,” he said.
Diaz said he doesn’t consider people who physically abuse or verbally harass drivers to be Bikelife members.
“That is not the message we’re trying to spread,” he said. “413 is a positive movement of kids that ride bikes to stay away from the problems in the city. We look at this as a sport. It’s our passion.”
But for Stephanie Hennrikus, 26, a RAD Springfield volunteer and a regular bicycle rider in Springfield, it’s not that simple. She said that many young riders do act in dangerous ways, and that both bicycle riders and car drivers provoke one another.
She herself has been hit by a car on her bike, though she was not injured, and she has witnessed bike riders being disrespectful to drivers and popping wheelies in the middle of busy streets.
“There are groups of bicyclists not following the rules and not stopping for anything — they have to be careful,” she said.
Having a bike park would help, she said. Though there are some trails in Forest Park, a bike park would give young people a place to show off tricks and gather together. She said she is worried that misbehaving bicyclists could endanger the possibility of building the park.
Weck is constantly working with the youth speaking to them about bike safety and how to ride properly in traffic.
Weck sees the lack of bike education and safety mechanisms that need to be enforced and wants to make sure the distinction is made between bicycles, which are legal to ride on city streets, and motorized dirt bikes, which are not.
At-large City Councilor Jesse Lederman agrees with Weck. He said, “It’s very important to make that distinction. The issue with the off road vehicles like the ATVs and dirt bikes is that these are high speed vehicles and they pose a real danger to public safety when people are operating them in an inappropriate way.”
In terms of the bicyclists and youth in the city, Lederman is trying to take an approach of community education in making sure people are aware that they need to comply with the rules of the road and to operate their bikes safely. He is also reaching out to schools to talk more about pedestrian safety and bicycle education.
“It is not illegal for bicyclists to ride on the street and it’s not illegal for a group of bicyclists to ride on the street,” said Lederman. “However, they can’t impede traffic and harass drivers. The concern is for the safety of individuals often times maybe children riding in those groups. We want our youth to ride bikes and continue being active outside. At the same time, we want to make sure they’re doing so in a safe manner and not posing a danger to themselves or those on the roadway.”
Regarding the dirt bike issue, Springfield City Councilor Orlando Ramos will be proposing a legislation related to dirt bikes and ATVs in order to give the Springfield Police Department more authority to have repeat offenders forfeit their vehicle and allow for the city to crush the forfeited vehicles.
Lederman said, “Those vehicles are not street legal nor registered and cannot be ridden on the street in the city of Springfield. They pose serious challenges in terms of the manner of which they’re being operated. Dirt bikes have caused issues for the last couple of seasons, including the ones that are actually a fatality.”
Springfield Police named three instances when young men riding a motorized bikes or ATV were killed in the city over the past seven months. On Oct. 26, 2018, a 19-year-old male was illegally riding a motocross bike and crashed into a car at Putnam Circle and Fernwold Street. On Dec. 22, 2018, a 26-year-old man was illegally riding a dirt bike without a helmet near Franklin and Webster Street. He collided with another car and was pronounced dead on the scene. On Jan. 9, 2019, an adult man was riding an ATV at a high speed and crashed into a car at Denver Street and Devonshire Road. He was not wearing a helmet and died at the hospital a few days later due to his injuries.
Walsh said that bicycles are a different story, as long as riders obey the law.
“We assure you anyone lawfully riding a bicycle in the city will continue to be able to as they always have,” Walsh said.
Weck feels positively about a wheel park moving forward.
“The creation of a safe space for young people to go to ride is absolutely necessary,” he said. “It seems to be moving along better, but it has taken a long time to get here.”
Dave Eisenstadter contributed to this article.
For more information on RAD Springfield go to radspringfield.org, facebook.com/RadSpringfield and @Radspringfield on Instagram.