Do Bikes Belong?
By Chris Gilligan
LEFT: Darin Masters executes an invert at Asheville, N.C.’s Food Lion skate park. This municipal park does not allow bicycles due to damage and safety issues. PHOTO COURTESY OF Jeff Stamper © 2002 SkateTN.com
RIGHT: Freestyle BMX bikes weigh 40 to 50 pounds. Though intended for riding on dirt jump courses or the urban environment, BMX bikes can dominate skateparks due to their speed and size. They create traffic, maintenance and safety problems in skateparks. PHOTO COURTESY OF Chris Gilligan © 2004 SkatersForPublicSkateparks.org
Skateboarding is experiencing a renaissance. In terms of growth of participants and equipment sales, it is outperforming traditional team sports like baseball and football. Many cities have banned skateboarding in streets and other public spaces, and have legislated against backyard skate ramps.
Faced with this lack of legal riding areas, skateboarders have gotten creative and involved themselves in the political process to demand public skate parks. Communities have responded by building public skate parks at a pace that would have seemed impossible to a previous generation of skaters.
Skate parks are designed for recreational devices that are propelled by gravity, momentum, and body gyration. Small, hard wheels are a necessity for this type of activity, because they are lightweight, they spin up to speed quickly, and they experience very little friction on a smooth surface.
Genesis of the modern skate park: Portland, Ore. This park was designed and built for skaters by skaters in the shadow of the Burnside bridge. PHOTO COURTESY OF John Bracken © 2002 JohnBracken.com
Skateboarders and inline “skatebooters” have benefited from the skatepark building boom, but there is another group of users who are capitalizing on the plethora of parks. Freestyle bike riders have found that skate parks are a fun place to practice their activity, but sometimes at the cost of the group the park was originally intended to serve.
Do Bikes Belong?
A bicycle uses gears and chains that multiply a rider’s power for propulsion. Their 20” wheels with pneumatic suspension are designed to roll smoothly on bumpy, rocky, uneven surfaces, and to provide traction under extreme lateral forces, such as cornering at high speed on a dirt trail. They are not ideal machines for skate parks.
Certain features on a bike cause much more damage to skate park surfaces than the park’s intended users. Bikers travel paths that are much longer in distance and time than skaters—they generally travel faster and quieter than skaters, and their paths are much less predictable because the bike has a steering mechanism that permits sharp turns. These factors are not designed into a skate park. Both the damage and the unpredictable paths create safety issues for skateboarders, who are the user group for which the skate park is designed.
Steel meets concrete: Spokane, Wash. The hardened steel pegs and frame of a BMX Freestyle bike cause serious damage to skate parks. PHOTO COURTESY OF Dan Hughes © 2004 NorthwestSkater.com
Yet a park designed and constructed for bikes would almost certainly be unusable to skaters, given their inferior ability to generate speed. Bikes are fun to ride, and are versatile enough to be ridden long distances on a wide variety of surfaces: from smooth, flat concrete to rocky dirt trails. Bikers can and do ride in skate parks, but they do not necessarily belong there, due to the problems they cause with safety, damage and crowding out other users. A city can ban an activity that destroys property and causes conflict (street skating), and it could use the same logic to ban bikes from skate parks. However, it might make sense to provide bikers with a place where they can freely practice their activity, much like cities provide the carrot of a skate park in exchange for the stick of fines for street skating.
Safety and Damage Issues
Darin Masters is the skate shop owner of Planet SK8 in Brentwood, Tenn., and a member of the committee that helped design the Nashville skate park, which opened this summer. As in many cities, Nashville park and recreation planners were called upon to provide a park that would draw street-skating youth away from their favorite public areas.
Concrete artist: Orcas Island, Wash. Grindline Skateparks superintendent, Monk Hubbard rides his team’s creation. Communities can benefit from the streamlined design/build process favored by skater-owned and operated design and construction crews. PHOTO COURTESY OF Greg Hall © 2002 Wheelbyte.com.
Masters said his group was excited when California Skateparks, a design/build company that specializes in mid-sized facilities, presented a design with a large concrete bowl and a swimming pool replica. However, he said the “old-school pool” plans were nearly foiled by Nashville’s permissive attitude toward BMX riders.
“If we don’t get our pool, it’ll be because of the bikers,” he complained. “They dent and chip the coping and tear up the transitions with their pegs. I wish they had their own ‘bike park’ so they would be satisfied as well as the skaters. It would be a lot safer, too.”
Masters said some of his friends have been injured in crashes with bikers at Nashville’s Sixth Avenue park, which features a wood ramp course and small wooden bowl. He said, “If the parks aren’t going to allow just skaters, I wish they would at least have a separate day for bikers to ride. This would prevent a lot of unnecessary injuries.”
Street features: Charles County, Md. California Skateparks’ use of galvanized steel rail, coping and stair edging, combined with concrete, make for a durable, cost-effective park. Bikes are not allowed at the skate park due to concerns about damage and safety. PHOTO COURTESY OF John Bracken © 2003 JohnBracken.com
Tim Kirby, who played a key role in the campaign to fund and build the public skate park in Midland, Texas, said his park prohibits bikers—but he often has to call police to have bikers ejected from the facility. “There will be 50 (skaters) there, but they will be sitting around watching the bikers. They are scared to death to go in there with the bikers. The city has said that ‘It’s your park, you police it.’ So we call the cops and they show up and ask the bikers to leave.”
Midland’s parks department decided to prohibit bikes from their skate park because of the bike-related damage at another Texas park. “The perfect example of why bikes shouldn’t be allowed in a concrete park is in Abilene,” Kirby said. “They opened the park two or three years before ours, and they allowed bikes. They completely tore up the coping and the deck near the coping. The city will never replace it, so we (skaters) don’t even bother going there any more. It’s like a drainage ditch, not a skate park.”
Hammers and Chisels: why bikes are more destructive
Skateboard axles, or “trucks,” are made of high-grade aluminum. The material does not bend, and under stress it will actually break. Relative to concrete and many other edge materials associated with skateboard parks, the aluminum will actually grind off the trucks and onto the edge (which is where the move “grind” got its name).
Chunked coping: Sumner, Wash. The bike peg hit the coping as the rider was bailing from a trick. The chunk fell to the bottom with the bike. PHOTO COURTESY OF John Bracken © 2003 Brock McNally
Freestyle bicycles use pegs made from hardened steel and have reinforced steel frames and chain crank gears that can hit concrete surfaces with the same force as a hammer and chisel. Relative to the edge of skate parks, this hardened steel is stronger. In this case, the concrete edge is ground or chipped off—not the peg. The trick name is the same on a bike, but in this case the park, not the rider, experiences the grinding. The concrete is ground or chipped away, leaving permanent damage.
Bicycles typically travel at greater speeds and weigh much more than skateboards, resulting in greater force when a bike’s metal parts contact the surface. Also, inexperienced bikers can typically ride higher and faster than skaters, and they often hang up on or crash into the coping and transitions.
Skateboards, on the other hand, never contact riding surfaces with hardened metal. In a crash, Skateboard only the wood and urethane hit the park surface. During a grind, the aluminum axle contacts the surface, but only experienced skaters are capable of the grinding maneuver. Skateboards also have much lower inertia due to lower speeds and weight, resulting in less force when they crash.
Chipped walls: Las Vegas Nev. Even steel pipe coping can’t stop damage from bikes. The pipe rattles when a heavy bike hits it and eventually the pipe begins to damage the concrete underneath. This kind of damage wouldn’t bother bikes with their soft-tired wheels; but skateboards have much smaller wheels, and these gaps bump the skater off the board. PHOTO COURTESY OF Brock McNally © 2003 John Bracken
Bikes routinely shed nuts and bolts, and rubber tires bring dirt, mud and rocks into the park, littering skate surface with debris that cause skate wheels to stop abruptly. This can cause spectacular falls and significant injuries.
Landscape Architects who understand the problem
Carolyn Weiss is a landscape architect with the Eugene, Ore., parks department. Her city, with a population of 140,000, has built five skate parks, four of which are concrete. Weiss said Eugene’s facilities prohibit bikes, but the rule is not enforced. “Unfortunately, this can create an adversarial situation between skaters, who feel they have the legal right to exclusive use of the park, and bikers, who feel they have a moral right to the park and have no where else to go.”
Warranty—What good is it: San Antonio, Tex. Springtime Park sees daily use by bikers and skaters. That’s too much use in the first year for this grindbox. PlayWell Group’s owner said, “This could only happen via vandalism. Our warranty covers manufacturer’s defects. Vandalism, of course, isn’t covered, and neither is maintenance. PHOTO COURTESY OF Carter Dennis ©2003 San Antonio Skateboarding
Landscape architect Rod Wojtanik is working with Portland, Ore. skaters to establish a network of parks that attract users from a wider area. Wojtanik is concerned about the “use of parks… that are too small for the number of users already. Skate parks are popular places and it doesn’t take long before they are filled to capacity, then along comes the BMX crowd and the park just got smaller.” He has seen bikers dominate skate park sessions due to the larger amount of space they take up.
Bikers: gear up and get the job done
Tom Miller, an experienced skater who is working on the Portland initiative, would like to see bikers step up and build their own parks. He likens the conflict in skate parks to the conflicts between urban cyclists and pedestrians. “Sure, it’s possible for both groups to share the sidewalk,” he said. “But once you have a critical mass of either it becomes a bad idea. Bikers are much safer in the road. And if you don’t believe me you probably don’t ride in urban areas. Bike lanes between motorways and sidewalks make sense. Give each user group… what it needs. This is not rocket science.”
Master builder tests his work: Newburg, Ore. Mark Scott, president of Dreamland Skateparks, demonstrates the possibilities of skater-built concrete creations. PHOTO COURTESY OF Sam Beebe © 2002 SkateOregon.com
If there are enough freestyle bikers in town to justify their own park, and they are willing to endure the political process to obtain it, then their local government may well provide money and square footage. Bikers would then get together and decide how to spend the funds, and new facilities would get built.
Miller said the additional cost of providing a separate bike park would not be prohibitive. “I’m convinced that bikers, if given a choice, won’t go for all concrete anyway,” he said. “I suspect (bikers would choose) some mix of concrete, wood, and dirt, which would extend their pool of cash far beyond concrete exclusively.”
Fixing the flaws: San Antonio, Texas. Workers remove concrete from the walls of the LBJ skate park to correct the coping, or top edge. Coping should have a lip, or pronounced bump, where it meets the transition. PHOTO COURTESY OF Carter Dennis © 2003 San Antonio Skateboarding
How much should the budget be? It should be on par with the amount spent for skateparks, but the dollar amount should be relative to the number of users the park will serve. Let’s assume that the bike population at the town’s skatepark is 10% of the total number of users. The town should budget 10% of the $500,000 they spent on the skatepark, for a biker-designed park built by the best team of bike park builders.
A $50,000 bike park? What would it look like? What would it be made of? Who is qualified to design and build it? These are questions that the freestyle bike community might start asking. Then they could gear up, get funded and get their own parks built.