The BMX Solution Resolved

The BMX community should follow our lead, drop the “me too” tag-along attitude, develop a work ethic, and get it done.

We skaters are fickle. Though it may seem strange to suggest we take anything seriously, our culture is an aberration to the rule. Think about Red’s quip in Northwest: “Skateboarding isn’t a sport, it’s a fuckin’ way of life.” Those who have spent years jumping fences bailing bilge, ditching cops for ditch runs, and now enjoying the fruit of the current public skatepark boom understand why that “fuckin” needs to be included. It’s an exclamation point in defense of the experience. By and large, everybody who skates is a friend of mine and yours yet when asked to share our culture with others we tend to frown. Or at Burnside, if you smell of kook and disrespect the space, you might get Germ sling-shotting a dead pigeon at you. Skateboarding is our sacred society, and we resent people who poach our culture, whether for retail fashion profit or their idea of a good time. Many of us spent decades defending our way of life to disparaging parents and other naysayers. The result is a user-created, highly organic culture and it’s little surprise we have so little tolerance for those who want to join our punk band with their flutes.

Washington Street Skatepark
Washington Street Skatepark

So what to make of the rider who prefers the bike to the skateboard? Naturally our immediate reaction is “fuck off.” Don’t take it personally but this is a skate thing. And if you’re at a place like Burnside or Washington Street and you understand that skaters spent years of their lives and every dime they never had building the place literally by hand you understand why bikes are for use to and from-but not in-the skatepark. Burnside and Washington Street, though, are the exception to the rule. Today the taxpayer is the party primarily responsible for providing the parks we enjoy. Excluding BMXers from our parks on a “just because” basis falls on deaf ears to the city people now providing these facilities. After all, sometimes the taxpayer prefers the bike to the skateboard. And the city’s responsibility is to serve the range of taxpayers, not just the skater.

“Just because” may make sense to longtime skaters, but it makes enemies with others. Why do we feel threatened by the presence of guys on bikes at the local park? Is it because we suffered through years of boring public meetings to get the local park built while they were doing something else? Well, that’s a strong argument but unfortunately it probably applies to 95% of the skaters around us as well. And we don’t have a problem with them. It must be something else.

The truth is there are two inarguable reasons for our concern with sharing bikes in our parks. Foremost, shared simultaneous use of the skatepark is unsafe. Skaters and bikers travel at different speeds and choose different lines. Every issue begins at design, and differences in use are obvious by just looking at a BMX bike side by side with a skateboard. A BMX bike has 20 inch wheels; a skateboard has (I’m guessing an average) 57 millimeter wheels. The difference in wheel size creates very different limitations and opportunities. Ditto for the wheelbase. Then consider the comparative ease with which one can propel a bike. The result is that a BMXer can go much faster than a skater, and recover from a lack of speed in a hurry. Skaters have the advantage in tight spots like quick trannys, but BMXers will always scurry from wall to wall faster than skaters. The result is that skaters and BMXers inevitably use terrain differently. Mixing the two user groups simultaneously means never having the psychic comfort of knowing where the other rides. You end up thinking about the BMXer instead of the trick you’re trying and you bail. Then the collisions; when they come they get ugly quickly. Skaters are completely exposed to blunt-edged handlebars, pegs, seats, and pedals… not to mention the force of a guy on a 20+ pound bike. Shared simultaneous bike and skateboard use of a skatepark is like cars and trucks sharing roads with different sets of driving rules. The accident is just around the corner.

BMX destroying pool coping
BMX Damage being inflicted by pegs

Next is the unfortunate reality that bikes inflict a degree of damage on park infrastructure never matched by skaters. I’ll never forget watching a BMXer come down onto the concrete deck peg-first at the Grant’s Pass, Oregon skatepark. A two-square inch of concrete went flying. Time and again I’ve heard BMXers say their use is completely analogous to skaters’ use. I always immediately think of the Grant’s Pass incident and shake my head in disbelief. The next time you see a skater blast out a two-square inch chunk of concrete let me know. For more evidence, see Dan Hughes’ website: Pool coping, for many the holy grail of the grind, is particularly susceptible to peg damage (those little circles are pockets of air).

coping damage
Bike Damage to Harada Skatepark in Riverside CA before it even opened to the public – Photo by MSK

Remember though that some plainly aren’t interested in the facts. Occasionally we must deal with ideologues whose ultimate goal is not finding solutions but in asserting their view regardless of how it may antagonize reality. Heidi Lemmon, skateboarding’s self-styled spokesperson under her SPAUSA rubric, is one such ideologue. Pointing fingers is generally counterproductive, but every skater should understand Heidi’s goal. Heidi states her aim in unequivocal terms: “Cities should always allow bikes to use the skateparks.” After offering this edict (i.e. after the conclusion), she seeks to address the damage issue by suggesting there is “no evidence” that bikes damage infrastructure. When facts aren’t helpful, she’ll resort to threats: “If you are a city park and you discriminate against the biker then you may have a civil rights issue.” [All quotes from] Legal opinions from qualified attorneys on the respective merit of this claim have never stopped Heidi from parading this groundless threat. Remember what I suggested earlier about skaters feeling like we need to inherently distrust the motives of non-skaters who seek to involve themselves in skateboarding.

Fortunately Heidi’s extremism and careless use of facts is bankrupting her influence as more cities get up to speed on skatepark development and maintenance. Nearly every town has a city attorney and most have properly concluded that the evidence (user safety and park maintenance) leads one to direct skaters and BMXers to separate facilities. Indeed, creation of separate facilities is the solution. First though we have to resist the temptation to provide separate hours for the two user groups at the same facility. One facility with separate hours requires active supervision. That means some authority figure needs to show up at the end of each designated session and get one group out and the other one in. You’re paying that authority figure at least $20 per hour in most parts of America to make this happen. That’s an operations cost that never wanes; it will always be there. Invariably the session will be firing at the end of the time period and hard feelings will ensue. This approach, while cost-effective in the short-term, loses its financial value over time and instills a counterproductive “them vs. us” hierarchy that has never sat well with skaters (or BMXers for that matter).

Besides the philosophical weakness of the one facility/separate sessions approach, there is the arbitrariness of the division. How do we decide how many hours skaters should get and how many BMXers should get? Do we count heads at the city meetings? Anybody who’s attended a city meeting knows what a poor sample that is. And because of the individualistic nature of both skateboarding and freestyle BMX there are few sources that offer a credible estimate of how many users there are out there. Board-Trac suggested 13 million skaters nationwide in 2003. The National Sporting Goods Association suggested 1 million BMXers in 2003. Do we divide access on a 13/1 ratio?

If this doesn’t quite seem right you’re well… right. Skateboarding and freestyle BMX are legitimate recreational activities on par with basketball, baseball, or tennis. We’ve noted elsewhere that skateboarding’s popularity today rivals these sports. Enthusiasts of these sports don’t share facilities; they each have their own. And while BMXers take the faux high ground by saying they’d be happy to share skateparks with skaters (and I’d be happy to share the money in your bank account) the only reason we shouldn’t have separate facilities is lack of political will. As a kid I can recall times when my friends and I were “happy to share” the public tennis court for our launch ramp; 10 of us would offer to take just one court while all the other courts remained available for tennis. Strangely, neither the tennis players nor the park maintenance people ever agreed with the compromise we were offering. Tennis courts, it seems, are for tennis no matter how well they served our interests as a space for the launch ramp.

Today I can appreciate that. So I can also appreciate that skateboarding is a valid recreational pursuit at any reasonable hour of the day. The National Sporting Goods Association says there are more skaters than tennis players nationwide. It seems only reasonable then that skaters should have at least as much access to facilities as tennis players, right? Who can you argue with that? And just as we disrupted the flow of tennis (or potential tennis) as kids with our launch ramp and (maybe) damaged the tennis court surfaces, so go the BMXers who want to disrupt the flow of our session and (no matter what Heidi Lemmon says) damage the skatepark surface. Skateboarding is finally being accommodated with skateparks like tennis has its courts. Naturally, then, BMXers will earn their place in our city parks systems as well. This is the natural cycle of public participation and involvement.

The BMX community has some maturing to do before it properly understands its role in the recreational meritocracy. Like a five-year old who cries to his mother for a new toy because he wants it so badly-never mind the 100 at home already-BMXers today pig-headedly insist they deserve access to our skateparks merely because they happen to enjoy riding them. Boys: with all due respect, grow up, take a number, and get in line. And here in Portland we believe we have a great way to encourage this process of growth. Locally we have $440,000 to build two skateparks in the next few years. Based on the most credible data we can find, 93% of potential skatepark users ride skateboards whereas 7% ride bikes. We suggest to our local Parks & Recreation bureau, then, that each user group gets its own park site and skaters should get $412, 920 (93% of $440,000) and bikers get $27,080 (7% of $440,000). The BMXers, still showing wetness behind the ears, noted incredulously that wasn’t enough to build a bike park. In response we shrugged our shoulders and encouraged them to get to work raising some money and getting their own work done to provide their own facility. The echo of the oft-stated BMXer claim that they’re 10-20 years behind skaters rung loudly as I pondered my peers’ motivation for Burnside just over 14 years ago as a swell of skate culture pride rose within me.

Freestyle BMX is a legitimate recreational activity. A percentage of its user base enjoys riding concrete as an alternative or compliment to dirt and street riding. Skaters should empathize; BMX deserves not a hand-out but a hand-up. It deserves the opportunity to justify its own needs to the public and work to provide for itself. It can lobby parks & recreation departments to direct a portion of their budgets to BMX, create non-profit organizations and raise its own money, or pursue sanctioned (or unsanctioned) DIY. Whatever course it takes I’ll be in there in spirit rooting them on because I know what it’s like to be shut out just because the public hasn’t caught on with my deal, skateboarding. However, being forced to compromise our experience for their benefit doesn’t make any real sense; it’s just a give-away designed by bureaucrats to make their work lives easier that undermines what we’ve worked so hard to get. Skate culture may be a strange beast, but we can take pride in our ability to get things done. We’re at a point where we’re finally being accommodated nationwide. The BMX community should follow our lead, drop the “me too” tag-along attitude, develop a work ethic, and get it done.