Motorcycles: B&O Museum gives Baltimore dirt bikers a summer home. But advocates still call for a permanent campus

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BALTIMORE – Engines roared as dirt bike riders did wheelies and rode around a gated parking lot on a recent sunny Saturday in Baltimore's Pigtown neighborhood. Riders in B-360, the Baltimore-based organization that teaches the science behind the machines, have been out every weekend since April, making the most of the nearly 2.3 acres to ride, repair and learn about their bikes.

a young boy standing next to a motorcycle: Offroad bike rider Hamari Mullin, 7 gets help from Nyerell Fisher, 13, who uses the kick starter while Damon Ray-Harrison, 14 balances them at an enclosed parking lot near B&O Railroad Museum Sat., June 5, 2021. © Karl Merton Ferron/TNS Offroad bike rider Hamari Mullin, 7 gets help from Nyerell Fisher, 13, who uses the kick starter while Damon Ray-Harrison, 14 balances them at an enclosed parking lot near B&O Railroad Museum Sat., June 5, 2021. a man wearing a blue shirt: Brittany Young of B360 at an enclosed parking lot near B&O Railroad Museum. © Karl Merton Ferron/TNS Brittany Young of B360 at an enclosed parking lot near B&O Railroad Museum.

The Southwest Baltimore lot belongs to the B&O Railroad Museum, which bills itself as “the birthplace of American railroading.” This summer, it’s also the home of Baltimore dirt biking.

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“If we can use our space to help address the community need, then we will try to do so. In this case, we have this big space in our backyard,” said Kris Hoellen, executive director of B&O. “That’s perfect for our back parking — perfect for dirt bike riders. And we’re not using it right now.”

The location is just a stopgap through September. But the partnership comes after years of stalled efforts and renewed calls to address the public safety problem of dirt bike riding in streets, community need for safe spaces to ride and concerns over the sport bringing youth into the criminal justice system.

A mayoral task force’s recommendations to review dirt-bike laws and consider a city-backed dirt bike park came to naught two years ago, after the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh. A 2019 report evaluating youth diversion in the city also recommended that the city consider building a dirt bike park.

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B-360, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and the Baltimore Police Department partnered this spring to create a diversion program for adults charged with dirt bike and other minor violations.

B-360 founder and CEO Brittany Young is leading the call for a permanent site. She’s been investigating locations and making national media appearances to drive attention to the issue. She said she plans to launch a campaign this fall to raise funds for a bike park.

Young and other advocates want to make dirt bike riding more equitable by creating a safe environment. As a society, “we create a space” for activities, such as skateboarding or bicycling, Young said, pointing to examples such as Skatepark of Baltimore.

Though illegal, dirt biking has been embedded in Baltimore’s culture for decades and was a central aspect of the 2020 movie “Charm City Kings.” While riders view it as a sport, critics point to its dangers: The death of two riders in a crash 21 years ago spurred efforts to outlaw it; riders sometimes perform stunts in traffic; and as recently as May, footage was posted online of riders doing wheelies in crowded Fells Point.

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Young said her organization has worked with more than 7,000 young students and hired 36 young-adult riders. But the need is greater: She said, “More people ride in the streets.”

Four years ago, Pugh launched a Dirt Bike Task Force to “consider long-term solutions to the illegal and dangerous dirt-bike riding on our city streets — including the creation of a dirt-bike track in the city.” The panel was led by then-Strong City Baltimore CEO Karen Stokes and then-Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III and included Young, dirt bike advocate Rashad Staton and representatives of city agencies and groups.

The group in 2018 recommended reviewing laws that ban dirt biking, investigating options for a riding space and supporting programs like B-360, according to documents Staton shared with The Baltimore Sun.

But the recommendations were not enacted, and the task force folded when Pugh resigned in 2019 amid a federal investigation.

Baltimore Police in 2016 had formed its own Dirt Bike Task Force to investigate dirt bike-related crimes, The Sun reported. It was disbanded last year, department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge wrote in an email.

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Police may not chase bikers, but they can seize unlocked bikes they can see. It is illegal to operate a dirt bike on public or private property in Baltimore City. Eldridge did not immediately respond over the holiday weekend to questions about the B-360 operation at the B&O property; Young said she does not have a partnership with BPD.

The office of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott did not answer specific questions The Sun raised about support for building a facility. But spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis on Friday released a statement:

“Dirt bikes have long been a part of Baltimore’s unique culture,” she wrote in an email. “The Mayor will continue to engage the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, [Baltimore Police Department] and community organizations like B-360 to develop a coordinated approach that prioritizes public safety.”

Community leaders and advocates said developing a park is long overdue — the city should look at ways to better respond to communities’ needs rather than policing them.

The new diversion program through the State’s Attorney’s Office is open to adults facing dirt bike and traffic violations and nonviolent charges. Those who qualify can complete 20 hours of B-360 programming and have their cases dismissed.

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“We are trying to connect people to services to educate them about the dangers and challenges of dirt bikes. … These types of collaborations are important as we continue to reimagine public safety,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a news release.

So far, two people have completed the program, Young said.

Young’s goal is a campus that will house B-360′s educational programs, provide indoor and outdoor space to ride, attract tourists and host races.

She said the city government alone can’t solve many of Baltimore’s issues, so she’s asking leaders to partner with organizations like hers.

“City government can equip itself to work with organizations like mine,” she said. “We are taking the charge of leading the campaign because we know what the city needs.”

B-360 is exploring public and private spaces. The mayoral task force had listed three city-owned tracts as possibilities: 28 acres at the Bocek Sanitation site, 39 acres at Fort Armistead and a site on Braddish Avenue. It is unclear whether those are among the locations Young is eyeing.

“I don’t want to give away the location yet because we haven’t done the work yet,” Young said.

B-360 has not yet launched its campaign to raise funds, which Young expects to attract through grants, crowdfunding, corporate support and other means.

“We have completed a feasibility study showing we could raise upwards of $5M toward building the space, maintaining it and operating it,” Young said in a text.

Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, pointed to the demographics of Baltimore’s dirt bike riders — largely Black males — among reasons money has not been allocated to develop a park. If the sport were dominated by white youth in Canton, he argued, resources would have been invested already.

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“I’m not saying [race] is the sole reason, but if we’re being honest about it, it is one of the factors we have to address,” Harris said.

Local government should try to be solution-focused, he said, rather than looking at how to effectively police riders. He also encouraged the city to study whether the infamous Highway to Nowhere can be used as a dirt bike park.

“Do a serious evaluation on how we can provide opportunities for young people who ride bikes to have a safe place … [and] make sure it’s something that works for all citizens of Baltimore,” he said.

Where B-360 riders congregate now is the lot the B&O normally rents to tour buses, said the museum’s Hoellen. B&O officials appreciate how Young uses children’s passion for dirt bikes to connect them to STEM topics, she said.

“Since conventions [and other events] have not returned yet, we thought a good use would be for B-360 and have leased it to them through September for free,” she said.

B-360 is responsible for the members’ safety, Young said; members must sign a waiver to participate.

On a recent Saturday, riders arrived around 10 a.m. There was enough space to ride and not collide.

Several bikers — including Daron Harrell, 14, Damon Ray-Harrison, 14, and Mike Carter Jr., 23 — said a park would give them a safe place to practice.

“If we go to the streets, they say we’re criminals,” said Harrell, an aspiring mechanical engineer who appeared on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” in April to talk about dirt bike riding. “When we’re riding, we’re family.”

Ray-Harrison agreed. B-360 has taught the aspiring engineer about 3D printing, coding and how to fix a bike, he said. Depending on his schedule, he tries to ride with B-360 every weekend.

The city doesn’t acknowledge dirt bike riding as a sport, said Carter, a B-360 mentor. Bikers are referred to as criminals and endangerment to the community, he said.

“We’re not trying to do that. We’re just trying to ride and be free — take out any problems that we might be going through,” Carter said, adding other sports have courts. “Why are we in the streets?”

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