When you think "urban sports" do you picture city kids playing basketball or runners on a track around a city park? Sure, those are sports happening in urban areas, but true urban sports tend toward the more extreme, and some might end with you and your friends getting slapped with a citation or a fine or even in handcuffs.
Urban sports enthusiasts tend to be in it for the adrenaline rush, and some of these activities don't even have clear winners and losers. They can be about pushing yourself to the limit, making a little bit of cash, or just plain seeking entertainment. What urban sports have in common is that they tend to be underground activities, and participants sometimes run into trouble with local law enforcement.
In this article, we'll look at a whole range of urban sports, from the well-known (like skateboarding) to the obscure (like drainboating). Which ones can land you in the slammer and why?
As the popular bumper sticker says, "Skateboarding is Not a Crime," and many cities have skate parks where skateboarders can get together to practice tricks or just mess around on their boards. It's outside of designated areas where you sometimes skate the line between legal and illegal.
Different states have different laws about skateboarding in public places. Some towns allow you to skate on the sidewalk, as long as you're not doing tricks or anything else that could be considered reckless. Other cities ban skateboarding in public areas altogether.
In New York City, for example, skating "recklessly" on the sidewalk is illegal [source: Willis]. But riding on the sidewalk (or most public roads) at a low speed is OK. Meanwhile, cities like San Francisco make it illegal to skate on the sidewalk at all, and skaters can get a traffic violation for doing so [source: SF Appeal]. It's also illegal in San Francisco to skateboard in the street!
Skateboarding laws are usually health- or traffic-related and sometimes distinguish between using your board as transportation or for recreation [source: FindLaw]. The idea is that if you're using your skateboard to commute to work, you're behaving very differently than if you're trying to perfect your grind on a stairway railing.
There are also liability concerns about skateboarding on private property. If you fall while doing an ollie in a shopping center, you can sue the shopping center [source: FindLaw]. Not only can skateboarding on private property be a liability concern, but the law considers it a public safety issue, and some towns have gotten stricter about enforcement. In Fallbrook, Calif. in 2008, police began cracking down on skateboarders in shopping centers, saying that shoppers couldn't walk safely on the sidewalks because of skateboarders [source: Ramsey].
Parkour (aka free running) is an extreme urban sport that's all about getting from point A to point B, no matter what stands in your way [source: StreetParkour.com]. That can mean scrambling over walls, leaping between buildings, or jumping off a roof. Parkour has been influenced by buildering, an urban sport we'll talk about on the next page [source: Morrison].
Parkour itself is not illegal, but if you practice on private property, you can get cited, fined, or even arrested for trespassing, depending on local laws [source: StreetParkour.com]. It can be a high-risk activity, which is why in some situations a traceur -- someone who does parkour -- can end up in legal trouble. Sometimes, traceurs get off with a slap on the wrist while other times, they end up having to appear in court.
In Vienna, Va. in 2011, police and fire rescue had to help a stranded traceur get off of a restaurant roof. The police did not arrest the traceur, who was a minor, but they did hold him until they could release him into his mother's custody [source: Hendry]. Two Charleston, S.C. men were arrested in May 2012 for practicing parkour on a local bridge after they were banned from practicing the sport in downtown Greenville [source: Funderburg]. Firefighters rescued them after they got into trouble on the bridge, causing traffic delays for two hours. Police charged them with disorderly conduct, and they had to appear in court later that summer.
Think of buildering -- or urban climbing -- as rock climbing in an urban environment. Instead of scaling cliff walls, you're climbing up the sides of buildings [source: Urban Climbing]. Unlike parkour, the idea in buildering is not to leap from structure to structure to get to a destination. It's all about the climb and the view.
Buildering is gaining popularity right now in Russia, where climbers like 22-year-old Max Polazov break into buildings to photograph themselves doing dangerous stunts [source: Longbottom]. Here in the U.S., buildering has a long history going back to the first skyscrapers. The most well-known modern builderer is probably Alain Robert, a Frenchman who famously scaled the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sears Tower [source: Urban Climbing].
Urban climbing often involves breaking and entering or trespassing, which is why it is illegal. You can practice buildering with or without ropes, and for many, the illicit nature of the sport is part of the appeal [source: Wells]. Buildering and arrests seem to go hand-in-hand, with many prominent builderers like Robert sporting lengthy arrest records. He's been arrested more than 100 times and climbed more than 120 buildings in the U.S. and abroad [source: Hudson]. In fact, when Robert climbed the New York Times Building, the police were waiting to arrest him at the top [source: The Rock Shoes].
Remember the opening scene in Speed where Keanu Reeves rescues a group of people moments before the bad guy cuts the cables? Reeves pulled everyone to safety by climbing on top of the elevator and getting them out through the hatch at the top. Elevator surfing is sort of like that scene, but there's no evil Dennis Hopper character to run from.
Elevator surfing first became popular in the mid-1980s, and is most common among teens and college students [source: Kruszelnicki]. Surfers usually work as duos, with one person operating the elevator manually while the other person "surfs" on top of the car. To access the top, kids either climb through the hatch at the top, Keanu-style, or force elevator doors open while the car is between floors and jump on that way [source: Tom].
Elevator surfing is extremely dangerous, and people have died doing it. Some surfers try to jump between side-by-side elevators once in the shaft and fall, and others have been crushed to death when misjudging when to get out or when their partners couldn't stop the elevator in time [source: Kruszelnicki]. Because it's such a dangerous sport, many cities have banned it. At many colleges, like Mississippi State, elevator surfing is explicitly forbidden in the school's code of conduct, and can result in eviction from the dorms [source: Department of Student Housing].
Most of the time, running carries a pretty minimal risk for arrest. As long as you're out of the way of drivers and following the rules of the road (or participating in an officially sanctioned event that has all the right permits and permissions) you probably won't wind up on the wrong side of the law.
But the Hash House Harriers add a potentially volatile ingredient to the mix: beer. Reportedly started in Kuala Lumpur in 1938, hashing, as it's come to be known, started out as an effort to promote fitness, get rid of hangovers, and work up a thirst (then quench it with beer). To put it very simply, hashers run, and then they drink.
It's no big deal when done responsbily. But the blog of the Flagstaff (Rogue) Hash House Harriers boasts of everything from blocking traffic to breaking elevators. A hasher was arrested for trespassing at a hashing event in 2013 [source: Swanson].
When I was living in Fort Lauderdale, I used to head down to Miami to meet up with friends after my late shift at the coffee shop ended. I got off at 12:30 a.m., so by the time I was heading south on I-95, if was close to 1 o'clock in the morning. I can't tell you how many evenings I saw motorcycles illegally racing down that highway. When they approached me, they'd blow past me on both sides. It was terrifying!
Illegal street racing can take place on city streets or on highways, and it's extremely dangerous to participants, other drivers and pedestrians. A 2008 Maryland street race ended tragically when a driver plowed into a crowd of onlookers [source: AP]. It's also a nuisance for people in residential areas, because street racing is very loud, and races tend to happen late at night. High-speed racing can also damage the streets themselves because of the increased friction from so much quick acceleration and fast braking [source: CBS 2].
In most states, street racing is not only illegal, but is specifically defined in the speeding laws [source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]. It turns out that those racers who used to scare me on the highway in Florida risked their licenses being suspended as well as a maximum 90 days in jail and $500 fine if they were caught. Drag racing -- or "racing on the highway" as it's often called in legal codes -- is a misdemeanor in other states, such as Georgia, which imposes a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail, as well as license suspension [source: NHTSA].
Have you ever been intrigued by an abandoned building or decaying, empty lot? Urban exploration is all about exploring the man-made landscape, from buildings and tunnels to sewers, often photographing them [source: Barkham]. Because it often involves entering private property without the owner's permission, urban exploration can land you in jail.
Urban exploration crosses over to the illegal when explorers break into abandoned buildings to check them out without permission. It can be very dangerous, and not just because old buildings and tunnels can be structurally unsound. Because these old structures haven't been maintained, urban explorers put themselves at risk of coming into contact with contaminants like free asbestos and biohazards. The Ohio Exploration Society Web site has some handy tips on how to explore urban areas more safely.
Urban explorers also sometimes head underground for photo opportunities. This practice, called "drainboating" is basically subterranean urban exploring -- on a boat! Drainboaters make their way into underground tunnels and sewer systems with small, inflatable boats, then float through the underbelly of a city.
Not all urban exploration is illegal. Some consider visiting poorly-maintained historic sites urban exploration. It's all about witnessing and documenting the beauty of decay. You can also find out who owns the building or contact local authorities and request permission to enter the building or even ask for a tour [source: Ebaster].
What began as a bike messenger competition has grown into a popular urban sport for cyclists in general. Originally called alley cat racing, these events were held without permits and in city traffic. The object was to mimic the courier's day -- going to several destinations while figuring out the best route in the shortest time, by any means necessary.
Today, these races can be very organized and completely legal. There's even a Cycle Messenger World Championship. A documentary about the sport -- Line of Sight -- came out on DVD in winter of 2011. Racers meet at a predetermined spot and race from checkpoint to checkpoint, doing whatever they can to get there the fastest [source: Averill].
Even if the bike race is legal, the cyclists often do illegal things in the name of speed, like grabbing on to car bumpers, riding on the sidewalk (which is illegal in many cities), riding against the flow of traffic, and cutting through private property. Not to mention just riding recklessly. Stunts like hitching a ride on a taxi's bumper to get a speed boost can help racers pull ahead, but they're also very dangerous, which is why underground bike racers sometimes end up in jail.
When you think of train surfing, you might picture old timey hobos riding the rails during the American Great Depression, but modern train surfing is even more dangerous.
Train surfing first caught on in Germany in the 1990s, but after a slew of train surfing-related injuries and deaths, it fizzled in popularity. It started resurging in 2005 as kids shared videos of themselves train surfing on video sites like YouTube [source: Joel]. Because of the risk involved for surfers and passengers and the potential damage to property, train surfing is illegal in most countries.
Train surfers climb up the side of moving trains to "surf" the top of the train car, like Michael J. Fox did on the top of a van in "Teen Wolf." They sometimes also leap from car-to-car or hang on to the side of the train. This urban sport is popular all over the world, and participants risk injury or death from electrocution, falls, or getting crushed [source: RT]. There were 40 train surfing-related deaths in 2008 in Germany alone [source: Joel].
A U.K. teenager was hospitalized after riding on the outside of a train for 3 miles (4.8 kilpometers). He fell off when the train pulled into the station, suffering injuries to his head and back, as well as substantial blood loss. Earlier that same year, another U.K. teen got a four month referral order -- sort of like community service -- and had to pay £20 (U.S.$32) in damages for train surfing; officials in the U.K. have said that train surfing is dangerous and illegal [source: The Sun].
In some places, train surfing goes beyond sport to necessity. In Jakarta, where the poor can't always afford to buy tickets, and the trains are extremely crowded, riders will "surf" the top of a train just to get to and from work each day. Indonesian authorities have begun hanging concrete balls above train tracks to stop train surfers there [source: BBC].
BASE jumping is like buildering meets skydiving, although you don't have to be in a city to do it. BASE is an acronym that stands for buildings, antenna, span (bridge), Earth, and parachuting off of any of these qualifies as BASE jumping [source: Burnett]. Unlike skydiving, BASE jumps tend to happen from much lower altitudes, which makes deploying the parachute in time trickier and the sport much more dangerous than skydiving.
The sport is illegal in almost all cities, because the jumper risks seriously injuring himself and pedestrians or motorists when he lands. In many cases, BASE jumpers illegally access the high points from which they're jumping by breaking and entering or trespassing. Two BASE jumpers were arrested in St. Petersburg, Russia after jumping off of the Cathedral of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul in November 2011 [source: The Telegraph].
Two Nashville men were arrested for felony reckless endangerment after BASE jumping off of the Sheraton hotel building there in early 2012 [source: Parriott]. The men deployed their chutes in time and were headed to their truck when police arrested them.
Since the law on all these urban sports varies by city or country, it's best to check out local laws before venturing out. At least you should know what you're getting into before you leap.
Mountains are definitely not the only thing worth climbing. Learn more about the urban climbers scrambling up cranes, skyscrapers and even Corcovado.
Author's Note: 10 Urban Sports that Might Get You Arrested
As I mentioned earlier, the urban sport that I've had the most exposure to is drag racing. I've never raced, but I used to always cringe on the stretch of I-95 where motorcycle racers would pass me closely on both sides in the middle of the night.
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