‘But it’s not a skateboard’

Fans say it’s eco-friendly, cops say it’s risky. The fight over longboarding.

Josh Dehaas
'But it's not a skateboard'
Photograph by Liam Richards

Bradley Charles, 21, was killing time one day last summer near the Saskatchewan River in downtown Saskatoon, riding his longboard up and down a gentle hill on a concrete path, when two police officers wrote him a $15 ticket for skateboarding in a prohibited zone. “But this isn’t a skateboard,” he protested. “It’s a longboard.” Unlike the similar-shaped skateboard that’s mainly used for airborne tricks, a longboard looks like a surfboard on wheels, stretching 90 to 150 cm, making it unable to ever leave the ground. They ticketed him anyway, citing a bylaw meant to keep skateboarders from scuffing up city property while doing tricks.

Now Charles, who says the longboard was his only mode of transportation at the time, is lobbying his local government to exclude the metre-long cousin of the skateboard from existing skateboard bylaws. He says he’d even support a law that requires helmets and speed limits, as long as he’s allowed to ride. But while the city asked for a staff report looking into legalizing longboards two years ago, no report has yet come forward, and in August, the council decided to extend the skateboard ban to an additional area of downtown.

Cities from Fredericton, N.B., to White Rock, B.C., are facing a growing number of petitions from longboarders like Charles, who argue that their boards are an eco-friendly mode of transportation and safer than regular skateboards: their length and bigger wheels make them more stable, and the greater distance between the front and back wheels means it’s impossible for the board to leave the ground.

All this also makes them appealing to people “in all walks of life,” according to Pat Allard, manager of Hogtown Extreme Sports in Toronto, where sales of longboards have roughly tripled in the past five years.

“I’ve sold them to people from age six all the way to 50.”

But the boards’ growing popularity has been coupled with more attention from police. In White Rock, police recently issued a press release saying they will ticket longboarders for riding on streets and sidewalks following the death of Glenna Evans, 27, in nearby North Vancouver in July. The art student was struck and killed by a van while longboarding down a mountain street at a high speed. Evans, whose blog posts included pictures of wide gashes on her knees from falls, was a competitor in “downhill” races—like the one at Mount Washington near Campbell River, B.C., in late August, where racers hit speeds over 100 km per hour.

White Rock Mayor Catherine Ferguson says longboards are a safety issue not only for children who try downhill stunts, but also for drivers and pedestrians. “We have a large demographic of seniors,” Ferguson adds. Some have told her they’ve been frightened by skateboarders on sidewalks or had near-misses when backing out of driveways. When she met with two dozen teenagers protesting enforcement of the skateboard law in August, she told them they should use the skate park in nearby Surrey, instead of city streets.

Ferguson’s comments reflect the very misconceptions about longboarders that Mike Nemeth, a 25-year-old engineer, is trying to fight. Nemeth is collecting signatures for a petition asking the city of Saskatoon to allow longboarding as a green mode of transportation. One misconception is that longboards are all owned by children, he says. Another is that longboarders can simply make use of skateboard parks; they can’t, he says, because they can’t do the kinds of tricks skate parks are designed for. Most importantly, he says, he, like many longboarders, has no interest in the kind of downhill longboarding that killed Glenna Evans. “What I do is just a leisurely sport, like a slow bike ride along a path kind of thing,” says Nemeth, who estimates he never goes faster than 20 km/h. “To compare what I do to downhill [longboarding] is like calling a toboggan a luge.”

Similarly, Ian MacDonald, 38, began circulating a petition this summer asking the city of Peterborough, Ont., to legalize longboarding—galvanized by a $65 ticket he received while riding to work. Boarding of any kind is illegal in all areas of the city, except for the lone skateboard park. “[The law] sends a message that alternative forms of vehicles are not acceptable,” he recently told the Peterborough Examiner. He’s already gathered 250 signatures.

Bradley Charles, who is helping Mike Nemeth with his petition, is hopeful that Saskatoon’s city council will be accommodating, so he can board to friends’ houses without having to deal with police. At least two councillors have already said they’re prepared to support changes to allow longboards for transportation, so long as city staff make that recommendation. “If people are running into pedestrians or damaging property, fine, ticket them,” says Charles. “But to just throw down a blanket rule and say, ‘You guys can’t have any fun here, or go from point A to point B, doesn’t make any sense.”