Bikeable Memphis???

26 Jan
Cyclists depart from the Pyramid in downtown Memphis to ride the Bluff City Blues 100 (Katherine Fisher, on Bicycling .com)

Cyclists depart from the Pyramid in downtown Memphis to ride the Bluff City Blues 100 (Katherine Fisher, on Bicycling .com)

Portland.  Minneapolis.  Davis.  Boulder.  New York.  San Francisco.  Seattle.  These are among the cities most people think of when they hear the phrase “bike-friendly cities in the U.S.”

As it strives to be truly bikeable, Richmond can learn a lot from all of these places.  But in some ways a place like Memphis, Tennessee might be a better comparison, even if Memphis is quite a bit larger too.

According to Bicycling.com, Memphis was named one of the worst cities for cyclists in 2008 and 2010.  Okay, so Richmond has never earned that dubious distinction, but one wonders what it might have done in terms of urgency to turn things around: after the second “last place” finish, Memphis’ mayor has taken big steps pretty quickly, such that it is now dubbed the most improved city for cycling.  Those steps have included hiring a bike-ped coordinator and installing around 60 miles of bike facilities, as well as taking the crucial step of adopting a complete streets policy that guides inclusion of bike and pedestrian facilities where streets are being constructed or redesigned.

So far this doesn’t sound radically different from Richmond’s initial efforts, although Memphis’ 60 miles include more actual bike lanes, they’ve been able to move faster in getting them installed, and they have that very-important complete streets policy in place.  So it doesn’t have to take that long to put some transformational infrastructure in place if the people at the top are fully behind it and willing to push to make things happen.

Memphis Mayor Wharton’s push, combined with the challenges of extensive sprawl and a high obesity rate, earned his city a place among a handful of cities participating in the Green Lane Project, an effort of Bikes Belong to “catalyze the creation of world class bicycle facilities in the U.S.”

Of course, this kind of progress does not come without some conflict.  A piece in the New York Times explains that some downtown Memphis business owners have not seen the negative impact they feared from a bike lane they initially opposed.  But folks in a residential neighborhood where on-street parking was taken away for a bike lane are pushing to have the lane removed again — even after the bike-ped coordinator compromised by making it a “Cinderella” lane that disappears at night (when parking on it is allowed).  The Times article points out that residents became disgruntled in the first place because they felt they had not been heard, so one wonders if they would have been less cranky if they had been consulted early on.

One last and especially important lesson is what Memphis has done to use bike facilities to help rejuvenate a struggling commercial districts.  In the League of American Bicyclists’ monthly publication, the city’s bike-ped coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz describes an event called “A New Face for an Old Broad [Avenue],” organized by a neighborhood association:

 Local cycling advocates and business leaders partnered to restripe the street with protected bike lanes, buffers, and green asphalt.  Community members set up temporary storefronts in vacant buildings, and celebrated the history and businesses along the street.

I really like this idea of putting low-cost versions of bike lanes etc. in place to give people a taste, and show what it can do for an area.  Since the event, Wagenschutz reports, donors have provided funds to make this infrastructure permanent and extend it further, and the area has seen a lot more investment, with 10 new businesses having opened up.

I could easily imagine something like this for the two blocks of Grace Street west of the performing arts center, or the blocks of Broad Street that still have more vacant than occupied properties.

So, if the goal becoming a smaller Portland of the east coast seems a bit much, how about a smaller version of Memphis?  We could do a lot worse.

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2 Responses to “Bikeable Memphis???”

  1. Tyler Potterfield January 27, 2013 at 10:16 PM #

    I think the more real places we can learn from the better. I hear great things about Madison too.

    • James Luggen January 29, 2013 at 12:51 AM #

      Madison was pretty awesome. They had a several mile track on the edge of the city, when I visited in 2011, that was used by cyclists and pedestrians of all sorts. Its was a very pleasant place to ride. the city also had tons of lanes and other bike friendly things that made it such a delight to be there. I would recommend taking a bike if you ever end up visiting.

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