Memphis, TN—Joined by a group of volunteers, Sarah Newstok grabbed a
paint roller and coated green bike lanes herself in a Midtown historic
arts district, just to exhibit how bike lane made it more vibrant and
accessible than ever. That was two years ago, when strong bicycle
advocacy began in Memphis for a more livable city.
“We have a long way to go but we are making progress. Other cities
have provided (bike facilities) for their residents for years, and we
have many challenges as we catch up, ” says Sarah Newstok, program
director for Livable Memphis—an organization that promotes productive living.
Memphis bicycle advocates know they need to get up to speed with
cities like Portland, Oregon—a cycling giant as far as city planning
goes with 324 miles of bikeways. Newstok and others fear that if Memphis
can’t catch up quickly graduates from local universities will continue
to scatter to communities with more urban efficient qualities.
“Serious law firms in Memphis will tell you that many professionals
will not come here to work because of the city’s livability. This is not
the kind of place where neighborhood parks are connecting or where you
can take a calm walk down the street without the idea of being hit by a
car,” says Anthony Siracusa, executive director of local Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton promised 55-miles of bike lanes by July
2012 after bicycle enthusiasts rallied outside city hall for transit
reform in the summer 2010. The rally was prompted by a Federally funded
street repaving project in which city engineers failed to put bike lanes
into the original design plans.
Wharton agrees bike facilities are important to the city and are imperative to its long-term economic prosperity.
“Bike lanes are economically efficient because when people are
walking or biking by a store front they absorb more commercial appeal
than when driving past,” says Newstok.
According to a survey released by The Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, 81 percent of the region’s residents own a bicycle. Only half of those bike owners used them on a daily to weekly basis.
Memphis City bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, Kyle Wagenschutz, said
more community members, including recent college graduates, are seeing
the financial motive to walk and use bikes more. It’s just cheaper.
“A part of this is for involvement, but also it (more bicycling
facilities) is making our city a better place for the residents here,“
“What we have isn’t efficient and many people working minimum wage
jobs could be served better (by the city) with a low-cost,
pocket-friendly form of transportation.”
He admits, though, that the bike lanes alone won’t stem the flow of
young creative talent to other cities. Some are just looking for a
bigger urban experience in general.
But biking advocates believe that those simple stripes on a road
marking bike lanes can make a city better. With 30 miles completed of Mayor Wharton’s Bicycle Facility Program, MPO is working on more plans for bikeway connectivity around the city.
Ironically, because it is behind the times, Wagenschutz believes
Memphis has an advantage installing bicycle lanes decades after the
cities that were pioneers; now the city can learn from earlier designs
and engineering flaws which could make development easier.
After a few years, Memphis could have some the most efficient bike facilities in the U.S.
“We might be behind in implantation, but our mindset is not that far
behind. I feel good about where we are as a city and think we are
heading in the right direction for the future.”