I was selected as a finalist for the USA TODAY College Correspondent Program. This is the piece I submitted to them about livability issues in Memphis.The criteria was that it had to be an article that would be of interest to a college audience. I did not make it in to the program, but I am still a contributing writer to the USA TODAY College section.
“Young Americans Want Livability, Memphis Bicycling Advocates Push for Progression
- 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,“ says Wagenshutz.
“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.”