Three weeks ago, I wrote that Memphis’ Municipal government was fundamentally rethinking community development. To move from being the worst city in the nation for bicycling just a few years ago to being a national leader is an indicator of this shift, a signal that it isn’t just our extraordinary Mayor and City Council who are taking a new approach to roads, buildings and neighborhoods. The commitment now spans the length of municipal government.
Memphis leaders are thinking in new ways, and our city’s recent innovation is owed – at least in part – to the Green Lane Project.
This week, City Engineer John Cameron, Deputy City Engineer Brad Davis, and Chief Administrative Officer George Little sat down with City of Memphis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz to discuss the importance of building a city that moves by bike. Each of these Memphis leaders participated in fact-finding tours this year with the Green Lane Project, and their experience and dialogue with other Green Lane cities deeply impacted their approach to urban development.
Tackling Big Challenges
“Memphis is a town that suffers from a lot of poverty, from high rates of obesity, and high rate of diabetes,” said Engineer John Cameron. “But bicycling provides an opportunity for a more active lifestyle. If we can make that convenient and safe for our citizens, we can provide transportation options for those who are impoverished, and we can provide opportunities for exercise and more active lifestyles for those who might have health issues.”
Deputy Engineer Brad Davis echoed the importance of making bicycling safe and convenient. “As one of the unhealthiest cities in America, bicycling helps us in so many different ways… It really just creates a whole new vibe for our city, and its been needed for quite some time.”
Chief Administrative Officer George Little cites the importance of the Green Lane Project in helping Memphis shift gears. “I think the Green Lane Project has had a profound impact on our thinking as it relates to biking and pedestrian traffic here in Memphis,” Chief Little told us.
“Memphis is a city of communities, and bicycling is not only an important part of getting people from here to there, but (it helps) to improve the health of our citizens, and frankly it makes Memphis more attractive as we look to make Memphis a City of Choice. We’re committed to making Memphis a safe environment for bicyclists, (and though) we’ve had our challenges, certainly there has been a pretty rapid transition in the past two or three years in terms of motorists awareness of bicyclists, the incorporation of bike lanes, and inviting communities into our design process. We’re committed to this for the long haul because we really see this as part of the future of Memphis.”
Since the summer of 2010, Memphis has built more than 70 miles of on-street bike facilities. Among its signature projects in the Overton Broad Connector.
“The Green Lane Project has directly aided us in one of our major on-street connections,” Director Cameron said, “which is the Overton Broad Connector. (This project) will connect many of our on-street facilities to off-street trails and an inner city park which is in the center of the city. That park (Shelby Farms Park) is going to become one of the hubs in our bicycle network…But beyond that, working with the other cities in the Green Lane Project has greatly aided us in better understanding what other cities are doing, what possibilities are out there to pursue as far as bicycling improvements, and what challenges they’ve had as they’ve implemented their system and how they’ve overcome them. And that’s been a perfect asset for us.”
“Certainly the kind of exchange of information and perspectives has been very, very useful to us. And the recent trip to the Netherlands – really having the opportunity to see something on the ground and how other nations – indeed other communities – have dealt with integrating bikes, pedestrians and motor vehicle traffic in a way that is fairly seamless. Whether it’s in the urban settings much like Memphis or perhaps other settings Green Lane has really helped to give us something concrete that we can get our arms around.”
Chief Little continues: “I think this has really helped in the short term to get us to re-think our agenda as we move forward. I would hope that we can share our experiences in the Green Lane Project not only with the few of us here in city government and the biking community but with the larger governmental community and the public such that maybe this awareness will re-shape what we’re doing in the city. Memphis is very different than the Netherlands…we’re spread out, we’re very car centric. But even with that we saw a lot and learned alot with the Green Lane Project as to how we can come up with solutions that make sense for Memphis, changing Memphis and making the city and the surrounding community more bike friendly.”
These city leaders aren’t waiting for tomorrow to put their new found inspiration to work.
In a Memphis Commercial Appeal article released this week, reporter Tom Charlier, Jr. wrote “the design for a planned traffic precinct building in Raleigh has long been finished, but City Hall is now going to change the plan to make it fit better for pedestrians, bicyclists and the surrounding neighborhoods.”
The quick changes to the building and surrounding streets surprised even the architect Michael Terry, who told the CA “we had finished the design and it has been bid and awarded and we are waiting for the contracts to be signed by the city, which will release the general contractor to begin construction.”
Austin Peay is the massive Memphis roadway adjacent to the planned building, and it’s marked by fast-food restaurants, high-interest loan businesses, and massive parking lots. This context was, for the municipality, a place where they might directly improve the neighborhood by creating a major development defined by access for people walking and people on bikes.
“Austin Peay represents both a challenge and an opportunity,” Chief Little told the CA. “Now it’s basically a raceway which doesn’t lend itself to people stopping and trading with the businesses that are there.”
City officials are hopeful that, by improving access for people walking and biking, the new development on Austin Peay might enhance the underutilized commercial district and improve traffic safety.
In Memphis, it’s become clear that local leaders believe the creative reactivation of vacant and underused spaces requires building excellent access for people on bicycles and people who walk, a commitment that has been forged in conversations with engineers, city managers and urban designers across the world thanks to the Green Lane Project.