Memphis: Shifting Gears in the Bluff City

August 22, 2012

Anthony Siracusa

In the spring of 2012, Memphis, Tennessee was honored to be named one of 6 cities participating in the Green Lane Project, a national effort to engineer, plann and implement protected bicycle lanes across the United States.  Many of the Green Lane Project Cities have been and remain dedicated to the development of innovative bicycle infrastructure; San Francisco was among the first cities to develop green bike lanes – literally bike lanes painted green to draw attention to treacherous junctures within their bike lane network.  Washington D.C.’s 15th Street cycle track, a two-way bike path separated from automobile traffic by a buffer of flexible bollards, was one of the first protected bike lanes opened in the United States.  Last year, the city of Chicago developed one of the finest lengths of protected bike lanes in the United States along Kinzie St., and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has committed to the construction of 100 miles of protected bike lanes within the next four years.  In the next three years, Mayor Emmanuel wants every Chicagoan will be within a half mile of a bike lane.

Memphis in Context?

In some ways, the city of Memphis is very unique when seen beside the other five Green Lane cities.  Besides Washington DC (which sits just below the Mason-Dixon line), Memphis is the only city in the American South.  It is also the poorest of the six cities.  According to the 2010 United States census, the average median income for a family in Memphis is $36,473.  Chicago is the next closest city with an average income of $46,877.  San Francisco families earn the most of out of all 6 Green Lane cities with an average family income of $71,304.  Memphis also has, arguably, experienced the most dramatic bicycling turnaround.  While each Green Lane city maintains a profound commitment to support more people bicycling more often, Memphis’ commitment to providing safe places for people to bicycle has arrived rather recently and taken form quite quickly.  In 2007, Memphis didn’t have a single mile of bike lane, a distinction that led Bicycle Magazine to declare that Memphis was among the “worst cities for bicycling” in both 2008 and 2010.

?Shifting Gears?

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., elected to serve as Mayor of Memphis in October of 2009, became the catalyst for a community-led effort to dramatically change the city.  In July of 2010, Mayor Wharton committed to building 55 miles of bike lanes — 35 of which have been completed.

A few months later, in October of 2010, Memphis and Shelby County built the 6.5 mile Shelby Farms Greenline, the city’s largest and most popular trail project to date.  The greenline has boosted citywide enthusiasm for walking and biking among Memphians, and this month, the Shelby County Commission voted to extend the path by 4.5 miles. ?

The Shelby Farms Greenline ties into the Wolf River Greenway, a bicycle and pedestrian path funded by the City of Memphis in 2007 that will connect downtown Memphis to Shelby Farms Park in East Memphis along 22 miles of riverside greenway. ?

In June of 2012, Memphis won a Transportation Innovation Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that will, along with private funding, establish a bicycle and pedestrian crossing of the Mississippi River.  By 2015, downtown Memphis will be connected to West Memphis, Arkansas by protected bike lanes and greenway space. ?

And, as the city’s signature Green Lane project, the City of Memphis will connect the Shelby Farms Greenline to midtown’s old-growth forest in Overton Park along 1.5 miles of two-way protected bike path.

Memphis’ turnaround has been a dramatic one, and every day the city takes a significant step forward.  Follow the Green Lane Project Blog in the coming weeks to learn more about how business leaders, advocates, and city officials collaborated to design the country’s first two-way cycle track on a two-way street, a model of shared civic leadership that has led Memphis to become the most improved city for bicycling in the United States.

See all Protected Bike Lanes blog entries

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