Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Walnut Grove Road Construction Sends The Wrong Message About Memphis

These are exciting days in U.S. cities as they embrace “green strategies” from retrofitting public buildings so they use renewable energy to green construction codes to the major expansion of parkland to the purchase of energy efficient government vehicles.

But, here, we can’t even get a bike lane on Walnut Grove Road entering Shelby Farms Park.

If there was ever a poster child for the public sector’s obsession with the automobile, this is it.

If there is a project that feeds the stereotypes of government as indifferent to the public’s opinion, lacking in vision, and gerrymandering the process to eliminate any options it doesn’t like, this is it.


It’s too bad, because this massive road and bridge construction project could have heralded a new spirit in Memphis traffic engineering, much as Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes has used improvements to Houston Levee Road to launch a more thoughtful type of road design for county government.

As the Walnut Grove Road “improvement” project stands today, Memphis is setting itself up to be the laughing stock in the family of major cities that are gearing up to make it safer and easier for bikers to move around their communities.

There is a national movement under way in which bike friendliness is not just seen as the attitude of a progressive city, but it’s a fundamental part of the green ethos that is dividing cities into winners and losers. While we are still trying to cajole traffic engineers into even considering the needs of bikers, other cities are requiring bike lanes in every transportation project, they are building shower and storage facilities for cyclists, and they are passing pro-bicycling ordinances.

In a sign of the times, the number of cyclists has increased fourfold in only a decade in Portland, it’s doubled in San Francisco, and even cities in the hinterlands like Louisville and Minneapolis are adopting tactics to encourage bike riding as a means to bring activity to their downtowns and urban neighborhoods and to attract young, professional workers that every city covets these days.

Listening To What Matters

If you don’t think this matters, you haven’t listened to the best and the brightest recruited to Memphis as part of Teach for America and to work as postdoctoral research fellows at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They speak in one voice, decrying the lack of alternative transportation and attention to bikers, signs for them of a major league city and a city looking to the future.

Despite what the engineers may think, this does actually factor into the equation about whether they will remain in Memphis or not, because it sends a message that Memphis is unfriendly to younger people, lethargic and stuck in time. Meanwhile, places like Chicago send a powerful message when it builds a $3 million downtown bike station (funded with federal funds and privately-operated) and becomes as magnet for young, highly-educated workers.

Even the Republican-dominated Congress recognized this, voting in 2005 to increase pedestrian and cycling funding by 35 percent – to $4.5 million. Even some Community Development Block Grant funds are allowed to be spent on “bicycle improvement projects.” Here, we get only lip service from MPO about alternative transportation options like biking and little else.

Progressive Cities

Progressive-minded cities are not only building miles and miles of bike paths, some are building bike boulevards where auto traffic is limited or nonexistent.

Somehow you think that if Phoenix – that paragon of sprawl and unplanned growth - can have more than 500 miles of dedicated bikeways, surely Memphis can get on board with the biking revolution.

But it’s not, and nothing makes the point more strongly than the Walnut Grove Road project. As we noted in our October 20, 2005, post, it’s all a bit too reminiscent of the Overton Park fiasco where traffic engineers were so hell-bent to do it their way that they ended up losing a federal lawsuit.

From the beginning of the Walnut Grove Road project, the city engineer’s office made no provisions for bike lanes, and when forced to consider them, it dragged its feet and seemed determined to conducts a process that would ratify what it had already decided. As an indication of the parallel universe that exists when it comes to road construction, consider the in a letter MPO to questions about this project. It cited the minutes of the November 17, 1994, design hearing for the road project.

Living In The Past

“Based on a review of the minutes, there were no concerns expressed by the public with regard to bicycle facilities,” the MPO said in a letter written December 27, 2006. In other words, the lack of bike lanes is our own fault, because no one thought to mention it 12 years ago when we had the chance.

If only we were clairvoyant enough in 1994 to predict the growing environmental consciousness, the need for alternative transportation, the suffocating public debt caused by sprawl and the growing groundswell of support for making Shelby Farms Park the centerpiece of a “green strategy” that would result in national prominence for Memphis.

Because we didn’t have this kind of foresight 12 years ago, it appears that in the future if we want to visit Shelby Farms Park, we’d better drive our cars. At this point, a bike rider pedaling east on Walnut Grove will have to take a two-mile detour to get into the park. It reminds us of those studies about city planners’ efforts to make pedestrians walk on specified sidewalks, but instead, people preferred the most direct routes, creating a path through the grass where a sidewalk eventually had to be placed.

Anyone in their right minds must know that bicyclists anxious to get into Shelby Farms Park aren’t going to weave all over the neighborhood when they can take the direct, quickest route into the park – along Walnut Grove Road. And when that first bicyclist is hit by a car, be ready for city government to blame the victim, despite the fact that for two and a half years, bicyclists and Shelby Farms Park Alliance officials have tried to get the city engineer to allow bikes and pedestrians to have their own paths to enter the park.

Engineering Out The Public

In early, 2005, City Engineer Wain Gaskins told the Friends of Shelby Farms that adding a bike path to the Walnut Grove bridge over Wolf River was impossible. After pressure from grassroots activists and help from Shelby County Government and Tennessee Department of Transportation, the city hired an engineering firm to design a bike path and reached agreement on a dedicated 10-foot bike path on the north side of the bridge. However, in August, Friends of Shelby Farms Park learned that the bike path would not continue west on Walnut Grove Road.

For about the next year, frustration built as a result of the feelings of manipulation, but finally, in July, 2005, TDOT and the city engineer’s office began a bike study for the area, and a bike and pedestrian committee was convened to advise the process. About the same time, Friends of Shelby Farms Park (now Shelby Farms Park Alliance) hired its own consultant to do an independent bike and pedestrian study.

The conclusion: Walnut Grove Road would be “openly hostile to bikers and pedestrians.” The report makes some simple, inexpensive changes to the road design to accommodate a bike lane.

In January, 2006, TDOT says that the construction schedule for Walnut Grove Road would not preclude adding a bike lane if the study indicates that it is possible. Three months later, in April, five alternative concepts for bike facilities are released, and bikers endorse the option for a bike lane.

Killing The Competition

In June, while the Bike and Pedestrian Committee was being assured that the bike lane would be explored further, curbs, gutters and sidewalks were constructed on Walnut Grove Road, immediately eliminating some major options for a bike lane. For some reason, although the road project is eight months ahead of schedule, it seemed imperative that the curbs, gutters and sidewalks be laid right then.

About the same time, the consultant for the Shelby County Parks Master Planning Committee, Alex Garvin, said that bike and pedestrian access into Shelby Farms Park is critical to the ultimate success of the park. After learning in September that Memphis had made a final decision on the bike lanes, park advocates met with the city engineer, the county engineer and a representative of TDOT to discuss bike and pedestrian options one more time.

A month later, on October 23, 2006, City of Memphis releases its preferred alternative. It excludes a bike lane on Walnut Grove Road, and ignores the suggestion that the traffic lanes could be narrowed to allow for it. At the same time, it is learned that the 10 feet wide multi-use path on the north side of the bridge will be 8.75 feet wide and may get narrower with construction of a retaining wall. Also, it’s learned that two light poles on the new Walnut Grove Road sidewalk will reduce it to a width that makes it impassable for bikes.

On November 8, a public meeting was scheduled in a location that seemed to have been selected for its inaccessibility, but 90 bike and pedestrian lane supporters attended to express their support for the lane entering the park. The response to their concerns came on December 7, when Memphis and TDOT issued its final report, and there was no bike lane into Shelby Farms Park.

Cynicism Becomes Reality

In the end, it’s hard for even the most cynical among us not to be surprised by the way the process unfolded. While it seemed to hold out the hope for solutions, all the while, the actual construction took options off the table and engineers returned to plans amazingly like the ones they started with.

Now, after two and a half years of seeking to have a voice in ensuring that Shelby Farms Park had pedestrian, handicapped, and bike access, the backers of a progressive design have refused to believe that you can’t fight City Hall. The question ultimately, however, is anyone in City Hall listening? If the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s hard to believe that anyone is.

Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly narrow view that seems institutionalized – the traffic engineer’s job is to build roads, not build communities; the traffic engineer’s job is to lay asphalt for cars, not build a network of alternative transportation options that could actually be the thread that binds together our city.

Streets For People

Meanwhile, these actions make us look more and more like a backwater city, as cities like Sacramento launch a “Complete Streets” campaign to redefine right-of-way as more democratic and not just the exclusive province of automobiles.

There, new bike lanes offer cyclists their own lanes, and money once spent on potholes now also pays for pedestrian, bike and handicap lanes. If there’s any question that a new day has dawned, Sacramento’s engineers have put up “Share the Road” signs with the logo of a bicycle reminding car drivers that they don’t own the roads any longer.

Best of all, Sacramento’s mayor won a vote for new transportation funding that included this simple statement: “Routine accommodation of bicycles and pedestrians shall be included in all transportation projects.”

That seems a day far, far away for us in Memphis, and apparently, you can only reach it by car.


Anonymous said...

If our leaders can overturn the explicit will of the voters, ignoring a mere groundswell is a cinch.

There's no doubt that voters can vote against progress when given the chance, but at least we'd know where we really stand rather than having bureaucrats and politicians and appointed leaders claim this special knowledge. We need a strong voter-initiated referendum system and a strong determination by citizens to demand the referendums' enforcement.

Also, anyone using the word "impossible" (as in "adding a bike path to the Walnut Grove bridge over Wolf River was impossible") should be immediately challenged. 99% of the time they're full of crap -- they don't want to do it and they'll hope you don't pry. Information is the enemy of "imposible".

Tying our city together with means other than cars could very likely break down some of our intra-city barriers.


Anonymous said...

Where did you get the idea that Minneapolis is in the hinterlands. The twin cities metro has 3 times the population of the Memphis metro. And yes, it is much more progressive than Memphis.

Smart City Consulting said...

One of the interesting things about blogs is that you can write 1500 words on a subject, and someone asks a question about the use of a single word that's sort of tangential to the whole point of the post. But, anyway, what I was trying to say, poorly, was that the interest in encouraging bicylists and bike lanes isn't just something that's bicoastal. It's happening in mid-America's cities. Too often, we tend to be dismissive of trends as being something they do in LA, San Francisco, Boston or New York. This one is spreading throughout the U.S. and we need to get ahead of the parade.

Anonymous said...

Last year while a Katrina evacuee in Memphis, I attended a city planning meeting concerning siting for the new I-69 bridge over the Mississippi River. At the time, I was the Mid-South coordinator of a ground truthing project for the Mississippi River Trail and we wanted to voice interest in a usable bike/ped crossing over the Mississippi (the current crossing is the narrow walkway on the I-55 bridge). As some readers may know, the old Route 66 "Chain of Rocks" bridge crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis has been converted to bike/ped use and we were advocating a similar use for the dismantled auto lane on the old railroad bridge (which still has usable supports in place for a deck outboard of the main superstructure).

When I inquired about the bike/ped access required in new federal transportation projects, you could have heard a pin drop. I could just imagine the wheels spinning in the heads of the engineers "what, cyclists want to cross the Mississippi too"??? Thus, I was not surpised by the conclusion to the Walnut Grove bridge bike lane.

I have biked in Shelby Farms Park and it did require driving there from Midtown and unloading the bike. Were there a bike path, I would have biked all the way there from Overton Park.

People of Memphis, yours is a beautiful city with tremendous potential. For the sake of your children, don't give in. Keep advocating for a walkable/bikeable community. It's not too late.

Larry Lagarde
Urging bicycling for recreation, commuting, health and a better future.

Anonymous said...

Larry, you're talking about using the Harahan road bridge supports? If so, awesome! Do you have any links to such a proposal, or who's leading the charge? I think this would an incredible recreational and tourist attraction.

Also, I love Route 66 and have lots of books and videos about it. They're dated, so they showed the "Chain of Rocks" as abandoned which I thought was a waste -- why can't people walk over it? I'm very glad to see they've made this transformation.

Anonymous said...

Require bicyclists to license their "vehicles" the way I am required to license mine (aother form of taxation). then let's discuss sharing the roadways.

Web said...

Since I migrated back to New Orleans, I've been out of the loop regarding a safer routing for the MRT over the Mississippi at Memphis. The railroad bridge is a natural though. It's just a few feet from the end of the linear trail along the bluff. Railroads can be difficult to work with though and that bridge is still heavy with rail traffic.

As to sharing the roads, wake up, motorists! Except for the interstate, cars are required to share the road with bicycles. It's not like cyclists need wide, separate lanes everywhere.

Walnut Grove has excessively high traffic. Parents would love to go for a bike ride from places in Midtown to Shelby Farms but vehicular traffic makes this unsafe.