Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Pedalling Our Way To Progress

Overheard in a Midtown restaurant: “Do you play ‘World of Warcraft?’” The reply: “Yes, I ride my bike in Memphis.”

It was humorous, but also symptomatic of how far Memphis has to go to get the fundamentals right, the kind that attracts new talent, new jobs, and new investments in other cities.

Not too long ago, bicyclists suggested a bucolic lifestyle not too far removed from the past. Today, the bike-friendliness of a city is a “marker” for college-educated, 25-34 year-old professionals as they decide where to live and work.

Pedaling For Progress

From 2000-2006, Memphis lost 14,508 people in this demographic, speeding up a skid that began in the 1990’s with a decrease of 6,814. This is the age group determining if cities succeed in the knowledge economy. They are the most educated, the most entrepreneurial, and the most mobile generation in history, and every city wants them.

Because jobs follow them, they are the gold standard for cities. In a CEOs for Cities poll, they said they want to live in a city that is clean, green, safe, and a place where they can live the life they want to live (translation: a city that is tolerant and with options).

In Portland, Oregon, the new mayor, Sam Adams, literally rode into office on a bicycle and a platform of sustainability that was pioneered by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who transformed his city into a world leader of “green” policies. He added a lattice of bike paths as he moved toward his goal of making “Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.”

Engineering Danger

If Portland and Chicago are setting the pace in the marathon for talent (as their mayors commute to work), Memphis brings up the rear as the irresistible force of cycling runs headlong into the immovable object that is the city engineer’s office.

The monument to its myopia is the new Walnut Grove Road bridge over Wolf River entering Shelby Farms Park, whose destiny, according to its supporters, is to become “America’s great 21st century park.” Cyclists – not to mention pedestrians – engage in one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives if they dare to peddle or walk into the park.

Amazingly, the $36 million project at the front door of the park is a cars only project. Long-time Shelby Farms Park activist Art Wolff – who was instrumental in saving the park from commercial development three decades ago - filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of “an engineering arrogance that builds a city for cars, not people.”

From A Hobby To A Movement

It’s the public works version of the police residency controversy, because they raise basic questions. If Memphis can’t find 200 people to work as police officers, how can it find several hundred people to work in the UT-Baptist Research Park soon to come out of the ground? If Memphis can’t get bike lanes right, how can it create the quality of life needed to attract and retain talent?

Bicycling magazine already calls Memphis one of the three worst cities for cycling in the U.S. and cites the Walnut Grove bridge as the poster child for a “bureaucracy (that) has repeatedly ignored or rejected requests from bike clubs, shops, and other organizations for facilities.”

And yet, despite frustrations and against all odds, cycling is moving quickly from being a group of enthusiasts to becoming a community of activists, and in doing so, it is becoming the active, vocal force for change in Memphis as it is in other cities.

Bikes: A Measure Of Livability

One leader of the new movement, the ebullient Anthony Siracusa of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop, grasps the significance of bicycles as vehicles for community change. In his view, cycling is a key indicator of a city’s livability and democracy, and he is encouraged about the new momentum.

He said that there is a “new shift in leadership opinion,” citing Sustainable Shelby as a catalyst and pointing to its new biking strategies, the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s growing understanding that its job is about more than cars, and yes, even city engineering’s intentions to add a budget line item for biking improvements.

“Cities that promote cycling also are cities that seem to take care of their people and have great quality of life,” Siracusa said. “People are moving out of Memphis. We have to reconsider business as usual. It’s no longer a matter of whether cycling is a priority. It’s now a necessity. There’s not an option anymore, because this is about more than cycling. It’s about making Memphis a livable city.”

And that, in the end, will determine if Memphis’ future is as a successful talent and job magnet.

This was previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column.


Anonymous said...

check out the bike rental program in Paris and tell why we can't have the exact same company do that in Downtown memphis

Zippy the giver said...

You won't get an argument from me that Memphis is a warzone created by a bunch of narccissistic megalomanioacs with obvious mental disorders ranging from paranoia to xenophobia.

Sinews of thy heart said...

The city of Memphis and the surrounding suburbs need to act on the bicycle issue now. It will increase the city's health profile and safety. How many times have you driven the roadways of the greater Memphis area and come across a bicyclist? It always seems to happen to me during rush hour traffic on Wolf River Boulevard or other similarly curved roads. It is unbelievable there are not more deaths each year.
It will rid the road of bikers while allowing them to practice their hobby. As Mr. Jones said in the original posting, it will drastically improve the image of our city. Memphis is in need of a positive boost. Once the plan is finished, our city can make the national news for something other than a homicide.

Anonymous said...

>>>why we can't have the exact same company do that in Downtown memphis

Repeat after me: "Humidity." "Summer." "Hot." "Humidity." "Perspiration." "Humidity."

Memphis will never be a huge biking town, as sure as it will never be a beach town. Take that one to the bank.

steve said...

Yes, Memphis is hot and humid.

Having said that, Minneapolis is cold and snowy, yet bicycle lanes are plowed and cleared as well as the streets. And, hard to believe, but bikes up here use snow tires in the winter, and people ride to work in January.

All an innovative company in Memphis needs is showers and a changing room. Just look at your ride to work as another sweaty workout--and you shower and change after those workouts.

Zippy the giver said...

Repeat after me, "different type of ride, different type of rider, different support, healthier workers are more productive during the time they work"
Take THAT to the bank when you clear the clots out of your heart.
Memphis doesn't have ti be a belligerent fat-ass type of town.


Memphis will never be a bike town? take that to the bank?"
Where is your language is anything in those statements anything to take to a bank, the statements are bankrupt on many levels.
Descriptive language of the dead.
Try generative language, it works better,it's where you come up with something even if you shoot someone down. You might have a workable idea, don't take it because mine get shot down, (even though they are exactly what is officially being discussed right now because they are accurate) that you will also get shot down.
Maybe Memphis will be a better place for it. Maybe you will be in a position to even claim credit for your idea. Who knows.

Dan said...

Hello Folks. I operate a local bicycle shop that recently moved downtown. Some of you know who I am as others do not. I have been in the local bike biz for @ 15-16 years. You can only imagine the insight I receive through conversations with customers and travelers about cycling in other cities that have incredible bicycle routes that take you cool places in cities like Montreal, Amsterdam, Chicago, Portland, Austin, Washington, D.C., and more. I have had hundreds of these conversations if not thousands. Folks, we just recently got our first stripes. But, a grander project with greater progress is emerging in the former of the Memphis Greenline. Amazing Grace! I live very close to the V&E and realize the HUGE significance of the GMG. You build it and they will come...

By the way... we now rent bicycles.