It seems nowadays you aren’t truly a bike-friendly city until you’ve had your first civic dust-up over bike lanes. And by that standard, Memphis, Tennessee has arrived.
Last month, this mid-sized Southern city fought back challenges by business owners to install a bike lane on one of its main major commercial thoroughfares, Madison Avenue. That street was just the latest in Mayor A C Wharton’s ambitious plan to add 55 miles of bike lanes in just two years.
Business owners along Madison were firmly against it; some 65 signed a petition opposing the change and a small group even held a news conference to air their concerns. But Wharton held firm after a engineering study of the 1.5-mile thoroughfare said the road diet would only add a few seconds to car travel times.
While indicating that he was sensitive to the business-owners’ concerns, Wharton said, “As we’ve seen throughout Memphis and all over the country, bike lanes are encouraging people to be healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more supportive of locally owned small businesses.”
Memphis’ progressive campaign for bike-friendliness began with Wharton’s election in 2009. Sustainability issues had been a focus of Wharton’s in his previous role as the first African American chief executive of Shelby County, which includes Memphis. Upon throwing his hat into the mayoral race, Wharton made bike-friendliness a key platform of his campaign, according to the city’s Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz.
Wagenschutz says his nomination for the job by Wharton was a sign of just how serious Wharton was about bicycling. After all, prior to joining city staff, the 20-something Wagenschutz had been the director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop, a charity organization that provides affordable and reliable bicycles to city residents.
“He plucked me out of the picket yards and into City Hall,” said Wagenschutz.
Wharton issued his 55-mile challenge in the summer of 2010, saying the plan “is critical to the livability and health of our city.” Since that time, the city has been making laudable strides toward that goal. According to its bike planner, the city now has 30 miles of bike lanes, 70 miles of shared roadways and 40 miles of multi-use paths.
Chad Terry of Bike World bike shop in suburban Collierville applauded the mayor’s efforts, saying, “It’s definitely making people a lot more aware of biking and cyclists.”
Greater Memphis Shelby Farms Greenline, a multi-use path, has been a particularly attractive to new cyclists, said Terry.
“We’ve seen people who have fixed up old bikes or bought new bikes to ride it,” he said. “Memphis has definitely come a long way in the number of cyclists on the roads.”