Real Talk: Why the Mayor of Memphis Is Building Protected Bike Lanes

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

While the Green Lane Project team was interviewing smart people around the country for our new video about the rise of protected bike lanes, we asked Mayor AC Wharton of Memphis why he’s been such a supporter of protected bike infrastructure in a city that, before he came to office, didn’t have a single bike lane.

Though it didn’t make it in the final video, our favorite moment from this conversation is in the short video clip above, when Wharton took a moment for some Real Talk about the tradeoffs he faces as an allocator of civic resources.

There is enough real estate in our core city. The infrastructure’s already there. Why further tax yourself by trying to extend infrastructure, sewers, schools, whatever, into areas rather than just take advantage of the beautiful facilities and the beautiful land that you have already? … It is much more cost-feasible for me to fix up Broad Avenue, Madison, with some stripes on the pavement, protected bike lanes, than it is for me to go way out somewhere, put in sewers, street lights, have garbage pickup, all this stuff. So it bodes well for our citizens and their health — both physical and emotional — but it also bodes well for the finances of the city.

The tax rolls show that Wharton’s theory has paid off. Modest public investments in bike infrastructure on Broad have not only unlocked generous philanthropic support, they’ve stimulated private investment in a neighborhood that’s been suffering disinvestment ever since highways cut it off from its surroundings.

Wharton is a great spokesman for this Strong Towns-influenced way of thinking about city finances because he puts it in such clear, concrete terms while never losing sight of the non-financial benefits that biking brings. Anyone looking for ways to talk about the benefits of protected bike lanes, and urban investments in general, could probably learn a lot from his style and his substance.

Video interviews by Laura Crawford and Russ Roca. You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.