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Posts from the "Memphis" Category

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Memphis Turns Two Highway Lanes Into a Car-Free Oasis By the Mississippi

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pfb logo 100x22 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.

Once you start thinking about new ways to use your city’s streets, you start to see opportunities everywhere.

That’s exactly what’s happened last weekend in Memphis, Tennessee, where half of a separated four-lane highway was converted into a safe, direct and stress-free walking and biking route along one mile of the Mississippi River. As we reported in March, Bluff City engineer John Cameron decided this spring to follow the recommendation of urban planning consultant Jeff Speck and experiment with a permanent new car-free space between downtown and the planned Harahan Bridge connection to Arkansas.

“Nothing separates downtown Memphis from its riverfront as powerfully as the current pedestrian-unfriendly condition of Riverside Drive,” Speck wrote in his 2013 report on ways to reconnect the city with the riverfront that created it.

No more. Thanks to years of temporary closures during the annual Memphis in May festival, the city knew nearby streets could absorb the auto traffic without much trouble. And in return, for the price of some plastic bollards and new street coloring, Memphis has opened one of the best streets in the mid-South for biking, walking, skating and playing.

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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.

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500+ Complete Streets Policies in Place, But Not the Most Important One

Complete streets invite people out of their cars by giving room to people on foot and on bike. Image: BikeStyle

This week, complete streets advocates came together in Washington, DC, to celebrate the passage of the 500th complete streets policy. That happened in Memphis more than seven months ago, but perhaps the delay in marking the occasion was fortuitous: There are now at least 25 more policies to celebrate.

Each of these policies is really just the beginning of a process of making change in how streets are designed. Those policies need to be implemented, and the idea of accommodating all street users — cyclists, transit riders, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs, children — needs to become second nature to city planners and engineers. Still, the beginning of 525 processes signals a true shift away from road design that’s exclusively for automobiles.

Complete streets policies have passed in 29 states (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico), 45 metropolitan planning organizations, 39 counties and 412 cities. That’s pretty good for a movement that started off eight years ago with a goal of policies in five states and 25 communities. Back then, the rallying cry was for “routine accommodation” of multiple transportation modes. Most people can agree that “complete streets” rolls off the tongue a little better.

Kyle Wagenschutz, Memphis’ bike-ped coordinator, can testify to the power of designing streets for everyone, even people who aren’t in cars. Broad Avenue in Memphis underwent a transformation in 2010 that was supposed to be temporary — a pop-up neighborhood revitalization under the banner “A New Face for an Old Broad” — but the street calming, bike lanes, public street furniture and sidewalk vendors were too good to take down. Since then, 25 new businesses have opened there and Broad Avenue has become one of the city’s most vibrant commercial areas.

That happened before the complete streets policy passed. It helped prove to the city the power of street design that encourages people to get out of their cars and bring a street back to life.

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Mixed Bag for Closely-Watched Local Transit Races

Last night delivered some good results — and some disappointment — for transit-related ballot initiatives around the country.

Transit supporters in Virginia Beach celebrate the passage of a ballot measure that will bring Norfolk's The Tide light rail to town. Photo: The Virginian

The biggest disappointments came from Los Angeles, Memphis, and Houston.

A measure to continue the half-cent sales tax for transit in Los Angeles County until 2069 was narrowly defeated, falling less than two percent short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, Damien Newton reports at Streetsblog Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had championed Measure J, which would have raised revenues to accelerate the pace of construction projects like the West Side Subway. But a coalition of bus riders and other interests who don’t fit the “anti-transit” label opposed the 30-year measure, saying the projects favored new construction over existing riders. Still, the referendum got a “yea” from 65 percent of voters — a clear majority, but not quite the two-thirds vote required in California.

Meanwhile, residents of the city of Memphis rejected, in a 60-40 vote, an innovative measure to impose a one-cent gas tax hike to fund transit improvements. The measure would have generated between $3 and $6 million annually to shore up the city’s bare-bones transit system, the local ABC affiliate reports. Memphis is unusual in having the authority to impose its own gas tax, separate from state and federal gas taxes, but it appears that resident declined to use that authority this time around.

Transit suffered a loss in Houston as well. The region’s voters upheld Metro’s policy of diverting one-quarter of the revenues collected for transit to road projects. The measure was opposed by transit advocates like Houston Tomorrow‘s David Crossley, who argued that this transfer has cost the Houston region $2.7 billion in transit improvements over the past 35 years.

On to the good news: There was cause for jubilation in Virginia Beach and in Orange County, North Carolina.

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This Could Be the Biggest Year Ever for Transit at the Ballot Box

Next month, 19 transit-related measures will come before voters. If the rest of this year is any guide, 16 of them will pass.

The "Transportation Penny" in Richland County, South Carolina will fund some pedestrian improvements, along with roads and transit, if voters approve it November 6. Image: Richland County

Despite a high-profile loss in Atlanta a few months ago, transit referenda have an 86 percent success rate so far this year, according to the Center For Transportation Excellence.

It strikes some as counterintuitive: During an economic downturn, in a virulently anti-tax climate, why are voters deciding time and time again to tax themselves to support transit?

CFTE Director Jason Jordan says the lousy economy is one reason so many of these measures keep popping up — more this year than any other since CTFE started counting in 2000. With states crying poverty and the federal government, for the first time ever, passing a transportation bill that was no bigger than the one that preceded it, local governments have had to take matters into their own hands.

Jordan says the most unique of all of next month’s ballot initiatives is a gas tax measure in Memphis. Almost all the initiatives we see are sales taxes or property taxes, with a handful of bond measures and vehicle fees. Most cities don’t have the authority to raise gas taxes independent of the state — but Memphis does, and it’s trying to increase the tax by one cent to raise $3 million to $6 million for the transit authority. “Here we have an example of communities being pushed to be as creative as possible,” Jordan said.

No other local gas tax measure is on the ballot. Indianapolis has a citywide income tax hike in the works, which will also be novel, but they didn’t make it happen for this year.

Another one to watch is the half-cent sales tax in Orange County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Chapel Hill. If it succeeds, the three counties of the so-called Research Triangle will likely join together to improve their regional transit system. If it fails, the whole thing falls apart.

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Paved With Good Intentions

Cross-posted from Strong Towns blog.

How can a country that is so wealthy be in such enormous debt? How can a country that can build such marvelous transportation systems not find the money to sustain them? How can a people that enjoyed decades of unrivaled economic hegemony — staggering levels of growth beyond anything seen in human history — be facing such economic turmoil after a couple years of, not even decline, but just slowing growth? The answer to these questions reveal some uncomfortable truths about who we are, how we got here and what options we have for our future prosperity.

I’m struck by how strongly our culture associates growth and prosperity with highway construction and expansion. Tom Friedman, a respected left-of-center columnist with the New York Times, had an entire chapter in his most recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back, devoted to the concept that “our winning equation” is, in part, to invest in infrastructure and then watch prosperity flourish, just like it did in the 1950?s and 1960?s.

Of course, this ignores that fact that our investments during the first generation of America’s Suburban Experiment (1950-1975) were higher return investments that generated a lot of positive cash flow. I like to point out that, when we built the 35W bridge here in Minnesota for the first time, it connected far flung areas of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan region in a way that had not been done before. Following that investment, new commercial real estate was developed, new residential housing went in and the resulting influx of tax receipts made us feel wealthy. When the bridge fell down and had to be rebuilt, we didn’t experience all that new growth, just the costs of construction and delay. Maintenance has an entirely different set of financial metrics than new construction.

Which is why our transportation spending is set up to favor new construction. It is just so much more fun. Maintenance is simply a pain, a local concern. That highway fix it project means nothing but congestion and delays and, when it’s all done, all you have is a little smoother ride. By contrast, new construction is so much better. Not only do the politicians get a ribbon cutting scene, but we can all (once again) “solve” congestion while getting a new WalMart, Taco Bell and Quiki Mart in the process. New growth just feels so much better.

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Bikes Belong Selects Six Cities to Fast Track Protected Bike Lanes

The Bikes Belong Foundation has chosen six cities to fast track physically protected bikeway designs that make cycling safer and more accessible to a wide range of people.

Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington D.C. will receive a leg up from Bikes Belong’s new “Green Lane Project.” The two-year, intensive technical assistance program is intended to help these cities develop protected on-street bike lanes and make this type of bike infrastructure a mainstream street design in the U.S.

The program attracted a total of 42 applicants, said project director Martha Roskowski, from “established leaders such as Minneapolis and Boulder” to relative newcomers like Wichita, Miami, and Pittsburgh.

“They are a range of sizes, spread across the country, and at various stages in terms of developing networks for bicycles,” said Roskowski. “What they share is a strong commitment to rethinking how city streets are used and making room for bicycles.”

Bikes Belong expects cities across the nation to benefit from the program, whether or not they were selected. The idea is to help build technical expertise on the design and implementation of protected bike lanes, and to collect data on how they perform.

Protected bike lanes are widely employed in countries that have achieved high rates of cycling, such as the Netherlands. In America they were pioneered by the New York City Department of Transportation in 2007, and have since been implemented in Washington, D.C., Portland, and Chicago.

Protected lanes have been shown to be safer than biking in the street and more likely to encourage people to take up cycling. But they are considered “experimental” treatments in the gospel of traffic engineering, the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which has stymied their adoption throughout the United States.

“The selected cities have ambitious goals and a vision for bicycling supported by their elected officials and communities,” said Bikes Belong President Tim Blumenthal. “They are poised to get projects on the ground quickly and will serve as excellent examples for other interested cities.”

The Green Lane Project represents a more focused iteration of the Bikes Belong Foundation’s Bicycling Design Best Practices Program, which has been dedicated to hosting workshops and taking city officials and engineers on study tours to leading U.S. and European cities.

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Federal Government Offers a Helping Hand to Six Struggling Cities

In a move to help buoy crisis-stricken cities, the Obama Administration this week introduced a program designed to provide administrative support to help local government officials “cut through the red tape” and access urgent federal assistance.

“Strong Cities, Strong Communities” will offer expert technical support — but not additional funding — in the areas of jobs, housing, transportation, the environment, education and economic development to cities that are suffering the staggering effects of economic displacement or natural disaster.

Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, Fresno and Chester, Pennsylvania were chosen to pilot the program, which begins immediately.

Pilot cities will receive assistance from a team of mid-career federal administrators from a variety of agencies. The goal is to not only help these cities take better advantage of existing federal programs, but also to secure additional investment from the private sector and wider community.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told the Wall Street Journal that the program was inspired by difficulties experienced in the city of Detroit as it struggles to implement its Detroit Works blueprint for revitalization. Federal officials observed that complicated federal regulations and the difficulty of accessing federal officials were a major stumbling block in the city’s recovery efforts.

“We found they had millions in federal block grants that they either were not using or not using in the best way,” Donovan said.

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