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Finally Some Relief for Memphis Bus Riders

The shameful state of Memphis’s bus system is one of the more outrageous stories in American transit.

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, they’ve been known to catch fire. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

When we checked in with the advocates at the Memphis Bus Riders Union in March, they told us the local transit agency, MATA, was running buses so poorly maintained that they were known to catch fire. In the midst of this crisis, local business leaders had marshaled enough cash to restore the city’s historic trolley system, which mostly serves tourists. Meanwhile, MATA was struggling just to maintain bare-bones operations, with a 17 percent service cut looming.

The current condition of buses is so poor, riders can’t even be assured a bus will arrive no matter how long they wait, said Bennett Foster of the Bus Riders Union.

“Some routes are not being served throughout the day due to a lack of buses,” Foster told Streetsblog. “When a bus breaks down they don’t have another bus to send out. There are people in the city every day who experience just no buses running.”

But the advocacy of the Bus Riders Union is getting results. Mayor Jim Strickland has allocated an additional $7.5 million from the city budget toward the transit system this year. About $5 million of that will be reserved for replacing buses — an absolute necessity.

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A Better Bus Stop: Big Ideas From Transit Riders for a Better Wait

Streetsblog has been calling attention to the dismal state of transit waiting areas with our Sorriest Bus Stop in America tournament. Transit riders have to put up with conditions that no one should stand for — bus stops with nothing to sit on and no shelter, bus stops by dangerous, high-speed roads with no sidewalks, even “secret” bus stops with no visible marker that they exist.

Every bus stop ought to be a safe, comfortable place to wait for the bus, and riders across the country have ideas about how to go a few steps further than that. Bus riders in 10 cities have proposed some creative ways to improve bus stops in the annual “Trick Out My Trip” crowdfunding initiative from ioby (“in our backyards”). Through the end of this week, all the funds raised for these bus stop improvements will receive a match of up to $10,000 from TransitCenter.

Here’s a look at what bus riders are proposing in three cities. You can check out all 10 bus stop ideas (and give generously) at ioby. The matching period ends Friday.

Memphis: Bus Stops as Bike Repair Stations

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Volunteers in Memphis are raising money to install bike racks and bike repair stations at three bus stops in key locations. These will help address the “last mile” problem by making it easier to bike to the bus.

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Tourists Keep Their Trolleys While Memphis Bus Riders Face Devastating Cuts

Memphis bus riders protest potential service cuts. Photo: Memphis Bus Riders' Union

Memphis bus riders protest potential service cuts. Photo: Memphis Bus Riders’ Union

Memphis’s transit system is in crisis.

For a long time, the Memphis Area Transit Authority redirected funds intended for repairing buses and trolleys to instead pay drivers and buy gas. Now the jig is up. A handful of buses as well as two of the city’s historic trolleys have actually caught fire in recent years.

According to MATA CEO Ron Garrison, the system is “on the verge of collapse.”

Memphis' historic trolleys shut down two years ago after a number of fires. But lawmakers are working on a fix. Photo: Wikipedia

Memphis officials quickly came to the rescue of the city’s historic trolleys, but haven’t leapt to defend regular bus service. Photo: Wikipedia

The city’s historic trolleys — which mainly serve tourists in the downtown area — were shut down two years ago after those fires. What followed was an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore trolley service, which is a “prize possession” of downtown developers, says Bennett Foster of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. Political leaders quickly pieced together $32 million in local, state, and federal funding to restore trolley service. Two replacement trolleys have been purchased.

But will local leaders come through for the people who rely on bus service to get to work and go about their day?

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A Sunday Afternoon in the Land of Parking Craters

Created by David Lindsay, of Memphis

Pointillism simulation by David Lindsey

Ah, a relaxing day at the park — in modern America.

This spoof on Georges Seurat’s iconic painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” was produced by Memphis activist David Lindsey. The inspiration: Memphis now directs overflow parking from the Memphis Zoo to the city’s historic Overton Park, despite vigorous local opposition. A pair of lawsuits are currently pending.

Here’s a look at the parking-crater-in-a-park, courtesy of community activist Leigh McCormick.

parking lot

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Four Mayors on Why They’re Building Out Their Cities’ Bike Networks

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Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, AC Wharton of Memphis, Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, and Jennifer Selin of Morgantown, WV, kicked off the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference today.

A growing number of mayors want to make big strides on bike policy, and they need smart advocates to help them do it.

Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, Jennifer Selin of Morgantown, and A.C. Wharton of Memphis addressed the opening session at the 2014 Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference, now underway in Pittsburgh. The mayors highlighted their own cities’ efforts to create safer conditions for biking and walking, and shared their thoughts about how their cities have overcome key obstacles and how advocates can make an impact.

In all four cities, mayors called investment in walking and cycling infrastructure a smart long-term policy with numerous community benefits. “It’s healthy, it’s good for the economy, and our citizens,” said Philadelphia’s Nutter. They each cited constructive partnerships with advocates, and intensive listening to community concerns, as keys to advancement. Selin of Morgantown said, “I enjoy bicycling, but I can’t put it forth as my own agenda. It has to come from the community.”

Each mayor also highlighted how their bike networks will bridge social divides within their cities, and they pointed out that city mayors, unlike legislators, are obliged to make things work: “We’re the government of last resort,” said Memphis’s Wharton. “We can’t pass our responsibilities down to anyone else.”

Martha Roskowski from PeopleForBikes led off by introducing Isabella, a fictional 12-year-old girl. She urged planners and advocates in the audience to design bikeways that people like Isabella would enjoy — and highlighted how protected bike lanes have multiplied across the country. Yet in city after city, advocates alone can’t build new bike networks. “The single determinant” that best ensures success, Roskowski said, “is a really great mayor.”

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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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