The Meeting the Week Before Last About Bike Lanes on Madison Avenue

I’ve been a bit delinquent in posting my thoughts on the meeting two weeks ago about proposed bike lanes (or other bike facilities) on Madison Avenue and other roads around town.  I have been extraordinarily busy lately and haven’t had much time for long-form posts.  Plus, some of the opinions expressed in the meeting were quite shocking in their tenor such that I really wanted some time to process the events and write something thoughtful about it.

The meeting was on Wednesday, 16 February at Snowden School, located just over the northern boundary of Midtown on N.Parkway and McLean.  I arrived just at the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, and after wandering around for a minute looking for the right building on the Snowden campus, entered the meeting.

The festivities had not officially begun but there were already dozens of people milling around, chatting and looking at the rather handsome posters showing where the proposed bike lanes would be installed.  I was quite excited by the plans; if bike lanes are installed everywhere they are proposed, one will be able to cycle from Lamar Avenue north on McLean all the way to the Wolf River (if memory serves me correctly), plus on Madison from Cleveland to Cooper. There were a few other streets with proposed bike lanes but I don’t recall which ones, probably due to my focus on Midtown.

Once the meeting was called to order, one of the city engineers said a few words and then turned over the mic to Kyle Wagenschutz, the city’s bike/ped coordinator. I have to say, Kyle did an amazing job of dealing with what happened next.  I’m not so sure I would have been able to keep my cool under the onslaught of negativity from a small (but vocal) handful of business owners from Madison. I can’t say for sure which was the worst, but if pressured I would have to award half a gold medal to Mike Cooper, the owner of Mercury Valet Cleaners, and the other half to some architect whose office is also on Madison.  Mr. Cooper wins the award for histrionics, as he brought several of his employees to the meeting and, when registering his (utterly uninformed) opposition to the lanes, pointed to them and said that they would be the first to be laid off if the lanes were installed.  Yep.  That’s really effective employee management, you know.  The architect guy was just rude, constantly interrupting and repeatedly making (utterly false) claims that the bike lanes would result in lost parking. This of course is completely not true, a point the city engineer and Kyle kept repeating, but to no avail.

Numerous pro-cycling attendees, myself included, stood and made comments in favor of the bike lanes.  (The economist who lives in Cooper-Young mentioned in this article?  That’s me.)  And not all of the business owners in attendance were in lock-step opposition.  The owner of The Barbecue Shop asked a few questions and raised some concerns, but politely so.  He mostly seemed to want to have his voice heard, and I was happy that he spoke out.  I’d love to support his business, but there’s that whole me-being-a-vegetarian thing to consider.

I deliberately chose an awkward and lengthy title for this post to reflect the awkwardness that abounded at the meeting in question.  It was as though the bike lane-opponents came to this meeting with their minds made up and had no interest in actually listening to any evidence on the impact of the bike lanes on Madison.  For example, here’s a few points that were utterly lost on them:

  • Right now, Madison is at about 35% carrying capacity in terms of average traffic load.  If the bike lanes are installed, one lane would be lost to vehicular traffic, converting the road from two lanes heading in either direction to one lane of traffic with a dedicated turn lane in the middle.  (This is actually a huge improvement for drivers, IMHO, as the lack of a turn lane currently reduces Madison to a de facto two-lane street when someone is trying to turn left.)  But even with the loss of a lane, Madison would still only be at 45% of capacity.  This means that traffic on Madison could more than double and still only be at capacity.  So where’s the concern for lost business due to less traffic?  I just don’t get it.
  • Apparently there is some research to suggest that the installation of bike lanes actually increases business activity in an area, a point raised by Kyle in response to a question by Anthony Siracusa.  (I actually thought there could have been a bit more elaboration on this point, but that’s probably just my policy-geek side talking, and I’m not sure that it would have mattered anyway.)  In all fairness, not having read the research, I am a little skeptical of the conclusion that bike lanes = more business.  It could certainly be true (and I hope it is), but it could also be true that bike lanes are installed in areas that are already growing or are on the cusp of a resurgence.  (This would make some sense, as the greatest demand for lanes would be where people already are.)  I haven’t quite worked out the necessary conditions that would have to be in place in order for the installation of bike lanes to cause an increased rate of economic activity, holding all other factors constant, but correlation does not equal causation.  I should really read what’s been done about this question, as I have some ideas of my own.  And of course, I could be wrong – the research might just really prove that bike lanes improve commerce.  But for now, I remain skeptical but intrigued.
  • Cyclists don’t leave their wallets at home when they bike.  Just look at the response to this event on facebook. So far over 200 people have signed up to support the businesses on Madison who support cyclists, and on 5 March from noon until 3, hopefully all 200 of those people will be on bikes on Madison, spending money and showing our strength.  Numerous businesses have registered their support for the event, including Fino’s, Boscos, and Sekisui Midtown (which is not actually on Madison, but the support is appreciated anyway). Check out the of bike-friendly businesses on Madison; they far outnumber the opponents.  Imagine if the people at Mercury Valet Cleaners changed their minds at hung out a sign in support of cycling.  Imagine how much more business they would get.  I know I would take all my dry-cleaning there, but honestly, I am reluctant to do so now.

I am 100% sympathetic with the concerns of the business owners.  Many of them were hit hard by the extension of the trolley lines into Midtown and I’m sure the recession of 2007-2009 wasn’t easy either. But how they’re going about this just seems all wrong.  They could have the support of the biking community in Memphis if they wanted it.  They just don’t seem to.

I need to wrap up this post so I can move on to other topics, but the tenor of the objections reminded me of another bike-related meeting I attended some months ago.  It was Monday, 6 December at the Benjamin Hooks Library on Poplar.  The subject was the eventual extension of the Greenline into Midtown.  (Some of this extension has already occurred thanks to the amazing work of the good people over at Livable Memphis and their phenomenal improvement of the Broad Avenue corridor.)  The extension in question would somehow extend southwest from the western terminus of the Greenline and eventually end up at the Midsouth Fairgrounds.  Not to mince words, but I think it’s a little deceptive to call this an extension, as it won’t be on a rail bed.  Cyclists and joggers will just be on regular roads, although the designation of those roads as a bike path will be nice.  Anyway, there were a few residents of the neighborhood west of Humes and between Poplar and Central who were vehemently opposed to any extension of the Greenline through their neighborhood.  They were just absolutely 100% convinced that any extension would destroy their property values and wreck their neighborhood, even though there is evidence to suggest that houses located near bike facilities actually improve in value.  That point fell on deaf ears, not surprisingly.

Here’s a map of the neighborhood in question.  You can the see western terminus of the Greenline in the upper-right corner.


That tiny section of Madison forms the northern boundary of this quiet little neighborhood.  You can’t see it on this map, but the western end of Madison there dead-ends into a chainlink fence with extremely dense undergrowth behind it.  Beyond that is the snarl of overpasses, train tracks, and debris that lies under the Poplar/Union/Walnut Grove interchange.  Apparently that double-high fence keeps out some undesirable visitors to the neighborhood and has resulted in a reduction in crime there.  If the extension goes through, the fence would be removed, which many of the residents were concerned about.  (Given their history with criminals accessing their streets and homes through this entry-point, I can hardly blame them there.)  But the activity-concealing undergrowth would be removed, all the trash and crap would be removed, the area would be paved and landscaped, lights would be installed, and dozens of non-criminals would pass through there every week.  Again, I just don’t see the problem.

(You can read more about the future plans for the Greenline here.)

I do wonder about the root of this knee-jerk opposition.  It almost seems to be a class issue; many of the opponents do seem to be older and more working-class than, say, a college professor (ahem).  Or maybe it’s correlated with a feeling of a lack of control and a resistance to change.  Whatever the case, I hope that it does not impede progress.  Because progress is what this city so desperately needs.

Here’s a few pictures from the meeting.  I apologize for the crappy quality.

[slickr-flickr id=”57760946@N03″ tag=”Bike Lane Meeting” type=”gallery”]


  1. Heather

    There will always be people opposed to change. Usually they are stressed out and worried, feeling unsteady in their tiny boat on stormy seas, and are sure that the slightest change will sink them. Sounds like the guy from the cleaners needs to feel like his business is more stable. Maybe you should start biking in with your cleaning, wearing a loud pro-bike lane T-shirt every time. 😉 Funny that one of the first things you see on their website is their proclamation that they were Memphis’ first environmentally friendly cleaner, but that they should be so opposed to other environmentally friendly choices. Oh, and I’m super jealous of the Greenline. I choose not to bike here, because, even with bike lanes, SF is a seemingly dangerous place to bike, but I would do it all the time if we had some non-car corridors.

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