One person’s opinion

I ran across a link to this blog entry on the Memphis Flyer’s website.  The post generated a fair amount of chatter – at least on the facebook link where it was originally posted – and I wanted to weigh on it myself, given that I am a frequent bike commuter in Memphis.

(To give you an idea of how frequently I bike around town, I have driven my car in Memphis only twice since early February, when that particularly nasty snow storm rendered the bike lanes and road shoulders basically unusable for a few days.  In the months since the snow melted, I’ve driven only once when I should have biked.  What can I say?  It was a rainy Saturday morning, I had an early meeting and I got lazy.  [And why do I feel like I’m attending confession when I write that?  I’m not even Catholic!]  The other time I drove was when thunderstorms were threatening the area, and I just don’t mess with them.   But I digress.)

Anyway, I actually agree with at least some of what Mr. Branston wrote.  Admittedly, I’ve never read any of his past posts knowing he was the writer, so I have no way of assessing his track record.  But I do think he got a number of things right.

First, he is absolutely correct in saying that installing bike lanes on Madison is in no way comparable to installing trolley lines.  That’s a point that the business owners on Madison who are opposed to the bike lanes don’t seem to (or, more accurately, refuse to) get. In fact, I would go a step further and ask about the marginal cost of just the bike lanes, relative to the resurfacing of Madison that will take place, bike lanes or not.  I can’t imagine that adding the cost of installing bike lanes to the much larger cost of the resurfacing really makes that much of a difference.  Maybe a few more days, a bit more paint, some signs, but that’s it.  He might also have mentioned that Madison was chosen for bike lanes not just for its potential as a true multi-use urban corridor, but also because of the resurfacing schedule from the city.  But whatever … I think he nailed that point.

I also appreciate the quotes he selected from Kyle Wagenshutz’s report to the Mayor.  (You can read Kyle’s report here.) There is little doubt that bike lanes are already having a positive impact on Broad Avenue, and no negative impact (that I’m aware of) on Southern Avenue, where bike lanes were installed last year.

But where Mr. Branston’s commentary breaks down is in the second half.  That’s where he settles into the default position that Memphis is a car town and that bike lanes will make little difference.  To be fair, is Memphis now a car town?  Yes, most definitely.  But does that mean that no one else in Memphis wants to bike around town, other than the brave souls (like me) who already do so on a daily basis?  Does that mean that we as Memphians should settle for a city already dominated by cars?  That we can hope for nothing more than shared lanes, when much of the rest of the nation has caught on to the idea that road diets and facilities for transportation modes other than cars (imagine that … ) are good for cities?

I think not, but sadly, Mr. Branston is not the first person I’ve heard echoing this sentiment.  I hear it around campus all the time.  U of M is just a commuter school, they say, so there’s no need to encourage cycling or accommodate anything other than more cars.  Hogwash.  I see bikes everywhere on campus, and more people on bikes every day.  I realize that it is the birthright of natives or long-time residents of a city to knock it around a bit, but Memphians hating on Memphis is a sport almost as popular as basketball it seems sometimes.  This attitude that we’ll never be anything more than a car town (or campus) is not only counterproductive, it also flies in the face of recent evidence.

I wish I had saved the link to the article from the Commercial Appeal’s website.  It was at least a year old, maybe more, posted sometime before the Greenline opened.   (Is it just me, or is the Greenline so popular and so obviously exactly what Memphians wanted and needed that it sometimes seems like it’s always been there?)  Anyway, the article was reporting the progress of the construction of the Greenline.  The first comment in response was a predictable, tired set of claims that no one would use the Greenline, that it was a waste of money, blah blah blah.  What struck me was how the commenter began his tirade: It. Won’t. Be. Used.  I mean, how wrong could you possibly be, not to mention condescending and arrogant?  I wonder if the author of those lines has ever visited the Greenline.  I’ve biked it several times and I’ve never seen it empty or unused.

But again, it’s that attitude about Memphis that I find most troubling.  That we should settle.  Accept our fate as a city where good things don’t happen, except for the occasional trip to the finals by the Tigers.  Yes, I realize that we’ve made a few mis-steps as a city (cough cough Pyramid cough) but to put it in economics terms, those are sunk costs. Nothing we do today can change them, but we can resolve to change directions and adopt many of the best practices that have aided in the redevelopment of other cities across the U.S.

We already know that young professionals are choosing in-town neighborhoods (like South Main and Cooper-Young) in ever larger numbers.  We already know that the latent demand for safe walking and biking facilities was huge.  We already know that Midtown is viewed as a restaurant and arts district, one that attracts new businesses and that would be ideal for bike lanes.  Hell, we already know that crime is down considerably in the last five years.

My point is that many of the necessary conditions for Memphis to turn the corner are already in place, such that bike lanes, I believe, will make a difference.  Because what holds Memphis back the most, I believe, are the low expectations many have come to accept about our city.  Once the bike lanes go in on Madison [fingers crossed] and local businesses and residents see new cyclists biking around Midtown – just as we’ve seen walkers, joggers, and bikers on the Greenline – maybe then expectations will begin to change.  Maybe then the skeptics will accept that Memphis can be better.  And maybe then we’ll expand what we consider to be possible for Memphis.

I understand Mr. Branston’s skepticism, and I appreciate that he isn’t an out-right hater.  Perhaps the fact that I haven’t lived in Memphis my entire life allows to me see more the potential here than the past mistakes.  Whatever the case, Mr. Branston is certainly entitled to his opinion about what bike lanes could mean for Madison Avenue and Memphis.  His article represents one person’s opinion, and so does mine.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Shout-outs! » Biking in Memphis - Get on your bikes and ride

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