Wednesday’s Night’s Meeting

I have to be honest here – I’m getting a little tired of writing about meetings about what to do with Madison Avenue.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m alone in this; I’m sure most of Midtown is sick to death of waiting for a decision to be made.

That said, I do think the meetings of the last three weeks were very helpful and much needed.  I wish we had had meetings like this back in February.  In that spirit, I have to give major props to the architects and planners at Looney Ricks Kiss, who moderated each of the meetings and did some fantastic analysis of the road bed and environs around Madison.  Over the course of the three meetings, the attendees were guided through and discussion and deliberation process, first to figure out what we wanted done with Madison Avenue, then to identify what was feasible, and finally to hear about the options we have (as LRK sees it) and to deal with some final issues.

What I appreciated most about the dialogue is how much of it was grounded in the language of economics.  The speaker at each of the meetings talked often about trade-offs (in my mind I could hear him take the next step and say “opportunity cost“) and about how, for most of the length of Madison Avenue, we only have 60 feet of road bed to work with – the very definition of scarcity.

I also appreciated how much the community around Madison was involved in the process of deciding what to do.  It seems that a feeling of a lack of prior notice was the source of the ill feelings on the part of business owners at the meeting back in February – more than once I’ve heard that the business owners felt the city was trying to “ram [the bike lanes] down our throats,” not inconspicuously borrowing a phrase from the Republican opposition to health care reform – although it’s worth noting that the opposition has not abated one bit.  The city has held a series of proper meetings, with numerous break-out groups, plus a website with a survey, but it doesn’t seem to have moved the needle much, at least as far as some business owners are concerned.

Of course, I am now as ever sympathetic to the concerns of the business owners.  It’s one thing when your favorite local store closes; no one likes to see that happen.  But it’s something else entirely when your livelihood shuts down.

So I’m really interested to see what happens in the wake of this week’s meeting, because it was then that we finally saw some estimates of actual traffic volumes on Madison.  Up to this week, all of the talk about the current capacity of Madison and what adding bike lanes would do to that capacity did nothing to quell anyone’s concern.  At the meeting on Wednesday it was revealed that even peak traffic on Madison is below the capacity the street could sustain, even with bike lanes.  That’s right: traffic volumes could grow by an estimated 36% before Madison would be “full” – and that’s with bike lanes, two lanes of traffic, and a turn lane.  At a growth rate of 2% per year – which is actually a pretty solid growth rate – it would take something like 15 years before Madison started to feel too crowded.  Considering that traffic on Madison has basically been flat for the past decade, after peaking in the mid-1990s, I’m not too concerned about capacity being reached any time soon.

Not that I don’t want Madison Avenue to improve – I desperately do.  And if we transform the street from an under-developed thoroughfare to a unique Memphis destination, one that will draw tourists (and their dollars) to Memphis, we could see that happen.  But sticking with the status quo will not.

If all we do is repave the street, nothing will change.  What we need to do is make Madison Avenue a destination that is safe and fun for all Memphians and visitors, however they choose to move around town.  Yes, drivers must have adequate lanes to use, but so must cyclists and pedestrians.  Improving sidewalks, adding plants, benches, and trash cans, repainting crosswalks – this is all good stuff.  But adding bike lanes will help to slow traffic, making the businesses and improvements on Madison more visible and the street safer.  This is what we need.

I understand that change is hard and sometimes scary.  I also understand that accepting such change when your very livelihood is on the line (or is perceived as such) is even more difficult.  Don’t take my word for it – read it for yourself in this article.  (The relevant part is at the end.)

But it’s clear that we need to do something to make Madison better.  Bike lanes can and should be a part of it.  There’s just no good reason to conclude now that bike lanes will harm businesses.  If anything, by being a part of an overall improvement to the street, they will help.

At the very least, we’ll know soon.  The Mayor’s has to decide on something by the end of the month or it risks losing the stimulus dollars needed to pay for the project.

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