Good evening Mr. Branston,
I just finished reading your article in the Memphis Flyer about the MPO’s plan for our region. Â My response follows.
No one should be afraid of planning. Â Memphis, as you likely know, was originally a planned city. Â (Please click here for a map of the original plans for downtown Memphis.) Â I was in Washington, DC over the weekend and was impressed by its beauty and livability, much of which we can credit to its being a planned city as well. Â All aspects of our lives require planning. Â A household budget is nothing more than a financial plan, one that covers goals for spending, saving, and debt reduction. Â The extent to which that plan is successful depends on how closely the members of a household adhere to its recommendations.
My employer, the University of Memphis, has many plans for the future of its campus and the broader community. Â One goal is to improve the Highland Street corridor by attracting new businesses, redeveloping underused land, and making that avenue the true entrance to the University. Â Indeed, my school also has an excellent Department of City and Regional Planning, one of whose graduates, Kyle Wagenschutz, is now the City’s first Bike/Pedestrian coordinator. Â We should be proud of that department for producing such a capable and successful city employee.
Planning, above all, requires coordination. Â In order for our financial goals to be met, my wife and I must coordinate our spending behavior. Â We also try to coordinate our goals with conditions within broader financial markets, albeit without much success lately. Â (Bank of America, you have been warned.)
Perhaps you should ask military leaders what they think about plans. Â Our armed forces are known for producing all manner of plans, both small and grand in scale. Â Indeed, one could regard the Allied invasion of Normandy as the execution of a particularly bold plan, although with many more guns and explosions that the MPO’s plan.
Speaking of explosions, you are correct that the bike lanes on Madison Avenue incited quite a bit of controversy, much of which was unnecessary. Â As I wrote in a recent blog post, once local businesses see that the installation of bike lanes did not cause the death of the commercial activity on that street, we will all breathe a big sigh of relief. Â And of course, we have the redevelopment of Overton Square to look forward to. Â We need not expect “1,000 more Madison Avenues,” unless we want all other commercial corridors in Memphis to be as successful as I know Madison soon will be. Â Interestingly, Loeb Properties seems to share my opinion.
What plans like those produced by the MPO allow us as a region to do three things. Â The first is to recognize the resources we have at our disposal, the second to acknowledge what limitations we face, and the third and most important is to figure out what is the best way to put those resources to productive use. Â Local government will inevitably play a role in this, but so will many other rational economic agents, such as developers, households, businesses, workers, commuters, cyclists, pedestrians, and other members of the community. Â What the MPO’s plan represents is not a hard and fast set of rules; the MPO itself has little in the way of “teeth” it can use for enforcement. Â Rather, the plan contains a vision for what our region can, and should, look like in the future. And that plan is explicit that our streets should be made safe for all users: drivers, cyclists, the disabled, and pedestrians. Â I believe that by presenting the best plan possible, the MPO stands the best chance of eliciting “buy-in” by all residents of the Memphis metropolitan area. Â And I believe that this plan can and will do just that.
Whether the MPO’s plan is successful depends on the coordination between local governments and all users of land and roads in the area. Â This is not the “government [as a] teacher and motivator.” Â This is how thriving cities are made. Â Ever been to Houston, Texas? Â That’s a city without a plan, indeed, without even any zoning restrictions. Â Sure, it’s big, but big in terms of sprawl, not big in terms of ideas.
You are correct: it is up to the individual to decide how best to act. Â And I do believe that the government should involve itself as little as possible in many of those decisions. Â But just as our federal government has carved out space via the First Amendment for journalists such as yourself to produce such (ahem) thoughtful commentary as in your recent column, our local governments must carve out space for our roads to be safely used by all travelers, be they on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike, or in a car. Â The way that that is done is via the installation of bike lanes and curb cuts, the improvement of sidewalks, and the creation of proper signage which clearly delineates who may be where and when. Â We need our city to work for all of us, not just drivers.
In closing, I will note that while I am an employee of the University of Memphis (a proud one at that), I am not writing this on behalf of anyone but me. Â This semester I am teaching a course on Urban Economics, one that discusses many of the issues covered in the MPO’s plan. Â In fact, Kyle Wagenschutz himself was kind enough to visit my class as a guest lecturer and talk about the economics of biking. Â (I hereby bestow upon Kyle an honorary PhD in Awesomeness.) Â I am fairly knowledgeable about these issues, both from a professorial and a personal perspective. Â You see, I am also a regularly bike commuter to campus and other points around town. Â And I know what it means to have bike lanes available to me. Â The lanes on Southern Avenue make my commute so much safer and enjoyable, and not just to me, but to the drivers with whom I share the road. Â I have my lane, and they have theirs.
Sir, you have my best wishes for a happy and warm holiday weekend. Â I also hope that you begin riding your bike more than “once in a while.” Â Memphis is becoming quite the bike-friendly city. Â Really, you have no idea what you’re missing.