My response to John Branston

Good evening Mr. Branston,

I just finished reading your article in the Memphis Flyer about the MPO’s plan for our region.  My response follows.

No one should be afraid of planning.  Memphis, as you likely know, was originally a planned city.  (Please click here for a map of the original plans for downtown Memphis.)  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.  All aspects of our lives require planning.  A household budget is nothing more than a financial plan, one that covers goals for spending, saving, and debt reduction.  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.  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.  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.  We should be proud of that department for producing such a capable and successful city employee.

Planning, above all, requires coordination.  In order for our financial goals to be met, my wife and I must coordinate our spending behavior.  We also try to coordinate our goals with conditions within broader financial markets, albeit without much success lately.  (Bank of America, you have been warned.)

Perhaps you should ask military leaders what they think about plans.  Our armed forces are known for producing all manner of plans, both small and grand in scale.  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.  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.  And of course, we have the redevelopment of Overton Square to look forward to.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  This is not the “government [as a] teacher and motivator.”  This is how thriving cities are made.  Ever been to Houston, Texas?  That’s a city without a plan, indeed, without even any zoning restrictions.  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.  And I do believe that the government should involve itself as little as possible in many of those decisions.  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.  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.  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.  This semester I am teaching a course on Urban Economics, one that discusses many of the issues covered in the MPO’s plan.  In fact, Kyle Wagenschutz himself was kind enough to visit my class as a guest lecturer and talk about the economics of biking.  (I hereby bestow upon Kyle an honorary PhD in Awesomeness.)  I am fairly knowledgeable about these issues, both from a professorial and a personal perspective.  You see, I am also a regularly bike commuter to campus and other points around town.  And I know what it means to have bike lanes available to me.  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.  I have my lane, and they have theirs.

Sir, you have my best wishes for a happy and warm holiday weekend.  I also hope that you begin riding your bike more than “once in a while.”  Memphis is becoming quite the bike-friendly city.  Really, you have no idea what you’re missing.

Best regards,

Doug Campbell

www.bikinginmemphis.com

4 comments

  1. Vice-President, Biking in Memphis Fan Club

    Biking in Memphis, you are reliable in your measured, well-reasoned approach to controversial topics. The original article is typical of the local and regional perception of the role of government, and is surprising (and disappointing?) only in its authorship. Memphis/Shelby County is on the precipice of becoming an international city, and in other international cities, not only are there signs in multiple languages alerting people to sidewalks and crossings, but street paintings reminding people to LOOK RIGHT for traffic. It’s a shift in mindset from perceiving the problem as governmental over-reach and resisting government intervention, to embracing the role of institutions, good governance and predictability. When there are signs for sidewalks, people pay attention to their quality and come to expect proper maintenance and upkeep. It’s not about the unnecessary sign itself, but about the public good that it signifies and protects. Southern political culture has traditionally valued private goods, e.g. if people wanted paths and signs, they could provide them on their own. That mindset is incompatible with being an internationally competitive city.

    What is fundamentally problematic, however, is that the bike advocacy community (and others) is able to come together for a limited goal (public bike lanes on select streets), but unwilling to cultivate and run candidates for local government that reflect the values that many Memphis residents embrace. Without elected representatives that reflect the values of this silent majority, Memphis will be fighting small battles every now and again, rather than having officials with vision and courage to propose and pursue smart policies. It’s getting to the point where tackling issues on a case-by-case basis is very inefficient. At present, the collectivity of local representatives is actually quite unrepresentative.

    • Doug

      Hi “Mr.” VP. Thanks for your comments. I agree with what you said, but I would respond to your second paragraph by saying that only recently have any elected officials actually heeded the needs of Memphis as a growing international city. I speak of course of Mayor Wharton. But I do see signs of hope in the recent (and successful) efforts to elect Lee Harris to the City Council. I don’t know that we’ll be able to replace some of the more backwards-looking and thinking local politicians (read: Fullilove) anytime soon, but I do think that the local progressive vote is realizing its power. And that’s a good thing.

  2. Bob

    Well said, Doug. Mr. VP, with all due respect, I believe there are groups doing a better job these days in the area to push for more than ‘limited goals’. On the Bicycling front, Mr. Wagneschutz is on the inside working out and Livable Memphis is on the outside working in – but both are focused much more than on the next bike lane. Those and others are doing much better than when we allowed things like Cordova and Germantown Parkway to happen. That bell cannot be un-rung, but by keeping a better watch on politicians and bureaucrats, hopefully we can keep from ringing it again. They don’t make it easy, and unfortunately, even one misguided elected official can muck up the works, but I am more hopeful about the future of this area than I have been in many years.

    • Doug

      Hi Bob. Thanks for your comments. I do agree that we need to keep a better eye on our local elected officials, and I share your optimism about the state of the city in the future. Good times await Memphis.

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