My people. Â (Man, it feels like a while since I’ve typed those words. Â Hopefully my writing deficit will come to an end soon, but that’s for another post.) Â I am pleased to present to you the March Cyclist of the Month, none other than Mr. Kyle Wagenschutz. Â Never heard of Kyle? Â Oh come on â€¦ he’s the city’s very first Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, the Director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop, and â€¦ well, just read the interview. Â It’s a good one.
Photo credit: Nathan Berry
1. Â Youâ€™re the cityâ€™s first Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator and have been in that position for about a year and a half. Â What was it like to accept a job where there was no previous officeholder? Â How has your idea of what the job would be like changed over time?
Taking the job was at first very overwhelming. Because there had been no previous officeholder, there was no precedent to follow, no established work schedule to fit into, and no expectations of what I was supposed to be accomplishing. I spent the better part of the first year just trying to figure out where and how a Bike/Ped Coordinator fits into the inner-workings of Memphis governance and operations. That being said, I have also been able to mold the bicycle and pedestrian program without restraint or restrictions on where we can take this movement. Almost any idea is possible and any program doable as long as I can find the resources and people to make it work.
Because of this freedom to create the first bicycle and pedestrian program, my roll has transformed somewhat over the last year and a half â€“ but really in a good way. Iâ€™ve made some real progress not in just having more (and better) facilities constructed, but have also been able to address some of the systemic causes of bad decision-making as it relates to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians in the city. Iâ€™m not sure the job has really changed â€“ more that I have been able to find my stride and my roll in the process.
2. Â Where do you see Memphis in five years, in regard to accessibility for cyclists, pedestrians, and people with disabilities? Â In your opinion, what are the greatest opportunities and challenges?
What is interesting is how these different users â€“ bicyclists, walkers, runners, persons in wheelchairs, etc. â€“ often get lumped into the same category and fight for similar funding sources, but the needs of each of these groups couldnâ€™t be more different.
The short answer is that I think bicycling will continue to grow in popularity over the next 5 years. As we continue to construct more bicycle lanes, more shared-use paths, and provide more bicycle parking at local businesses and civic centers, weâ€™ll see more and more people choosing to take a bike rather than drive a car. We can already see that happening over the last year and a half and the momentum is going to continue to carry bicycling forward. To best part is that bicycle facilities are often times very cheap and can be constructed in conjunction with ongoing road repaving and maintenance projects.
Serving pedestrian and persons with disabilities is going to be a much more complex (and expensive) change to see happen. So much about building better cities to encourage more walking, or providing safe and convenient travelways for persons with disabilities leads back to development patterns and urban design. The new Unified Development Code sets the stage for better urban design that would produce an environment conducive to safe pedestrian travel, but it has only been in place for about a year. We canâ€™t undo 60 years of bad urban design, annexation, and development patterns in just 5 years â€“ Itâ€™s going to take a lot of time and more importantly it is going to take private/public collaboration and cooperation to make it happen.
Weâ€™re also going to have to review some of the legal liabilities that make improving pedestrian travelways more difficult. For instance, in the City of Memphis (and most cities around the country) it is the responsibility of property owners to maintain the sidewalks adjacent to their property. This means that if the sidewalk outside your house is broken, uprooted by trees, or otherwise impassable, it is your responsibility as a property owner to make and pay for the repairs needed to make it safe. Iâ€™ve done a rough calculation and the total cost of repairing all the damaged sidewalks in the city would be around $1 billion dollars, and that doesnâ€™t include the areas that donâ€™t have sidewalks and need them. Getting a better understanding of how to address sidewalks is literally the billion dollar question here.
Finally, to really make bicycling and walking a viable transportation choice in Memphis, we are going to have to figure out how to integrate with MATA on a more consistent and efficient basis. I really believe that the mangers at MATA are doing the best they can, with limited resources, to address some of the public transit complaints Memphis is known for. I expect to see some really good changes occur as they begin to finalize and implement their new short-range plan, but being able to link trips to MATA via bike, walk, or wheel chair will be crucial to the success of each other. Our city is more than 300 square miles and it isnâ€™t going to get any smaller anytime soon. Residents on average travel more than 20 miles to work each day which for a majority of the population is an unachievable feat by biking or walking. Being able to provide more alternatives to driving your car is going to mean that people are going to need to combine multiple types of transportation â€“ and it needs to be easy and as efficient as driving your car. Weâ€™re already beginning to see this happen with bike trips (all MATA buses are equipped with bike racks and MATA has a very lenient policy about bring your bike on buses or trolleys), but a more concentrated effort is going to have to take place.
3. Â I know you commute to your job downtown from Midtown via bike. Â My commute is from the same neighborhood, but in the opposite direction, to campus. Â How is the daily commute downtown? Is commuting during rush hour particularly vexing?
I donâ€™t really have any problems. I have developed a few alternative routes that I can use that allow me to change up the scenery as often as I like. I get to see a nice cross section of the city going from residential neighborhoods, through some more industrial warehousing spaces, and finally into the more dense development of downtown. The arrangement of the buildings and proximity to the river can sometimes make for interesting headwinds, but other than that Iâ€™m pretty comfortable with the commute.
I mostly encounter heavy traffic when I encounter school zones. About 25% of morning rush hour congestion occurs because of parent dropping off their kids at schools. I also typically travel in hours before or after traditional vehicular rush hours times. In general, our data collection indicates that â€œrush hourâ€ for cyclists actually occurs about 30 minutes before the normal vehicular â€œrush hourâ€ times. Presumably, cyclists arrive at work earlier to clean up, shower, change clothes, etc. and a such have to leave home earlier.Â
Typically, if I end up riding when there are a lot of cars on the road, I alter my route to help avoid some of the potential conflicts and relieve some of the stress associated with riding with large volumes of cars.
4. Â On a scale of one to ten, how awesome is the Shelby Farms Greenline?
10. In my opinion it has been, by far, the most influential infrastructure investment in Memphis in the last 10 years.
5. Â In addition to being the cityâ€™s Bicycle/Pedestrian coordinator, youâ€™re also the Director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop. Â Tell me about the impact Revolutions has had on the city.
In a lot of ways, I think Revolutions has been quietly influential in improving the physical conditions and more abstract acceptance of cyclists in Memphis while also providing for the basic needs of a large population of cyclists. Over the last 10 years, Revolutions has helped to put over 3,000 bikes back onto the streets of Memphis and has helped repair countless more.
Revolutions has always been concerned with making sure that all cyclists had a seat at the table in Memphis. Largely, this was brought about through our extensive work with individuals that donâ€™t have enough money to afford the routine maintenance needed to keep their bicycle running properly and safely. Educating cyclists about basic bike repair and providing the tools and parts needed to make those repairs has always been one of the goals of the program and continues to drive the activities today. More importantly, Revolutions has become a place for â€œvoiceless cyclistsâ€ to take part in the dialog about improving conditions for cycling in Memphis. These arenâ€™t what people would think of as â€œtypicalâ€ bike riders â€“ they donâ€™t wear spandex, they ride heavy bicycle often weighted down with parcels they are carrying, they donâ€™t wear helmets, they donâ€™t have the latest gear or gadgets â€“ but to me they represent more of what a â€œtypical cyclistâ€ is than many of the publicly portrayed images of cyclists today and making sure they have an opportunity to participate in the public processes and discussions that continue to shape the future of bicycling in Memphis is a major interest of mine.
Personally, my involvement at Revolutions is what prompted me to get my planning degree and pursue the line of work I am doing now, and I can see similar story lines emerging in the lives of other past and present Revolutions volunteers. Some have gone on to establish community bicycle shops in other cities, some have taken up active roles in advocacy groups that promotes cycling, others have begun work, much in the same way as I did, with governments, planning agencies, and transportation firms â€“ attempting to work within the system to improve conditions. Itâ€™s really great to see what has come about from a bunch of folks gathering 10 hours a week to work on bikes. These folks remain some of my closest friends and nothing can beat the community building aspect to what Revolutions does.
6. Â Members of the cycling community take it for granted that more and better access for cyclists makes a city better. Â If you were making that point to someone who wasnâ€™t already a cyclist, what would you tell them?
Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™s fair to say that the cycling community takes improvements for cycling for granted. I think this past year and a half has demonstrated, on a real level, that cyclists are willing to fight for better cycling accommodations, and in turn a better city. If you look at the public battles that occurred over the ARRA spending plans and then Madison Avenue after that, youâ€™ll find that cyclists were at the forefront of those skirmishes and their support ultimately provided the city with the momentum it needed to make some drastic changes to its road development policies and procedures â€“ both in terms of how decisions are made and ultimately how to build better public places and roadways.
Now, if someone questions how more cyclists makes for a better Memphis I ask them to consider a few things:
First, cycling in and of itself will not solve the societal and economical qualms plaguing our city. In fact, there is no silver bullet that will repel crime, blight, failing schools, high taxes, and poor public health. There are no magic solutions to any of these problems. They all require multiple holistic solutions that addresses short term needs and long term systemic change simultaneously. While no single program can impact any of these problems on its own, the small impacts from each of the programs can begin to add up and make change more real and lasting as time progresses.
Second, with the understanding that cycling cannot act alone as a change agent – cycling has the ability to positively impact many of these problems in real and measureable ways. Need to revitalize an older commercial/retail corridor? â€“ take a look at improving bicycling and walking conditions. Concerned about the health of your neighbors? â€“ start a weekly bike ride or walking group that gets people moving. Aggravated about parking availability at a certain Mid-South university? â€“ ride a bike and park ride outside your classroom. Real impacts occur when enough people begin to think about the possibilities and act of them.
Finally, diversity (and the activities derived from that diversity) are what make cities great. Diversity of architecture, neighborhoods, demographics, public art, parks, culture, festivals, food choices, and even transportation choices help make a better city. Being able to wake up in the morning and choose from a variety of ways to travel to work is the mission. Weâ€™re not forcing people to ride bikes to work, weâ€™re not forcing people to walk to the store, weâ€™re not forcing you to use the bus â€“ what we want is for you to have the choice to choose any of those options and be provided the same level of safety, efficiency, and accessibility regardless if you are using a car or not. Our city will only be as good as the choices we have available to us.
7. Â Do you run any errands on your bike? Â If so, how do you handle cargo? Â Have you invested in any panniers?
Iâ€™m a daily bike commuter – While my wife and I do own a car, I am seldom the driver of the car during the week. I handle most weekly errands just using my messenger bag and/or rear rack mount top bag on my commuter bike. I havenâ€™t invested in panniers yet, but plan to in the near future.
For bigger cargo I have access to a nice Burly flatbed trailer that I use on occasion. Once, I staked two complete mountain bike frames on the trailer and hauled the bikes from Cooper-Young to Shelby Farms Park for an event that was taking place. Iâ€™ve even used the trailer to haul camping gear when going on overnight bike trips.
Iâ€™ve also made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of stuff I carry on a regular basis to avoid back-breaking loads in my bag. Generally, just being smart about what you have to carry will help eliminate some unneeded weight.
8. Â Where do you go for information about bike commuting? Â Are there websites you consult? Â What about friends in the area who are experienced cyclists?
Most of what I know I learned from hanging out and riding with other cyclists. Even before the city began making investments in bike lanes, there were a dedicated group of cyclists that commuted by bike, hung out by bike, traveled the city by bike â€“ we basically did everything by bike. Through that we learned about good routes, about new gear, and about each other. I met most of these folks through Revolutions and other bike shops.
I regularly check Fix Memphis and Biking in Memphis blogs. I also like to take a look at Cycle Chic and Streetsblog on occasion.
9. Â Have you had any fun cycling adventures, like riding from Shelby Farms to downtown or from midtown to T. O. Fuller State Park?
It seems like the last 5 or 6 six years have been nothing but fun cycling adventures. Riding in South Memphis and further down towards TO Fuller are some of my favorite rides. There are always people outside to say hello to. There is an intrinsic friendliness when riding in neighborhoods where people are present and you can speak to, even for a brief hello. To me, itâ€™s much more pleasant riding in these areas of town rather than a neighborhood where everyone is shuttered up inside avoiding contact with the outside world. Oh â€“ and there is little traffic to deal with down in southwest Memphis.
Iâ€™ve ridden north along the MRT a couple times. In fact, the week before I took the job with the city, three friends and I rode to Fort Pillow State Park and back. That was a really great time.
10. Â What kind of bike(s) do you have? Â Are there any biking accessories you canâ€™t live without?
I have a Fuji Sagres fixed gear that I have been using for my daily commute lately. This was the first bike I ever built at Revolutions and I hold it in a special place.
I also have a Magnolia Cycles bike that I am currently working on that will become my new multi-speed commuter bike. I had it built by former Memphian Mike Crum and he tweaked it out for me so I could put some racks on and use it for commuting/touring purposes.
I also have a Marin mountain bike frame that I converted to a single-speed for playing bicycle polo. My wife and I had a son five months ago though and I havenâ€™t been able to play polo since he was born. Iâ€™m eager to get back on the court though.
11. Â What about drivers in Memphis? Â How friendly are they to commuter cyclists?
Generally speaking, no problems. Whenever I do see some mayhem occurring it usually involves the driver using a cell phone. Iâ€™m always on the lookout for the â€œcell phone swerve.â€
My biggest qualm is when drivers do silly things to help better accommodate cyclists â€“ like waiving them through stop signs when it isnâ€™t their turn. One time, I was stopped at a stop sign waiting for cross traffic to clear and a driver came up behind me and rather than waiting in line, he moved to my left and stopped equal with me, blocking the other lane of traffic and completely blinding my view of traffic on my left. He had his window down and I asked him what he was trying to do here. He said that he wanted to make sure to give me enough room to wait. I had to explain to him though that he had now blocked the entire intersection and that I couldnâ€™t go anywhere until he did. I think he got it, but it was screwy nonetheless.
12. Â Any other stories youâ€™d like to share?
Maybe so, but now that I am a representative of the City of Memphis, Iâ€™m not sure I can share them here â€¦
Thanks Kyle; what a great interview. Â And thanks to you, my people, for reading. Â I hope to resume writing again very soon. Â In the meantime, I hope to see you biking in Memphis.