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

The Bike Lanes on Madison

My people.  By now you are likely aware that, yes, bike lanes are being installed on Madison Avenue.  In fact, you might have noticed that the bike lanes have already been striped and that, absent a few additional signs and markings, the issue is pretty much done.  You might have participated in the numerous facebook events centered around celebrating these new lanes.  You might have watched the absurd waste of time that was the City Council’s discussion of the impact of the bike lanes.  You might even have attended one or more of those meetings.  Major kudos to you if you did – it was especially awesome watching the video of all of the bike lane supporters in the smaller public-works committee meeting.  I very much wanted to, but due to my work load at the time, I was unable to.  So I watched the meetings from my office at home, hunched over a stack of exams needing to be graded, no doubt.

So, now that our city has achieved a huge victory and step forward – and there are many people who deserve credit and thanks for helping to make this happen – I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the bike lanes, and where we go from here.

1. The first test of having bike lanes approved on a major commercial corridor in Memphis is over … for now.

By the end of the discussion at the full City Council meeting about the bike lanes, where Mike Cooper (from Mercury Valet Cleaners) and a couple of other anti-lane advocates spoke (plus quite a few wonderful pro-lane people), I could hear the tiredness in his voice.  Clearly, he was sick of talking about this issue, a sentiment shared by many, including me.  He even hoped that the issue would not permanently divide the city; many others share that hope too.  Indeed, the only person who seemed to be fired up about the issue was Councilwoman Fullilove, who is to be commended for caring so much about businesses in parts of town outside of her district.

What concerns me is the open-ended promise that the city would look into the revenues earned by businesses on Madison in a year’s time or so, to see if the the lanes were having an adverse effect on those businesses.  It’s probably no big deal; once everybody sees that the lanes did not have a measurably negative impact on Madison, we’ll all move on.  Except that the U.S. economy is hardly chugging along right now, and with the situation in Europe deteriorating rapidly, we face the very real possibility of a second recession in the near future.  I’m hoping that a European financial crisis can be avoided, but if not, both the real and financial sectors in our economy will be hit.  How hard remains to be seen, but Memphis will certainly not escape the damage.

So here’s the situation that worries me: Europe implodes, creating a wave of financial sector panic and the accompanying restrictions in lending.  The U.S. economy follows Europe’s down the water slide, only this time there is less appetite for stimulus and, at least from a fiscal perspective, if not monetary as well, less ability to employ it.  Businesses on Madison begin to suffer; some close.  And guess what … some tool bag blames the bike lanes.

Most likely this would happen in the comments section of a CA article, but if Fullilove and her minions got a hold of it, it could grow legs, at least in terms of the discussion about where else to install the lanes.  I think the likelihood of there being any significant fall-out is pretty low; there will by then be other roads with bike lanes, and certainly businesses outside of Madison would be affected if we entered another recession, throwing doubt on any claim that the bike lanes themselves were the problem.

But we’ve already seen this lack of understanding of the difference between correlation and causation.  The day of the debacle in Council chambers, Fullilove mentioned repeatedly that some business on Madison had already experienced a significant drop in revenue … and the bike lanes weren’t even installed yet! Unbelievable.  Repaving does tend to disrupt traffic, you know.

2.  The process of integrating bike lanes on a major commercial corridor is by no means over.  In fact, it is just beginning.

As I mentioned above, the lanes on Madison are not 100% complete yet.  On-street cyclist icons are sorely needed, intersections need crosswalks, signs, and so on.  Just this past weekend my wife and I drove (I know … I know) up to Boscos for brunch.  As we were walking down the sidewalk along the north side of Madison, we could see numerous cars, trucks, and SUVs heading west on Madison without a clue about what was a bike lane and what wasn’t.  (In fact, I was a little confused myself.  I didn’t think we were getting bike lanes on that stretch of Madison, but I’m certainly not going to complain about them being there.)  I know that many of these issues will go away when the street is appropriately marked and signed and all that, but I also suspect that the drivers who frequent Madison Avenue will need a bit more time to adjust to the (hopefully) frequent cyclists they encounter.  It makes me want to bike Madison once or twice a day just to move along the acclimation process.

What we also need is effective enforcement of existing regulations governing bike lanes.  I bike to campus nearly every day on Southern, and hardly a week goes by when I don’t see some vehicular violation of the bike lanes.  Cars and trucks – often municipal vehicles – parked in bike lanes; drivers using bike lanes as turning or passing lanes; to say nothing of the sheer amount of gravel and detritus that accumulates along the side of the road, though that’s not a violation per se.  We need to have MPD officers trained on what sort of driver behaviors constitute violations of laws surrounding bike lanes.  I still remember, not long after the bike lanes were striped on Southern, I was biking home from school when I encountered a car parked in the bike lane not one block from my house.  Perhaps because I was new to the lanes, I called the police when I got home to report the violation.  The officer I spoke to did not even know that there was a violation.  Fortunately I was able to cite the number of the local ordinance that rendered parking in a bike lane illegal, but I still see people doing it nearly every week.

Look, I know that out local police have more pressing matters than monitoring bike lanes for vehicles, but if local drivers are going to understand what is and is not acceptable behavior in regard to the bike lanes, we need the police to write a few tickets.  Visible signs and cyclist persistence will also help.

UPDATE: Apparently the police are stopping people for driving in the bike lanes on Madison!  (h/t Ty)

3.  Memphis is taking the first steps toward becoming a truly bike-friendly town, and we have many more to take.

In the past year or so our city has added something like 30 miles of bike lanes, and we are due for many more than that.  Compared to the total miles of lanes in Memphis, that’s a relatively small number, but I’m not even worried about that.  I’m just so excited about the lanes we have – knowing that more are on the way is like Christmas every day.

And I hear that the future waves of lanes will be installed with an eye toward connecting the existing lanes and creating a network of lanes, from what is now a somewhat discontinuous collection of lanes.  To be sure, we should celebrate this collection, because they are the best evidence of our evolution to a truly bike-friendly town.  As more lanes are installed, it will become ever easier for cyclists to navigate from home to school, school to work, and neighborhood to neighborhood.  This is what I am most excited about.

In the past month, I’ve visited two other cities which are further along in their evolution toward being truly bike-friendly: Chicago and Washington, D.C.  (In fact, I’m finishing this blog in DC.)  Washington has a very popular bike-sharing program – more on that later – and both cities have extensive bike lanes, at least in the neighborhoods I frequented.  I am very excited about Memphis adding additional facilities and becoming just as bike friendly, if not more, than these two cities.

So what else do we need?  Here’s a short list:

  • More bike lanes.  Those are coming soon.
  • A city-wide bike rental program.  I hear good things on this front.  More to come.
  • Bike rental programs at local colleges and universities.  Rhodes has one, CBU I’m not sure, and U of M … optimistic.
  • More bike polo players, more fixie enthusiasts, more distance riders, more casual/comfort riders, and more bike commuters.  More of everyone and everything.  The more diverse our scene becomes, the more mature the community is.  Hell, let’s have even more tall bikes.  And, more Cycle Memphis group rides.  I look forward to them every month.
  • More enforcement and education about biking and cyclist safety.  This goes for drivers and cyclists alike.
  • The occasional street-sweeping of the bike lanes.  I know, I know – many needs, few resources, but few things suck worse than wet leaves.
  • More bike bloggers!  I have great respect for the good people at Living Loud in Midtown, Fix Memphis, and Gotta be Gritty, but there are dozens of cyclists with hundreds of stories that are not now being told.  Keep in mind that I’ve been writing this blog for less than one year.  What stories do you have?  I’d love to read them.

 

 

 

 


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