Which City Went From Worst to Most Improved for Bicycling?

Wolf River Bridger on Memphis’ Shelby Farms Greenline trail. Image – ShelbyFarmsPark.org

Which city was rated “most improved” for bicycling in 2012 after being “one of three worst” in 2010 and 2008?

That would be Memphis, a 350 square mile city that is the size of Los Angeles with less than one eighth of the population. Just two years ago Bicycling magazine called out the city’s “automobile-focused suburban sprawl, its “layers of bureaucracy” and general antipathy toward non-motorized transportation.”  This year the magazine named Memphis the “most improved” place for cycling.

What changed in just two years?

Political leadership, for one thing. The magazine notes that “Mayor A.C. Wharton two years ago committed to building 55 miles of bike facilities, and the city hired its first bike-ped coordinator, Kyle Wagenschutz.”  The City has committed to building new bike lanes when repaving city roads. The result: Since the summer of 2010, Memphis has built at least 45 miles of on-street bike facilities. That’s pretty astonishing progress for a city that built its first traditional on-street bike lane only in late 2008.

Mayor Wharton explains, “Our streets move us, and not just from place to place, but they also define life in our communities.  Streets are shared spaces – they belong to everyone…and our streets no longer serve everyone well enough, because the way people are getting around is changing.  Walking, biking and transit use are growing in popularity.  We need to design our streets to better serve all users.”

“City Engineer John Cameron adds that it is important to ask “how can you build elements into the street that will be of benefit to [all] users, will bring value to the neighborhood, stimulate economic activity, and make the street somewhere people want to be?”

Memphis Bike to Work Day. Image – bikepedmemphis.wordpress.com.

Community leadership was also important. Bike, trails and neighborhood redevelopment advocates are supporting the political leadership.  It helped Memphis to be selected in April 2012 as one of only six cities to participate in the Green Lane Project. The campaign is focused on building out world-class cycling facilities on city streets. The other cities are Austin, Texas; Chicago; Portland; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C

Project funding won’t be far behind, once a City has political and community leadership. Memphis got a huge boost in 2012, receiving a $14.94 million federal grant that will help fund a bicycle-pedestrian boardwalk across the Mississippi River on the nearly century-old Harahan Bridge. The City also received a $3.3 million grant to extend the Greenline.

Memphis was always ripe for change. A business leader who is also a bicycling advocate observed that Memphis is “ideal” for bicycling: “You’ve got a moderate year-round climate and relatively flat terrain and less-than-average prevailing winds.”

Back in 2009, a noted business leader said “As 21st-century cities fight to lure the creative class and the educated workforce fundamental to urban prosperity, leveraging our green assets optimizes our city’s ability to win talent and stay competitive,” Kevin Adams, CEO of CB Richard Ellis, Viva the Greenline! in the Memphis Flyer.

Efforts to transform a city in any fashion is accompanied by some pains.  Neighborhoods have resisted some of the changes, as have businesses:

“A clash between merchants and bike advocates flared last year after the mayor announced new bike lanes on Madison Avenue, a commercial artery, that would remove two traffic lanes. Many merchants, like Eric Vernon, who runs the Bar-B-Q Shop, feared that removing car lanes would hurt businesses and cause parking confusion. Mr. Vernon said that sales had not fallen significantly since the bike lanes were installed, but that he thought merchants were left out of the process.”

Those clashes don’t have to be inevitable and progress-delaying. Strategic up-front work can help both sides identify solutions to challenges, and provide benefits to bicyclists AND business owners. April Economides (website) is an evangelist (my description) for this upfront approach.  She’s contributed several stories for our site:


‘Year of the Bicycle’ sees major change in Memphis’ transportation, culture, Tom Charlier, The Commercial Appeal

Memphis: Green Lane Project Improves Development, Anthony Siracusa, The Green Lane Project

Memphis: Building a Better City, One Green Lane at a Time, Anthony Siracusa, The Green Lane Project

Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be a Friendlier Place for Cyclists, Bobby Allyn The New York Times