Bikes take center stage in Memphis, Tennessee

From worst city for cycling to League of American Bicyclists honorable mention

Marc Cohn, and later Cher, sang about “Walking in Memphis,” but those who opt to bike in the land of the Delta Blues will find the hometown of Elvis Presley, Memphis, TN, has made great strides in becoming bicycle-friendly in the last year.

While the city recently saw a showdown over proposed bike lanes—Memphis City Council member, Janis Fullilove, expressing her opinion against a proposed plan to restripe roads Madison due to push back from local businesses—despite this ongoing issue, in September the League of American Bicyclists recognized Memphis' work to be more bicycle-friendly.

The League awarded Memphis City Hall a 'Bronze Level' Bicycle Friendly Business designation, for efforts that include the hiring of a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and the construction of 120 miles of bike lanes, routes and shared-used paths. “Being awarded an Honorable Mention reinforces that the efforts currently underway are truly making a difference,” said Mayor A. C. Wharton, in a prepared statement.

“In both 2008 and 2010, Memphis was reported to be one of the worst cities for bicycling, but we can now prove on a national scale that the infrastructure projects, educational campaigns and public awareness operations are making a difference and are transforming this city for the better," he stated. "While we still have a long way to go, we have shown that, even with limited resources, we can have a large impact on public health, economic vitality and the livability of our city through cycling.”

Creating much of the new bicycle infrastructure has fallen to landscape architects Hawkins Partners, Inc., which helped bring the city from its 2008 and more recent 2010 “worst cities” to the honorable mention it has earned this year.

Much of this isn’t just a changing mood in Memphis but also nationally say those close to the efforts. “Since the completion of the Memphis Bike Plan, nationally, the conditions and the desire to establish bicycling as a legitimate viable transportation choice has grown and become more favorable,” Brian Phelps, the project manager for the project told BikeRadar. “However, like many American cities, Memphis faces many of the same challenges to implementing a bike plan. The most significant of these are its size and car dependent culture.”

Phelps says that cities such as Memphis have seen how bicycling can work within their respective transportation mix. “It is difficult to immediately change the infrastructure and development patterns that have been developed up until now,” added Phelps. “So just its sheer size and magnitude of effort to change makes it difficult to overcome this.”

As he notes that Portland did not achieve its biking culture overnight, and he stressed that cities can change, but change takes time. “I have been amazed how quickly New York has establish itself as a more bike friendly city,” said Phelps. “This is due in large part because of the leadership deciding to make the change and giving it a high priority. Chattanooga's great strides early on when their bike plan was completed were also because of strong leadership and focus. Political leadership can be a big challenge when it comes to the implementation of bicycle infrastructure.”

Phelps says he is quite excited to see how Memphis Mayor AC Wharton has made bicycles a focus of his administration. “The fact that the City received an honorable mention for ‘Bicycle Friendly Community’ in 2011 after being designated by Bicycling Magazine as being among the worst cities for cycling is amazing," he said. "Overcoming the car centric culture and the established development patterns that make bicycling a more difficult transportation option, will take time. The current efforts are big steps.”

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