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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Memphis area cyclists benefiting from bike-friendly changes

Memphis area cyclists benefiting from bike-friendly changes
By:  Michael Lander

Memphis is making strides in creating a cyclist-friendly environment and is on track to finish 30 miles of bike lanes by this year.
Lesley Gray, 46, and Lekeke Johnson, 50, both of Memphis, spend their Saturday afternoon in mid-April seeing friends and enjoying a leisurely bike ride on the Greenline.  The Greenline is just one of many trails that is expected to be expanded for Memphis area-residents in the coming years.

For cyclists in Memphis, the road ahead is probably beginning to look as though it is paved with more than just good intentions.  For years, Memphis languished far behind other cities in the nation when it came to being cyclist friendly. 

Bicycling Magazine, in its May 2008 edition, ranked Memphis as being one of the three worst cities in the United States for cycling.  It was still one of the bottom three in the country two years later and that earned it a distinction that no other city had previously received. 

One reason is that there were no bike lanes within the city limits of Memphis, according to Bicycling Magazine, and the city had few alternative places for cyclists other than the city streets, which offered little room for them to ride. 

Recognizing the need for improvement, Memphis City Mayor AC Wharton, made bike-friendliness a key platform of his 2009 campaign.  After his election, he proved his commitment to this issue when he appointed Kyle Wagenschutz to his staff as the city's first Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator.  Wagenschutz assumed the position in September 2010.

In September 2011, fewer than two years from when Wharton took office, the city received an honorable mention as a "Bike Friendly Community" by the League of American Bicyclists.  This had a lot do with what Wagenschutz described as infrastructure improvements. 

Wagenschutz said that last year the city constructed more than 35 miles of new bicycle facilities throughout the city bringing the total to about 108 miles of trails, bike lanes, and bike routes. 
Wharton had promised that 55 miles of bike lanes would be added to city streets and, Wagenschutz said that the city had, in 2011, constructed 25 of the 55 miles and plans to construct the remaining 30 in 2012.

One of the most significant improvements for cyclists occurred in October 2010 when a 6.5 mile paved trail, known as the Greenline, opened to the public. 

"This opened a whole new outlook and opportunity for cyclists," Stephen Watson, the president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, said. 

The trail currently extends from Tillman Road to Shelby Farms Park in East Memphis.  The Greater Memphis Greenline, Inc, has further plans in the works to have an inter-connected trail system that runs throughout Memphis and Shelby County. 

Part of the new trail system will also include the Wolf River Greenway that will be built in sections along the Wolf River corridor.  This project is led by the Wolf River Conservancy, which is a non-profit organization that is committed to the protection and enhancement of land adjacent to the Wolf River. 

The first of the sections, from Walnut Grove to Shady Grove Road, was completed in December 2010 and already connects with Shelby Farms and the Greenline.  The second phase, from Shady Grove to the Germantown City limits, is currently under construction.  When it is finished, it will be 30 miles long altogether and will connect many of the local area communities with one another.

Eventually, the plans of the Greater Memphis Greenline call for the 6.5 mile Greenline trail to be extended to downtown Memphis, across the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River, and  into West Memphis, Ark.  There is currently not an estimated timeline for completion of this project, however, because, as Wagenschutz said, "there are a lot of moving parts involved in this process and an even larger number of organizations involved in taking on various segments of that connection." 

There is also a possibility, as Wagenschutz said, that funding might also be a "major impediment to moving forward on a number of these projects."  While this might be a setback for some people, cyclists and cycling groups in the Memphis area have welcomed the progress that has been made thus far. 

One of the largest and most prominent cycling clubs in Memphis is the Memphis Hightailers.  "The club organizes some local area rides, promotes cycling, and is an advocacy group for cyclists in and around the city of Memphis," club president, Steven Watson, said.  It currently has about 940 registered members and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

"In March, we will be sending two of our members to the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. where they will join up with other cyclists from around the country," Watson said.

Their goal will be to ensure that federal funding continues to go to cities for bike-friendly initiatives.
"Without the work of bicycling advocates throughout the city, none of the progress we've made over the last two years would have happened," Wagenschutz said. 

Not all progress has come without some resistance however.  Madison Avenue businesses had objected to bike lanes being put in at the expense of a car lane in each direction on their street, but Wharton stood firm in his commitment and the bike lanes went in as planned.

"Building awareness and creating a culture of acceptance has had a huge impact on cyclists and the conditions for cyclists in Memphis," Wagenschutz said.