By: Michael Lander
The last big battle to be fought near the bluffs of downtown Memphis occurred during the American Civil War on June 6, 1862.
Today, a new battle may soon be waged, but this one may be over the fate of bicycle lanes on Riverside Drive.
On Thursday, March 26, the Memphis City engineers, led by City Engineer John Cameron, held what was supposed to be a third and final public meeting on the long-term configuration of Riverside Drive.
After city engineers looked at the responses that they had gotten from surveys, (showing 46-48 percent favoring bike lanes), and they looked at the feedback that they had received from two earlier public meetings, they came up with two alternative plans, both of which included bike and pedestrian lanes that also put vehicles on both sides of the median on Riverside Drive.
The first design, Alternative A, has two bike lanes together on the western edge (near the sidewalk), with a turn lane for vehicles. The second, Alternative B, has bike lanes on the outer edges of the street with one bike lane going north and is separated from another going south.
Even though the reason for the meeting was to have the public help to decide between which of the two plans that they preferred, there was a significant amount of opposition to either one of them by many of those who were at the meeting.
Many of those who spoke against these plans were either business owners or residents of the downtown area. The general consensus for many of them was that they felt that they had been left out of the decision-making process, that their voices were not being heard, and that their preferred option of returning Riverside Drive to a thoroughfare was not even being considered as an option.
Memphis City Council Chairmen, Myron Lowery, and District 7 Councilman, Berlin Boyd, who attended this meeting, planned to bring this matter up with the mayor and to place it on the council’s agenda.
In June 2014, Riverside Drive had been temporarily reconfigured, with the west bound lane made into a dedicated bike and pedestrian lane, as a pilot project to see the impact that this would have on traffic. The reason for doing this was based on a recommendation by renowned urban planner Jeff Speck who suggested a more accessible and more aesthetic riverfront for our city.
The city had planned to proceed with implementing one of the two alternative plans for Riverside Drive after this year’s Memphis In May festival.
While many of those at this latest public meeting expressed a common refrain of not having anything against cyclists, or insisting that this isn’t an "us" (motorists, businesses, and residents) "against the cyclists" issue, instead, they see this as being more of a problem of traffic congestion and a concern for the safety of motorists.
Cameron said that he thought that the installation of turn lanes (in Alternative A), and separating the vehicles with a median, would likely help to reduce accidents and would alleviate congestion.
One of the other big concerns for many of those at the meeting was whether or not other roads would be able to handle the sheer volume of heavy traffic if Riverside Drive is not returned to its original configuration.
With Bass Pro opening soon and several residential buildings being built, (like the one in the former Chisca Hotel), many at the meeting believed that traffic congestion in downtown Memphis will only get worse than it is now.
Opponents to the two alternative reconfiguration plans of Riverside Drive also point to the city’s data, which show that only about 18 cyclists ride on the current dedicated bike lane each day as opposed to about 13,000 to 14,000 motorists who drive on it every day.
|City Councilman Berlin Boyd attended this public meeting|
on Riverside Drive and he expressed his concern that there
were so many there who felt as though they had not
been given any say-so on what is done on this iconic
The solution for some people would be to have the cyclists and pedestrians ride on the sidewalks along the river, but this really would not be a viable option for runners, walkers or cyclists since they travel at different speeds and by doing this, it would greatly increase the risk of them running into one another.
Aside from that, after the Harahan Bike and Pedestrian project is complete, Riverside Drive is expected to be the main connector for cyclists to transit from other areas and to get and back and forth from the Harahan Bridge.
Once this occurs, Memphis should see a significant increase of cyclists and pedestrians, (many of whom may be coming from across the country and from around the world), but this will never happen if accommodations are not made for them now alongside Riverside Drive.
This, of course, is not just about cyclists and pedestrians, but it is also about a vision to make Riverside Drive something more than just a thoroughfare. The area around the river can be so much more than just a place where cars speed by, but it can be made into a park that can be enjoyed and appreciated by those who come to marvel at the beauty that we have along the Mississippi River.
The only way that this can happen, though, is for other roads to be able to better accommodate a greater volume of traffic, especially if Riverside Drive is no longer able to do so.
Memphis has made great strides and considerable progress in making the city more cyclist-friendly. Now is not the time for us to start going backward or to reduce the chances to have a space along the river that can be easily accessed and shared by everyone.