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Friday, June 24, 2016

Is it the end of the road for bicycle lanes on Riverside Drive?

Is it the end of the road for bicycle lanes on Riverside Drive?
By:  Michael Lander

Bicycle lanes were put in on Riverside Drive in June 2014.
They remained there for one year.  The future of any
permanent bike lanes on this road is currently unknown.

For cyclists, Memphis’ iconic and scenic Riverside Drive could end up becoming the boulevard of broken dreams. 

In April 2016, the
City of Memphis evidently decided to scrap the idea of putting bike lanes on Riverside Drive when they sent out crews from the city’s public works division to pave and re-stripe the roadway without any accommodations made, whatsoever, for cyclists.

When asked about the decision to pave and re-stripe Riverside Drive without any bike lanes, (protected or otherwise), a spokesperson for the city’s public works division, Arlenia Cole, would only say that it might be re-evaluated at a later date, but no other specifics were provided and the city has offered no further comment on the matter since then.

The decision that’s been made by the City of Memphis has disappointed cyclists, who have held out hope that the city would eventually find a way to allocate space for them instead of having one of Memphis’ best known roadways being accessible exclusively for only motorized vehicles.

There has been a tremendous proliferation of bicycle lanes
in and around Memphis in less than a decade, but the ones
on Riverside Drive have been removed with no plans for
them to return in the immediate future.

It is especially disheartening for Memphis area cyclists when the city has, otherwise, made great strides in creating hundreds of miles of bike lanes and trails for the better part of a decade.  Now, it would seem, they have suddenly changed course and are taking a step backwards.

Cyclists are not the only ones who may be discouraged by the city’s decision to keep Riverside Drive like it has always been, either.  Community planning groups, livability advocates, and others have long-hoped to make the
Memphis riverfront much more accessible to everyone.

Many, like the program director for
Livable Memphis, John Paul Shaffer, see the popular roadway as essentially being the equivalent of a highway (or a speedway) separating the riverfront from downtown.     

How we ended up where we are today all began with a pilot program that the City of Memphis implemented when they closed the two western lanes of Riverside Drive to traffic and officially designated them for bicyclists on Jun 15, 2014. 

Accessibility to the river front was greatly enhanced when the
bike lanes were in place from June 2014 to June 2015.  Their
removal has greatly diminished current and future access for
pedestrians and cyclists in Memphis.

After that date, motor vehicles were confined to the two lanes on the east side of the median until the city, under mounting pressure, re-opened all of the lanes back up to vehicular traffic a year later, in June 2015. 

When this was done, former Memphis Mayor
A.C. Wharton promised that the City Engineer’s Office would re-evaluate a way later on to consider the addition of bike lanes, but that day never came.

The configuration design that the city had tried in its pilot program, with bike lanes and parallel parking, was one that was developed by transportation experts at
Nelson-Nygaard, and the design was included in a 74-page report, “Memphis Riverfront Analysis and Recommendations” by Jeff Speck. 

Speck is a renowned city planner, urban designer, and author, who drew upon his vast knowledge and experience and his work as the National Endowment for the Arts and Director of Town Planning while at
Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company when he compiled his analysis and recommendations for Memphis.

Memphis consulted with city planner and urban designer,
Jeff Speck, to examine the river front area of
downtown Memphis and to provide recommendations
for designs that would enhance and improve it, which
included bicycle lanes.  The city implemented it in a
pilot program, but ended it a year later, removing all
remnants of it in the spring of 2016.
In his assessment of Riverside Drive, Speck said that “Riverside Drive is the highway that was famously killed to become a parkway, but now functions too much like a highway, speeding cars in a seam between the city and its riverfront.” 

“We have a luxury of asking ourselves what kind of street Riverside Drive wants to be.  Surely it can still hold cars, but the downtown would benefit tremendously if it were to hold cars moving a bit less speedily, alongside pedestrians and cyclists,” Speck added.

As it exists today, Speck said that Riverside Drive creates a high-speed barrier that discourages pedestrian activity and river access and posed the question that we should all ask ourselves and that is if we think that Riverside Drive needs to only take a strictly automotive form. 

In spite of the wishes of cyclists, community planners, livability advocates, and others, and the recommendations of experts like Speck, no changes have been made to Riverside Drive and, for now, it doesn’t appear that there are any plans for any.

Bike lanes on Riverside Drive would provide greater access
to the Harahan Bridge, (pictured in the foreground), which
will open up to cyclists and pedestrians later in 2016.

One of the biggest obstacles for any change to Riverside can be traced to the intense opposition that arose after city engineers presented several proposals, during the pilot program, which all included reduced lanes for motorized vehicles and north and south bound lanes for bicycles.

The majority of
those who opposed having bike lanes on Riverside consisted primarily of downtown business owners and those who were residents from downtown.

Those who were against the redesign of Riverside Drive had a number of reasons for their position, which included concerns of greater traffic congestion, fewer options of getting around, safety concerns, and a lack of use of the bike lanes by cyclists during the one year trial period that bike lanes were in place. 

Based on the data that was collected during the pilot program, it would appear that the bike lanes did help to reduce the speed of traffic to around 35 mph and, while rear-end collisions increased, more severe collisions seem to have decreased by at least 60 percent.

As it exists today, because of vehicular traffic, Riverside
Drive can often act as a barrier to pedestrians and cyclists
to get to or near the Memphis river front.

Throughout the pilot project, city officials solicited public input and examined the viability of other re-configurations of Riverside Drive that included bike lanes.  These options would have put one lane of car traffic on either side of the median. 

One alternative called for two bike lanes on the outside of the southbound portion of the roadway, while another put them on the outside of both the northbound and southbound lanes.

Whether any of these, or a completely different design is ever drawn up, the need for bicycle lanes on Riverside Drive is likely to become increasingly evident in the years ahead.

There may have been fewer cyclists on Riverside Drive during the time frame that the bike lanes were temporarily put down, but this will undoubtedly change after and the
Big River Crossing on the Harahan Bridge is completed later this year and when the Wolf River Greenway from Collierville to Mud Island is finished in either late 2018 or early 2019.

Memphis' Riverside Drive has four lanes with two going north
and two south.  The ones on the west (left-hand side)
temporarily had bicycle lanes, (from June 2014 to June 2015),
but these were removed by the city in the spring of 2016.  No
plans for bike lanes have been discussed since then.

Cyclists will be pouring off of the Harahan or the Wolf River Greenway and the most logical route from one to the other will be along Riverside Drive.  Having bike lanes there by then would provide a safe and easy way for cyclists to travel to and from these two future attractions.

We can only hope that the city will see this for themselves and will take a proactive approach to the situation; however, the cycling community should not ever rely on others to look out for their best interests.

Cyclists really need to coalesce and come together on this and on any other issue that could impact all of them in the Memphis metropolitan area.  There is always strength in numbers and cyclists should support those (either in the political arena, the business world, or those in the community, at large) who support us. 

Memphis has a beautiful riverfront and all of us have a right to have access to it as many other cities have found a way to make their river fronts easily and conveniently accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.  Why can’t we?

This is an image of Riverside Drive that was taken in the mid-
1950's.  Even though there has been some improvements to
the river front, Riverside Drive, itself, has changed very
little.  Unlike many other cities, Memphis has not yet
embraced the concept of making its riverfront more
accessible to everyone and not just providing a
convenient speedway for motorists.

From New York to California, roads like the West Side Highway in New York to the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco have both had their road capacities reduced and motorists in these places were able to adjust and find alternative roads to travel on without the catastrophic consequences that some may have once predicted.

Unlike many other places in Memphis, Riverside Drive has the potential of being a showcase for our city with a magnificent view of the Mississippi River that could be fully enjoyed and appreciated by everyone, and not just by those who are speeding by it in a car on their way to somewhere else.

We need to decide now if we are going to allow others to make this decision for us or if we will speak up and let others know that we want, and insist on getting bicycle lanes put back in on Riverside Drive.

Then, and only then, will Riverside Drive no longer be the boulevard of broken dreams.

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