Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the soon to be striped bike routes in Memphis...

There are a number of perks and drawbacks to the City's plan to create bike routes in the city, and I hope to explore some of those here.

First, before the routes were approved, I spoke with the city's engineering department about which streets would receive bicycle facilities. They explained that while nearly 7 routes were under consideration within the city limits (G-town, Collierville, Millington have their own engineers and route recommendations), they could not reveal the details of which routes were considered. I have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the City Engineering department over the past few years, but I did not understand why they could not discuss with a member of Memphis' Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee proposed bike routes in Memphis. In advance of the meeting where they approved the routes, I sent a brief message to the engineers that contained this statement:

My concern as you all move into tomorrow's ETC meeting is that we will end up striping and signing 7 half-mile segments of roadways with no clear explanation of what is being connected by the routes. Put another way, as an individual involved in the creation Memphis Bike Plan and having served on the BPAC committee since its inception, I believe that the stimulus dollars would be best spent through the creation of a single route or a couple of routes which provide a connecting corridor between two population generators. While I understand the idea of striping one small piece of a much larger route with the intention of completing it in the future, as was the case with Shady Grove Rd., I think the best way to positively impact the Memphis community--both the community of bicyclists and the communities connected by a route--is to carefully chose one or two corridors that you can fully complete with these stimulus dollars.

After a public announcement, it looks like a half dozen or so half block bike lanes is what we will receive. Perhaps this was the right decision.

But while any bike facility in Memphis is seemingly a good bike facility, I think it is important to remember the fragile nature of our current position. Because we have only 1 bike lane way out east, support for bike facilities in the public mind is still pretty low. Thus, any bike facility we create should be a success.

What is a success?
  • The Bike facility generates more ridership from different types of riders (e.g. not fixed gear dudes and spandex warriors)
  • The facility scores PR points for its location and importance to a community
  • Finally, the bike facility should become a tool to teach motorists how to drive more safely when near bicyclists.
Will the new lanes provide these critical victories? Lets deal with them by category:

Wide Outside Lane
The plans for bike facilities include a wide outside lane for Vollintine street between Ayers and Bellevue. According to the Memphis Bike Plan, a wide outside lane is defined as:

Wide Outside Lane

(A) Shoulder bike lane (which) typically attract(s) Type A and Type B bicyclists. A WOL is a rightmost vehicular travel lane that has at least a couple of extra feet in width and that is signed for use by bicyclists. The extra width that a WOL provides allows motorists to pass bicyclists without encroaching into the adjacent travel lane. Because WOLs are used by both motorists and bicyclists, they primarily attract Type A bicyclists and some of the more experienced Type B bicyclists.


• They separate the flows of vehicular traffic and bicycle traffic. This
separation is especially advantageous for streets with high speeds and/or high traffic volumes.

• They attract a variety of users.

• Often, they can easily be incorporated on roadways that have shoulders. Shoulders that are at least four feet wide only require signage to designate a shoulder bike lane. Wide Outside Lanes (WOLs)

• They provide additional width for bicyclists so that motorists do not
have to drive too closely to bicyclists or encroach into the adjacent
travel lane.

They increase the visibility between motorists and bicyclists because they require bicyclists to ride in the flow of vehicular traffic.

WOLs can easily be designated by adding signage. This is especially
important for roadways that do not have enough width to accommo-
date bike lanes, but do have enough width to accommodate


The wide outside lane is low hanging fruit, no doubt. But will it create a safer space for cycling? I think the easy answer is yes, for now, but it will by admission probably not prove attractive to people who do not already rides bikes.

The second group of routes are "Sign Shared Roadways," and Front St. from Union south to GE Patterson will receive this designation as will Perkins Extended from Walnut Grove to Poplar. The Memphis Bike Plan defines them as such:

Signed Shared Roadways (SSRs)
An SSR is a conventional roadway that is signed as a preferred route for bicy-
clists. SSRs are typically reserved for arterial or collector streets that have a
high demand for bicycle travel or that make important connections, but can-
not accommodate bike lanes or WOLs due to physical constraints. Because
SSRs do not provide any additional width for bicyclists, they tend to only
attract Type A bicyclists.

• They can be implemented at a low cost because they only require

• Because motorists and bicyclists must travel in the same lane, SSRs
increase the visibility between motorists and bicyclists.

• They provide a bicycle route on a roadway that makes an important
connection but cannot accommodate bike lanes or WOLs.

• They attract only the most experienced bicyclists.

• They do not provide additional width for motorists to pass bicyclists.

• They appeal to fewer users because they require bicyclists to ride
in the flow of vehicular traffic.

• They can create conflicts between bicyclists and vehicles that are
parked on the street. Bicyclists must be cautious of vehicle doors
that may be opened as they are passing a parked vehicle.

Once again, the SSR is low-hanging fruit. It is not ideal to designate roadways as Sign Shared as it will not cater to the group of cyclists that want to ride but do not because they fear for their safety. While these roadways are a sign of progress for Memphis, will they create the victories mentioned earlier?

My point here is not to be a stickler for perfection. I do not want my thesis to me missed: Memphis, while behind most cities its size in terms of bike facilities, has an opportunity to do alot of things better than other cities. In our haste to create something, my point is that we should not settle for just anything. I'll leave it to you to decide whether the above routes are an anything.

Finally, the majority of the proposed routes are bike lanes. Peabody west from Diana to Bellevue will receive a bike lane; Waring north from Wells Station; Wells Station north from Waring to Watts; Norris st. from Mallory east to Norris Circle and Germantown Rd. from Kingsland south to the city limits.

This is what the Memphis Bike Plan says about bike lanes:

Bike Lanes
A bike lane is a travel lane on a roadway that is designated by signage and
pavement markings for the preferential or exclusive use of bicyclists. Bike
lanes are one-way facilities that are provided on both sides of the street in
order to carry bicyclists in the same direction of travel as motorists. They
are typically four feet wide, but can be as much as six feet wide, such as
when they are located adjacent to on-street parking. Bike lanes are primarily
preferred by Type A and Type B bicyclists. Typically, bike lanes will experi-
ence some limited use by Type C bicyclists.

• They separate vehicular traffic and bicycle traffic. This separation is
especially advantageous for streets with high speeds and/or high traffic

• They increase the public’s awareness of bicycling through the use of
signage and pavement markings.

• They attract a variety of users.

• They create potential conflicts between motorists and bicyclists who
are turning left because bicyclists must cross the vehicular traffic
lanes in order to complete the turn.

• They create potential conflicts between bicyclists and motorists who
are turning right because motorists must cross the bike lane in order to
make the turn.

• They create conflicts between parked vehicles and bicyclists when
they are placed adjacent to on-street parking. Bicyclists may have
to navigate around parked vehicles that encroach into the bike lane.
Also, bicyclists must be cautious of vehicle doors that may be opened
as they are passing a parked vehicle. Therefore, when placed adja-
cent to on-street parking, bike lanes should be between five and six feet

Bike lanes. Ah, that panacea, pie in the sky, distant solution to cycling woes has finally come to the river city. And what will our streets be like once they are striped and signed? My guess is that people will use these facilities. But it will be the same people who have been riding bikes in Memphis. The reason: the bike lanes do not connect anything.

People want to be able to go somewhere on their bicycle, even if just to the park to ride and recreate, and the current slate of bike lanes connects nothing. It is a point I have made in the past and a point I will continue to make. To increase the mode share of bicyclists, to decrease the vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) in Memphis, to create safe streets for bicycle commuting you must have corridors of connectivity. This is where our first round of bike lanes falls short.

I join you in hope and optimism as these facilities are an excellent stride in the right direction. It is an imperfect and flawed stride, however, and we should be careful to learn from these routes to improve future routes.

In Memphis, we have serious cyclists. We have casual cyclists. We have potential cyclists, and this is our strength. If we communicate with each of these groups, create working relationships with the public as the Office of Planning and Development (OPD) has done, we will begin to take the very best steps towards improving our city for bicycling.


  1. You leave out several key factors in in your description of WOL's. One of the major disadvantages is that it offers a higher design speed for motorists traveling in that lane, which creates a greater safety hazard and reduces the comfort level to the cyclist (regardless of experience). While it may allow cyclists and motorists to share the same lane in regards to the striping (depending on the width, and even with that there can be a difference in legal sharable width, and actual sharable width). This is why I bike lanes are preferable in that even without removing lane, you can reduce auto speed with a mere stripe while also providing a perceived comfort for the cyclists. The traffic calming effect, though often a secondary result, has a big impact on safety and comfort for roadway users of all modes.

    Also there are very distinct differences between shoulders and bike lanes, beyond width and signage, especially the way they are treated at intersections and maintenance schedules. Make sure these facilities fall in line with any TDOT design standards and AASHTO guidelines.

    As for the SSR, I think combined with traffic calmed neighborhood streets (think the quiet side streets of Midtown with the roundabout intersections) and facilities such as bicycle boulevards, these make for excellent bikeways. Prof. Dill at PSU has found that Portland cyclists prefer routes such as this over arterial road bike lanes.

  2. I think bike lanes make people more aware there are cyclists out there that are entitled to use the roadway. Many Memphians don't even understand that cyclists have a right to be on the road. They think we should all be on sidewalks!
    When you have a citizenry and political leadership that is largely unaware and uneducated about cycling, about all you can expect are small victories here and there. A series of unjoined, short routes. But as you say, perhaps it's better than nothing.
    I didn't see a lot of bike lanes when I was in Austin, Texas recently, yet, I saw hundreds and hundreds of cyclists riding right smack down the middle the street, as they should be able to, and OBEYING THE TRAFFIC LAWS.
    I ride occasionally for fitness, so I suppose I could be classified as a "part time" spandex warrior, but I don't ride with groups too often. The reason? I stop for stop signs and obey the laws, and if you do those things, you should be able to ride in a regular lane.