Monday, July 19, 2010

Memphis Update: The Horn Lake Bike Lanes

Well gentle readers, I've made it safely back to home...this strange southern town long-filled with potential that now appears appears to be in a process of actualization.

Part of this actualization includes creating more space for bicycles on public roads.  A local advocacy committee, Walk Bike Memphis, has been working over this past year to update bicycle ordinances, create a bicycle pedestrian coordinator position within the municipality, and establish more on-street bicycle facilities.  Each of theses three campaigns have come to fruition in the past months.  

For a full explanation of how the advocacy community has influenced local politics in Memphis over these last few months, have a look at my new blog, Community Powered Cycling

Today's update deals largely with the first project in Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton's 2010-2011 Bicycle Facilities Program: the Horn Lake Rd. bike lanes.   On Friday of last week A.C. promised to begin striping bike lanes on Monday morning (today), and sure enough, a quick trip out to Horn Lake Rd. showed new facilities in-progress.   Here the team is hard at work striping the new lanes--and being mighty friendly with courteous waves (which is something of a southern tradition, I might add.  Seriously, in all my travels I've never met people as nice as southerners.)
By the time I arrived around 3 p.m. this afternoon, the lanes were almost complete--and in use. 
This gentleman was pumped when he passed me--smiling broadly and enjoying the 95 degree heat saturated with 100% humidity.  Welcome home indeed.  

So how'd the City do?  Is the facility good, bad, irrelevant?  To find an answer we need to have a look at the lanes section by section.  

First, the area we're dealing with is Horn Lake Rd. from the I-55 bridge on the north to Mitchell Rd. on the south.  Have a look at this map: 

View Horn Lake Rd. Bike Lanes in a larger map
 (A shot of the factory on the West side of I-55, or a common sight in this part of the dirty dirty)
This shot was taken from the I-55 bridge facing north towards downtown.  It's fairly representative of the bike facility generally: the bike lane contains frequent bike emblems with a directional arrow between a 6 inch white stripe on the traffic side and a raised curb on the right side. The bike lane is accompanied by signs that say, shockingly, "Bike Lane."  Now, the lane is 6 feet wide throughout its entire length, which is a nice width...but there is small issue...  
The 6 feet includes the gutter pan (the brownish color asphalt)...which is approximately 2 feet wide.  So, there is actually only 4 or so feet of bike lane on the asphalt-proper.  If two bikes attempt to ride two abreast in the lane, the far right rider will be forced to ride in the gutter pan.   
The narrow width also produces a second difficulty: the outside lane of car traffic is between 14 and 18 feet wide, meaning the traffic calming that often emerges from creating bicycle facilities is much less likely to occur on this stretch of Horn Lake Rd. because the cars have an incredibly wide lane outside lane.  If the bike lane had been made wider and the car lane reduced, its likely that significant traffic calming would have emerged. 
This photo shows three facilities created specifically for bikes on Horn Lake Rd.: a bike lane sign, a bike friendly storm grate, and a stripe separating the bikes from auto-vehicle traffic.  These are nice facilities, but there are a few places where more appropriate facilities should be added to the bike lane.
First, the junctures where auto-vehicle traffic merges from side streets onto Horn Lake--or primary conflict points between bikes and cars--currently has no facility. 
The hashed line on the right of this photo represents the bike lane boundary with traffic.  One easy way to improve the safety of this juncture is to hash the bike lane on the rider's right side and paint a colorful stripe to designate the bicycle's place in the juncture.  This picture provides an example from Victoria, Canada that could be applied here:
The second place where the facility can be improved is at the intersections.  Here, cars are expected to cross the bike lane when making right turns--as indicated by the hashed line.   
Here again, a painted stripe in green or blue or red could be used to alert drivers to the presence of bicycle riders.  This would also provide riders with a sense of comfort as they pass through a high-conflict juncture.  This is an example of a painted intersection from Eugene, Oregon: 
This is the intersection of Brooks Rd. and Horn Lake.  
Here, the facility simply stops in advance of the intersection, the point with the highest potential for conflict between car drivers and and bicycle riders. And again, a painted bike lane could orient drivers and bike riders as they clear the juncture.

At this intersection we have a similar situation:
Finally, just before the intersection at Mitchell the bike lane just stops.  Now, we can only anticipate that this facility is the beginning of a longer facility that will connect communities to....well, something.  Anything.  

But at the moment, the facility runs from the I-55 bridge to Mitchell Rd., meaning it provides no significant connectivity for community residents.  Future facilities ought to be planned with a strong focus on how the facilities connect people to places.  Otherwise, we'll simply end up with un-used bike lanes that go nowhere.  

Here in Memphis we have an opportunity to make world-class bike facilities from the start, and though this is only phase one in Mayor Wharton's plan to develop bike facilities across the city, we ought to ensure that future lanes are developed with an eye to enabling the youngest, oldest and most vulnerable road users to comfortably  utilize the bike lanes.
On a side note, I had a very Memphis moment on my way down south.  I saw a car without wheels being towed with a iron link chain by a sorry looking red truck.  Upon first encounter, the car was fishtailing out of control (as tends to happen on cars without wheels?).  On my way back to downtown, I noticed the whole shenanigan had been abandoned--which provided me an opportunity to snap some photos.  Welcome home indeed.      


  1. Nice photos. All in all, I think the lanes were very well done. 4 ft+2 ft gutter pan is enough for someone to ride in. No reason why people should be riding side-by-side in heavy traffic anyhow. As for intersections, they seem OK. Colored bike lanes are experimental, and my guess is that Memphis isn't one of the places where they're actually doing the experimenting.

  2. those last pictures are incredible. pulling a car with no wheels...

  3. Anthony, if you get a chance check into the bike lane planning for under the railroad bridge at Southwest TN College on Linden. I wish I had a picture when it rains at that point because the right side of the street floods every time. Also there is a patch near the curb side (3-4 feet wide) that is dangerous to hit with any speed (which happens because it's at the bottom of the hill.) I'm hoping they either have a share the road sign or something other than a bike lane for the small segment under the bridge.

  4. Hey Kermit

    You're so right about that bit on Linden. I think that might be the most dangerous part of any commonly traveled bike route in the city. I think the best solution there would be a more intensive project that routed bicycles up onto a shared path with pedestrians as they pass under the bridge. There might be space for a Bike Lane might be able to pass under the bridge, but for all the reasons you mentioned a separate path under the bridge for bikes would provide more safety for riders along with a more steady flow of car traffic.

  5. Hilarious Memphis moment that you documented there, Anthony. Thanks for your bike advocacy here in Memphis and for critiquing the new bike lanes. You definitely had a part in getting this new inititive going. Also, thank you for letting me live vicariously through you in your travels around the world.

    Finally, welcome back!

  6. Thanks for your comments, toltecs!!!

  7. Nice photos Anthony. Would be interesting to photoshop some of these painting schemes into pictures of actual memphis streets. The example from Oregon is cool but having that green strip in a photo of a street in memphis would be even more thought provoking. Just send me photos and I'll be happy to help. It might be fun to even render some of the possibilities that you were talking about with Kermit above.

    Welcome back by the way

  8. Very thorough as always, Anthony. It will be nice once they get all these bike lanes going and actually connect them to things. For example, I'm glad they're putting bike lanes on Cooper, but I hate that they're stopping at Central. It would be awesome if you could ride on a bike lane from Cooper Young to Playhouse on the Square to Boscos to Overton Park. Oh well, I guess I should be happy with just getting some bike lanes and should hope for the best down the line.