Sunday, August 22, 2010

A City that Achieves

This morning, I heard one of my friends was working at a Steak and Shake in New York City.  He has taught Spanish at Rice College in Houston and, most recently, took a break in earning his Ph.D. at U. Penn.  Now, he’s working at the Steak and Shake.  He’s brilliant, charming, funny and ambitious.  But I guess the real question is how good is he at making malts.   

Meanwhile, here in Memphis it’s hot as Hades.  The ambiance is thick--day after day—and only rarely in the last two months have we seen a break in the daytime heat.  And by break I mean a drop from triple digits to lower nineties. 

It’s amazing how unrelenting difficulty can enhance one’s appreciation for brief moments of ease. 

It’s also an exciting time here in Memphis.  This city appears to be on the verge of making sustainable infrastructure development a priority, and NGOS, non-profits, and the municipalities all appear to be falling in line—offering their political support and often financial support for the creation of bike facilities, sidewalks, and greenlines. 

The City of Memphis will announce it’s new bike and pedestrian coordinator in the coming week; The Shelby Farms Greenline will open in October; Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton has committed to creating 60 miles of bike facilities within the next 18-24 months, and Walk Bike Memphis is working to fund bike paths through Overton Park, along Broad St., and on into the Shelby Farms Park Greenline. 

The Greater Memphis Greenline will begin work on acquiring and developing three new greenlines while maintaining a long-term focus on the acquisition of right of way for more than 400 miles of MLGW utility easements.  And The Wolf River Greenline is progressively heading west: the connector from Shady Grove to Walnut Grove is currently under construction.    

A new bicycle shop, Victory Bicycle Studio, is set to open on Young Avenue September 1st.  The Peddler Bicycle Shop has become an exclusively Trek store while Outdoors Inc. and Midtown Bicycle Company continue to serve bicyclists between Highland and the River.  Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop is continually growing in it’s ability to work with community partners: its latest project—in addition to its ongoing effort to help Memphians construct their own affordable bicycles—is a partnership with Leadership Memphis that will afford students in the leadership class the chance to work with youth to build a bike.  Revolutions continues to inspire with its ability to build bicycles while building community. 

It’s an exciting time to be a Memphian.  And, considering the last 10 years spent working on these issues, it’s thrilling to see a very different city being built before our eyes.  Southern Avenue has become my own personal symbol for this progress: I spent hundreds of hours speeding up and down Southern Ave. on my bicycle, navigating the narrow stretches of roadway with experience and caution. 

But within the month Southern will have bicycle lanes. 

It’s unclear just how much of the street will have bike lanes—we’re hoping the entire stretch from Cooper to Goodlett will receive lanes this month—but to have a dedicated bicycle facility on this critical corridor of connectivity between Midtown and the University lifts my heart. 

Memphis is on the Move.  And it reminds me of a speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Alabama capital in 1965.  Marchers had just trod from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate support for the federal Voting Rights Bill that would be passed in August of that year.  King could clearly see a break in the heat—it was that ebb of days in the low 90s amidst the sweltering oppression of ongoing racial injustice.  And King knew that the freedom struggle was at its height; most importantly, he knew no-one could turn the movement around.  He said: 

We’ve come a long way since that travesty of justice was perpetrated upon the American mind. James Weldon Johnson put it eloquently. He said:

We have come over a way 
That with tears hath been watered.

We have come treading our paths

Through the blood of the slaughtered.

Out of the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam
Of our bright star is cast.

Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now.

Yes, we are on the move...Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us.  We are moving to the land of freedom.

The stakes were higher in the Civil Rights movement than they are in the movement to make our streets safe for bicycles and pedestrians. 

But the stakes are equally as high for Memphis generally.

And maybe, even when seen in this broad way, our city is indeed on the move.   

But questions persist: will we stave off poverty for a third of our population, end the brain drain, improve education, work with our homeless brothers and sisters, end the bloodshed in the streets, and build a sustainable city—a city that has a sense of destination in 10 years, a city that enjoys a reputation for being a forward thinking place that learns from the past and forges a bright future?

I think so.  But, as with King, I’m a “prisoner of hope,” one bound to a commitment for a city that succeeds.   So maybe I’m not the best judge. 

An editorial in the Memphis Commercial Appeal last month boasted Memphis’ ability to effectively strive towards positive development, noting the inherent good resulting from this striving.  King may have agreed.  He claimed “unearned suffering is redemptive,” assuring freedom fighters enduring physical and emotional beatings that none of their efforts were in vain. 

But Memphis ought to move from a city that strives to a city that achieves.  It’s my contention that we’ll know we’re on our way—not just on the move, but on our way—when Memphis becomes a city of achievement.

As it is, I think I’m due to call my friend in New York.  We need to catch up about our lives, sure.  But as I seek to find my place in this forward movement for a city that still struggles to offer opportunities, I’m interested in what it’s like to work at the Steak and Shake.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Feds-and Memphis-Innovate on Bike Facilities

For many years, municipal engineers and planners around the United States have been limited by outdated design standards for bicycle facilities in the United States.  

Currently, due to outdated federal standards, many bikeway designs that are common in Europe and Canada -- like bike boxes, colored pavement markings, bike-only signals, and buffered bike lanes -- are still considered "experimental" in the U.S.
U.S. bikeway design guidelines are outlined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a document that, amongst other recommendations, specifies that bike facilities should *stop* 20 feet in advance of intersections (the place where 50-70% of all collisions occur) and specifically prohibits "separated" bike facilities (the design norm in cities where mode shares tower in the double digits).

One of the major problems with outdated federal standards, as cited by Bike Portland, is that municipalities can't use federal money for improvements if they're not in compliance with the MUTCD.  Another problem is tort liability: many engineering divisions fear being held liable for accidents in facilities not specifically recommended by the MUTCD.   While few municipalities have been sued, and even fewer held liable, the concern is oft cited. 

But according to Bike Portland, these traditional American design standards could be changing.  And soon.  

Mike Wetter, Senior Advisor to Portland Metro Council President David Bragdon, 
says that in part due to Metro's work in raising this issue to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood's office last fall, the US DOT may soon give 'interim approval' to (innovative) designs which would expedite their use across the country.
We here in Memphis have recently felt these waves of change welling out of Washington.
You may have read about Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton's 2010-2011 Bike Facilities Program announced a couple weeks ago, or read about the first installment in that campaign: The Horn Lake Bike Lanes.  The kinds of recommendations in that article, painted stripes at high conflict points, are exactly the kinds of facilities that the DOT hopes to encourage.  

Perhaps most excitingly for Memphians are plans currently under consideration to implement world class bike facilities in the heart of the city.  In the past month, building on more than 2 years of work and innovation from community partners and business leaders, plans for a series of world class bicycle facilities have been proposed for Cooper St. in midtown Memphis.  

The plans, which are far from finalized, are based on input from community residents, business owners, and bicycle riders.  They propose implementing facilities which have been proven to increase the number of riders in the roadway while decreasing net injuries, and they have been reviewed by City Engineers and representatives of Mayor A.C. Wharton's staff.  The Mayor's staff has continually emphasized the Mayor's interest in seeing innovative bicycle facilities implemented in Memphis.  

Because the proposed facilities are still outside the jurisdiction of the MUTCD, a Request to Experiment (RTE) must be filed with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of the facilities.  The RTE also ensures the blessing of the Federal government. 

City Engineers have expressed an interest in working with local advocates to assemble the RTE, and in an amazing demonstration of interest, the plans received attention from the FHWA.  A call from the FHWA this week outlining their interest in working with Memphis to assemble an RTE was a sign that the federal government has a keen interest in implementing these innovative and effective bicycle facilities.  

Bike Portland reports that standardization of bike boxes and painted bike lanes may be imminent.   Portland transportation officials 
want the US DOT to work in cooperation with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO, the city version of AASHTO), provide interim approval for several new (in the U.S.) bikeway designs, work with NACTO to develop the forthcoming "Cities for Cycling Urban Bikeway Design Guide" and implement the findings of an FHWA-sponsored fact-finding mission to bike-friendly cities in Europe that took place in May 2009.
Finally Earl Blumenauer, an Oregonian congressman second in the pantheon of great congresspeople only to Memphis' very own Rep. Steve Cohen, has been in productive dialogue with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on advancing bike design standards.  Blumenauer said
As the Secretary himself has noted, we’ll have to move beyond current design standards if we want to create truly livable communities, where people can walk and bicycle safely.
Things are happening fast now, fair readers.  Stay tuned.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Momentum Building for a World Class Bike Culture in Memphis

Memphis has long enjoyed a strong recreational bicycle culture with dozens of races throughout the year.

But in my journey studying bicycle communities across four continents this past year, I was inspired by the diverse qualities of urban bicycle cultures. The opportunity to visit cities replete with bike commuters, bike-based musical events and innovative bike sports illustrated that urban bike cultures are quickly growing across the world.

And Memphis', it seems, isn't so far behind the curve.