Memphis has moved from nowhere to a list of cities now being recognized for its growing biking movement.  We asked Anthony Siracusa, a leader for a more bikable Memphis, to explain the significance of being chosen as one of six cities honored by Bikes Belong Foundation.  Here’s his response followed by media coverage of the announcement:

by Anthony Siracus

Earlier this week, Memphis was one of six U.S. cities honored by the Bikes Belong Foundation as participants in the “Green Lane Project.”  The six cities were chosen from more than 42 metro-areas applicants for their commitment to developing protected bicycle lanes, or on-street bicycle lanes protected from automobile traffic by a physical buffer.  Protected, on-street bikeways have – for decades – defined cities large and small in Denmark and the Netherlands.  But in America, where traffic engineers are bound largely to the auto-centric design standards outlined in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), there is little technical guidance for and few domestic examples of protected bikeways.

That is, until now.  For the cities selected to participate in the Green Lane Project, engineers and city officials will work as a national leadership team to develop best practices for protected bikeway design in America.  This work of patenting new street design will provide a notable degree of comfort for traffic engineers and city officials across the country, due in part to a subsidized fact finding trip for city engineers, Mayors and other officials that will allow them to analyze protected bikeways in Denmark and the Netherlands.  The Green Lane Project is, for this reason, an initiative with tremendous national significance for progress towards complete streets, livable communities, and sustainable development.

So yes: the Green Lane Project is a big deal.  But for the City of Memphis, being named among this elite cohort of cities is especially significant.
From Worst to First?

In both 2008 and 2009, Memphis enjoyed the dubious distinction of being named one of the three worst cities for cycling in the United States by Bicycling Magazine – a magazine with national readership topping out at more than 60 million.  Memphis, as we know well, has stood at the top of many recent lists: The Daily Beast named us the 4th dumbest city in America in 2010, named us the ugliest city in the nation, and Forbes ranked us the third worst city for crime and political corruption in 2010.

And while we like to ignore national press when it reflects poorly on our city, as it largely has since Time Magazine’s designationof our city as a “decaying Mississippi River town” in 1968, national press matters.  And it matters because people inside the city and outside the city read it.

As part of the Green Cycle Lane Project, Memphis will join Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and Washington D.C. as an elite cadre of urban areas committed to developing the safest and most effectiveinfrastructure for bicycling in the United States.   Memphis, unique in its appearance beside these cities, is being asked to help take the lead in national bicycle infrastructure development.

This is good press – and that’s important.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has long been committed to “attracting and retaining” young talent.  His “Colleges of Memphis” program is a cornerstone of this initiative, and his staffer Douglas Scarborough is officially tasked with this complex challenge of making Memphis a great place for young people.   But how do you attract talent?

The Green Cycle Lane designation is a perfect example of you how you do it.

When I opened my “Memphis Bicycle” Google Alert on Wednesday morning, six separate articles – including posts from Portland, Washington D.C. and  Jackson Hole, Wyoming (who we beat out for this honor, by the way) – mentioned Memphis’ designation as a Green Cycle Lane city.  People read this stuff – particularly young people – and our place beside powerhouse cities for young talent like D.C. and Portland is a confirmation that our city is prepared to be a leader not in crime or poverty, but instead in dynamic initiatives that tackle public health, safe access to public space, and transportation access in a single fell swoop.  That’s attractive.

Stuck in the Gutter No More

Just before the city’s first bicycle lanes were installed on Shady Grove Road in 2008, Memphis received its first designation as one of the worst cities for cycling in the nation.  In a May 2008 Commercial Appeal article, then-City Engineer Wain Gaskins was asked why Memphis did not have more bicycle infrastructure:

“A major reason Memphis has no bike lanes — while suburbs such as Germantown and Lakeland do — has to do with storm-drain grates, Gaskins said. The ones traditionally used have had slots running parallel to the curb, meaning bike wheels could fall into them. ‘We were not going to put the city in that kind of liability situation,’ Gaskins said.”

As City Engineer, Mr. Gaskins presided over the first 3.5 miles of bicycle lanes constructed in Memphis in 2008.  In 2009, the Memphis MPO announced that American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) federal stimulus dollars would be used to stripe 32 additional miles of bicycle lanes.  But as the city council prepared to accept the ARRA money, it became clear that the City Engineer had no intention of using this federal money to create additional bicycle lanes.  When questioned by then-City Council Chair Harold Collins about his intentions to exclude bicycle lanes, Gaskins claimed his office was under-staffed, and therefore could not prepare the bike striping plans.  In a previous political era, such hijinx may have gone unnoticed.

But Gaskins would soon “retire” as City Engineer, which given Mayor Wharton’s ire at his infidelity, came as no surprise.  In a rare show of frustration, Mayor Wharton stated:

“’I’m more than disappointed (about Gaskins behavior),’ Wharton told WREG-TV. ‘I’ll have to use decent language here. I’m angry about it. If I were out on the street with you, I’d use another word.’”

32 miles of bike lanes, 16 months, and 1 engineer later, the bicycle movement is thriving under the outstanding leadership of City Engineer John Cameron and Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz.  The Wolf River Greenway, funded and designed by the City of Memphis with assistance from the Hyde Family Foundation, provides bicycle riders and pedestrians with a safe crossing of the Wolf River near Shelby Farms – and the entire trail system is now linked to the Shelby Farms Greenline.  The city has received $1.2 million to fund an additional 50 miles of bicycle lanes, county Mayor Mark Lutrell’s administration applied for and received a $3 million grant to extend the Shelby Farms Greenline, and Mayor Wharton’s engineering lieutenant John Cameron continues to lead a working group that will develop a complete streets policy for Memphis by May.

Advocates spent years stuck in the gutter – arguing with the City Engineer about sewer grate design – and now our city is sprinting to the head of the pack as a national leader in bicycle infrastructure.

It Gets Better

Perhaps more significant than anything else, Memphis’ selection as a city in the Green Cycle Lane Project affirms the restoration of faith for Memphians in our town that has accompanied our new Mayor’s leadership.  We are getting better, and the Green Cycle Lane designation is an acute example of our improvement.

For as Robert Kennedy said:

“The city is…a place where people should be able to live in dignity and security and harmony, where the great achievements of modern civilization and the ageless pleasures afforded by natural beauty should be available to all. It is not more bigness that should be our goal.  We must attempt, rather, to bring people back to…the warmth of community, …of individuals working together as a community, to better their lives and their children’s future.”

Advocates, policy makers, merchants, property owners and neighbors have worked diligently to make Memphis into a better city for bicycling, and this national recognition is an affirmation of this community wide-effort to make our city a great city.

And while we should be proud, as my friend Matt Farr says – we’ve only reached the base camp at the summit of Everest.  That is, of course, quite the achievement.  But the real work lay ahead of us.

Anthony Siracusa is the founder of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop in Cooper-Young. He also serves as co-founder and President of Bike Walk Tennessee.a