The debate about the future alignment of Riverside Drive is about much more than a road.  In truth, it is another indication of how tenuous the movement for a more livable Memphis is.

That’s why bike lanes are about more than bikes and Riverside Drive is about more than a street.

Bike lanes are harbingers of a more livable city with higher quality public spaces – despite conventional wisdom, city streets are indeed public spaces – and in making Memphis’ public spaces better and in making a stronger commitment to urban design, we are in fact investing in a more successful future for Memphis.

Nationally known planner, New Urbanist, and author Jeff Speck said:  “We have the 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.”

More Than About A Street

In the end, Riverside Drive is about much more than bike lanes.

It’s also about providing more parking spaces in response to the growing popularity of Tom Lee Park and Beale Street Landing.

It’s about creating a more park-like roadway through an area that is now essentially a park setting.

It’s about using this prominent place to send the message that Memphis’ new national publicity suggesting that it cares more about people than cars was not an aberration

Surely if there is one place in Memphis where cars should not get priority, the riverfront is it.

It’s about recognizing how a high quality of life is crucial to attracting and creating better jobs that are in turn attracted to the young professionals who are in turn moving to cities with high quality of life.

U-Turn Needed

We should have learned long ago the lessons about how a singular focus on cars has degraded the quality of life of Memphis and Shelby County, driving up public debt, increasing maintenance costs, and paving over potential for a more livable city.

There’s little doubt that traditional thinking here has produced too many roads with too many lanes in too many places.  Lessons from other cities are convincing in the way they teach that changes may be difficult, but once in place, they receive wide support and appreciation as a vital part of the cities’ fabric.

We know that change is always difficult.  Just the simple notion of building bike lanes (like successful cities everywhere) regularly sends up howls of protest, much less a serious commitment to a bikeable community.

Considering that Memphis in May International Festival shuts down all of Riverside Drive for a couple of weeks each year and reduces it to two lanes for that many more, it was more than a little ironic that the festival’s vice-president of programming was prominent among those in recent days taking shots at proposals to make Riverside Drive a better city street.

Not A Speck Of Doubt

We drive Riverside Drive multiple times every day and walk the riverfront often, and its evolution from four-lane raceway that often required pedestrians to make dashes across the four lanes (often to avoid racing commuters or news trucks rushing back to Channel 3 Drive) to get from east to west without getting hit has been a welcome improvement.

The alternatives for Riverside Drive are much more in keeping with the park-like setting that is being sought for the riverfront.   In other words, the street should be treated as a park road rather than as a highway in keeping with the changing personality of this section of the riverfront.

As we blogged at the time, we were afraid City of Memphis erred in implementing a change from four lanes to two lanes that presented a stark and drastic change rather than testing either of the two real alternatives for Riverside Drive (the ones recently put up for public comment).  That said, the present city engineer deserves credit for moving from an office that was long been seen as a barrier to a livable city to one that is now more sensitive to what makes city living more enjoyable.

Our preference for the future alignment of Riverside Drive is the one recommended by nationally known planner Jeff Speck and engineering firm Nelson Nygaard.  It was included in their 74-page report delivered to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton.

Memphis In May Proves It Can Be Done

Mr. Speck drew liberally from the lessons in his latest book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, and his experience as director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co.. He is the co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream as well as The Smart Growth Manual.

Mr. Speck wrote:  “Riverside Drive, which is annually narrowed and closed with little negative impact on the downtown, should be converted from a four-lane speedway to a two-lane ‘complete street,’ including parallel parking and a protected bicycle track along the Mississippi River…Canopy trees should be added where they are lacking and can be planted at limited cost.

“The potentially easiest win on the Memphis riverfront is the reconfiguration of Riverside Drive.  While a vast improvement over the interstate highway that was once planned for this corridor, it still functions much like a highway, moving four to five lanes of traffic speedily through downtown, creating a high-speed barrier that discourages pedestrian activity and river access.  Landscape improvements along Tom Lee Park have already made it more attractive, but have not changed its non-pedestrian nature.  Does Riverside Drive need to take such a strictly automotive form?

“The answer to this question can be found each May, when one-half of the street is closed for two weeks and the entire street is closed for three weeks.  While presenting some temporary inconvenience as people adjust their paths, it is clear that the City’s grid of alternative north-south streets contains more than adequate capacity to absorb the trips typically handled by Riverside Drive.  Such an experience has been mirrored in American cities from coast to coast, where highway removals have repeatedly failed to cause traffic crises.  From New York’s West Side Highway to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, removed road capacity has not had a negative impact on travel times.”

Celebrated placemaker Gil Penalosa has pointed out that the path to a livable city can begin slowly but pick up speed and ultimately change a city’s character for the better.  Obviously, Memphis is on the early stops on this journey, but we should reject those who tell us that it cannot be done.

Why Not Memphis?

Founder and chair of Toronto-based 8-80 Cities and former Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for the City of Bogotá, Colombia, said: “Every city should have a law of two words – pedestrians first.”  “This principle in action means one thing,” he explained. “Livable cities start slowly.  They start with traffic slowed down to 20 m.p.h. in neighborhoods to make pedestrians safe whether they are eight or 80 years old.  Bike lanes are physically separated from roadways so people who would have never considered biking feel safe pedaling their toddlers to school.

“They have public spaces that celebrate public life, including parks where people can gather, play and rest.  And they have clean, fast, public transportation that gives people choices about how to get around. When Gehl Architects founding partner Helle Søholt hears people say change is impossible culturally or financially for their city, she points out that even Copenhagen had to change culturally to be as livable as it is now, with downtown squares that once served as parking lots for commuters are now ringed with restaurants and retail, linked by commercially vibrant walking streets.”

Mr. Penalosa said the cornerstones for livability are walkability, bikeability, public spaces, and public transportation.  “Walkability is about designing streets for everybody and designing for pedestrians first – slow speeds, raised crosswalks, and next, make streets interesting for walkers.  Bikeability isn’t about more Spandex – it’s a woman biking to a business meeting dressed exactly as if she were driving and the first step is to make bikers feel safe.  Walkable streets and other public places are great equalizers; they bring people together, and they can energize people through recreation.  Finally, high-speed buses with dedicated lanes are the most cost-effective way to move people, though offering choices to commuters is best of all.”

These may seem pipe dreams to many people in Memphis, but it’s being done in cities all over the U.S., and we’re hard-pressed to understand why Memphis can’t join them.

To read more about Mr. Penalosa’s cornerstones of walkable, bikeable, livable cities, click here.


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