I shared a feel-good article on social media about how the leadership in Memphis – which I deeply admire – has worked through difficulty to make some high return investments in biking infrastructure. Memphis leader, Strong Towns advocate and good friend Tommy Pacello provided a follow up link to some of the data behind the revelation. While predictable, it is still stunning.
There are a fair number of whites that commute by bike, but there is a much larger percentage of African Americans doing so. These commuters tend to be in their early years in the workforce and predominantly male, although there is a good percentage of female bikers as well.
Having some knowledge of Memphis’ demographics and neighborhood configurations, it would not be a stretch to postulate that many of these commuters are biking, at least in part, because they can’t afford a car. Or because they have more critical things to spend their money on than car payments, gas, maintenance and insurance.
It should be noted that these are neighborhoods that, by and large, pay a higher tax rate per acre than any other part of the city, excluding the core downtown. The people that live there don’t frequently show up at your typical public hearing, don’t participate in formal visioning sessions at city hall and statistically don’t vote at the same rate as those more empowered.
Take these paradigm-shifting facts together and you can start to see why the brave leadership of Memphis is standing their ground in the face of opposition to improving biking and walking infrastructure.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Thursday evening, an angry crowd told city leaders they want Riverside Drive back to four lanes alongside Tom Lee Park.
This was the second input meeting after the changes were made.
The road is now one lane in each direction, with two lanes dedicated to biking, jogging and walking.
Most people at the meeting want all four lanes of traffic returned, but city officials did not include that as an option in any of the four alternative plans presented.
Every now and then someone stands up and demands that I point to cities that are doing the “right” thing, ones that are growing to be a strong town. Memphis is not perfect. Their conversation is messy. They progress in fits and starts. Old, worn out thinking continues to creep into the conversation. Still, I am more optimistic about the future of Memphis than just about any city in this country. They are truly asking the right set of questions.
Most cities (including Memphis, to a degree) are comfortable embracing biking and walking investments as recreational amenity. This is not only elitist but an ill-informed viewpoint. Biking is transportation. Walking is transportation. If you want to empower your people, if you want to make your city financially strong and resilient, follow Memphis by making incremental investments to improving biking and walking throughout the core neighborhoods of your community.
Think what we are doing is important? Consider becoming a member of Strong Towns today.