How Memphis became a cycling city

Memphis was recently named the “Most Improved City for Cycling,” and this shift toward a bike-friendly culture was not accidental. Through coordinated strategy and investment of government, community and business, the Bluff City has seen a cycling awakening.
The beginning of spring in Memphis is the time when many casual riders pull their bikes out of storage, air up the tires, grease the chain and take to the streets. Interest in bicycling across the city has spiked over the past few years as various city infrastructure initiatives have taken shape and new bike clubs and weekly casual rides have organized.

“More people are bicycling every single day here in Memphis, and the number of people who are commuting to work by bicycle has doubled over the last three to four years,” says Kyle Wagenschutz, Bikeway/Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Memphis. “On average, we estimate that about 5,000 trips are made every day in Memphis by bicycle. That’s a pretty substantial number, and one that we’re convinced is directly linked to the amount of infrastructure that’s been built over the past four years.”

The number of people pedaling to work is inching closer to the national average, according to the "State of Bicycling" report released by the City of Memphis on March 1. The report, released every two years, details progress made since 2010 and much more planned through 2016.

Building an Infrastructure
The city has added more than 71 total miles of bicycle-related infrastructure since 2010, more than doubling the previous total of only 62.4 total miles. New projects planned through 2016 will double the number again, ramping up total bicycle-specified miles to 273.3.

“One of our goals has always been to make sure that, no matter where people live in the city, they have equal access to safe bicycling facilities,” Wagenschutz says. Future projects will include new paths in Millington, Raleigh, and South Memphis by next year, and design work is underway for the Chelsea Avenue Greenline in North Memphis. He says neighborhoods for new bike lane projects were selected from input and requests from the local community.

Other changes by the city include the planned Harahan Bridge project.

“Currently Memphis is the only river crossing for bikes and pedestrians for 100 miles in either direction, so for the thousands of people that choose to ride across the country each year Memphis becomes a key point in that crossing,”  Wagenschutz says. “The Harahan project will be a game changer for making crossing the river safe, and I think it will be a game changer for downtown in general.”

The city also plans to introduce more than 22 miles of green lanes (or cycle tracks) in the next two years (including the two-mile Hampline in the Binghamton neighborhood). The city installed its first protected green lane last fall along Overton Avenue between Bellevue and Cleveland.

“This is the next generation of bicycle infrastructure that is being developed and modeled after what successful European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been doing since the 1970s,” explains Wagenschutz, who also points to U.S. cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York and Chicago as leading examples.

“If we account for the new infrastructure coming in, we expect to be getting closer to the national average for number of people riding bikes,” says Wagenschutz, who pointed out that Memphis was named “Most Improved City for Cycling” by Bicycling magazine in 2012 after the city had made the “worst” list in both 2008 and 2010.

Building a Community
And the new bike infrastructure is bringing cyclists of all kinds together. Casual organized neighborhood rides are becoming more and more popular throughout the city.

“People are more health-conscious than before, and riding on the roads is much better than it was ten years ago. Because there are more people riding, there is more respect for riders,” says Tulio Bertorini, president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club (MHBC). “The situation’s definitely improved significantly over the past five to ten years. I remember going on rides years ago where it was common to have things thrown at you or to be nearly run off the road by cars.”
The MHBC’s membership has more than tripled during the past five-plus years, spiking to more than 1,200 members this year.

The recent St. Patrick’s Day Ride on March 15 and the upcoming Charles Finney Memorial Ride (named for the club’s founder) on April 12 are the club’s first major events of spring. Both not only build the cycling community,  but serve as fundraising events for non-profits and neighborhood initiatives. “Last year we were able to donate more than $18,000 to local charities. We want to help the communities and the areas that we use to ride,” says Bertorini, who is also a member of the International Paper Cycling Team that rides in the annual “Bike MS: Fedex Rock N Roll Ride” in September. The club has also partnered for events with organizations like the Moscow Food Pantry in Fayette County and the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry in Memphis, and it will team up with the West Cancer Clinic for the “Bluff City Blues 100 Ride to Fight On” on October 11.

The Tour de Grizz, which took place on March 20, is more evidence of cycling’s growing popularity in Memphis. The Memphis Grizzlies partnered with the Memphis Zoo for the event, which included a ticket for an afternoon trip to the zoo followed by a police-escorted bike ride to and from that night’s Grizzlies game. This year the ride sold out its 500-ticket allotment for the third straight year.

“In our first year we had about 30 cyclists join us for the event,” says Jason Potter, Memphis Grizzlies Director of Promotions and Event Marketing and an avid cyclist. “It’s become a family event that people anticipate. It gets great reaction, participation and excitement from fans of both the Grizzlies and the zoo.”

Potter points out that the Tour de Grizz gives people a chance to see different parts of the city in the different way. “You get to see the city by bike, which gives such a different perspective, awareness and connection with your surroundings than when seen by automobile. You are involved in the environment instead of just seeing it pass by in a car,” says Potter, who regularly commutes to work by bike in the spring and summer. “Exercising lightly to and from work could save you from having to go to the gym. It’s a wonderful pastime for its health and environmental benefits.”

He points out that when they started the event six years ago, the infrastructure in the city did not exist as it does today for cycling. “It was before things like the Shelby Farms Greenline and dedicated bike lanes in the city,” says Potter. “I really attribute the growth in the accessibility of cycling in Memphis to the opening of the Greenline.”

Potter trains with the Bosco’s Cycling Team and has helped to raise more than $60,000 for multiple sclerosis over the past two years from participation in the “Bike MS: Fedex Rock N Roll Ride."

“I just enjoy cycling in Memphis, and it is really special to see it grow to a younger generation of kids who will always have those memories and experiences, hopefully growing with a bike as a part of their lives,” he says.

Building a Business
Clark Butcher and Robert Taylor, co-owners of Victory Bicycle Studio on Broad Avenue, are happy that the new Hampline bike and pedestrian path will run just ten feet from their shop’s front door. The new two-mile protected bike path will extend through the Binghamton neighborhood, connecting the Shelby Farms Greenline into the Overton Park area.

“The Hampline is going to impact our business and give us some good exposure, and overall I think it will be good for everybody’s business – like bike shops in Bartlett, East Memphis or Cordova – because it will get more people out onto their bikes,” Butcher says. Victory is located within the Broad Avenue redevelopment district and has experienced strong growth since opening more than three years ago, just before the Shelby Farms Greenline opened nearby.

“I think a congested bicycle path is a home run. On any pretty day during the year, the Greenline is congested, so all that says is that we need more (bike paths),” Butcher says.

Victory focuses on keeping customers engaged after they leave the shop through special events at places like the Levitt Shell in Midtown or The Brass Door downtown, as well as its annual CycloCrunk event in October, when all money collected for entry fees goes to the bar tab after the last race. “The entire industry has become more accommodating – cities have become more accommodating with roads, and bicycle manufacturers have become more accommodating with a better bike for the price,” Butcher says.

The next step for Memphis could be the implementation of a “bike sharing” program. Led by cities like New York and Chicago, the total number of bike sharing stations in the U.S. more than doubled last year, from 835 at the end of 2012 to 1,925 in 2013, according to beyonddc.com.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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