Efforts underway to increase Memphis transit ridesharing

As the number of bike lanes in Memphis have exploded, the movement to get more commuters to consider other options is growing, from better utilization of public transit to bike to work and other efforts.

Don’t be caught off guard at the sight of cyclists mixing with the usual rush-hour traffic in Memphis on May 20.

The annual Bike to Work Day is meant to show Memphians there are viable options to automobiles in getting around the city. National Bike to Work Day comes out of the National Bike Month, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists and celebrated across the U.S. National Bike to Work Week is May 16-20, although some communities celebrate at other times. Chicago, for example, celebrates in June when the weather is more likely to cooperate.

The Memphis effort is the public face of a broader issue to explore transportation options in the city and how they can work together, from biking to the grocery to using car sharing, Uber and even increasing the use of Memphis Area Transit Authority buses.

“It might be too much for some people to think about biking to work but they could bike on their neighborhood trips and it becomes part of their routine,” said Suzanne Carlson, Innovate Memphis transportation and mobility project manager.
The idea with Bike to Work Day is Memphians will give it a try and realize it’s possible, whether to get to work, go to the grocery or to meet a friend for lunch. It’s not about making Memphians give up the use of a car altogether, but rather to realize riding a bike can be integrated into a routine, whether it’s once a week or just when the weather cooperates.

Providing transportation options beyond the automobile is important for the city’s growth, Carlson said.

It’s a process that takes time but it had to start somewhere. There was one mile of bike lanes in Memphis in 2010. There were 200 miles in 2015.

“Nationally, the trend is as cities build safe accessible bike infrastructure on streets bike rates have increased,” Carlson said. “That’s what we’re looking to do here. One national speaker talks about ages 8 to 80 for cycling. Once cities achieve that they see increases. Then see more people cycle and start to identify it as something you can do. There is safety in numbers and as people see it the car drivers realize they are there.”

Not everyone needs to own a bike to participate in a cycling environment, especially as Explore Bike Share comes online, possibly in 2017. Explore Bike Share is launching a bike sharing system in Memphis that will give users the opportunity to pay for bikes by the hour, day, week or month.

“Memphis has seen a ton of innovation around placemaking with Crosstown and Overton Square, for example,” said Sara Studdard, project manager of Explore Bike Share for DCA and president of the organization’s board of directors. “We see the next opportunity is transportation. Bike sharing is a tool for the larger puzzle to transportation in Memphis. Our goal is that it will be a tool for Memphis residents and organizations to use to grow the community, get people to jobs, exercise and socialize with friends.

“We don’t all have bikes or room in our homes for bikes. Bike Share will be a really accessible tool for everyone to use.”
A 2013 feasibility study looked at how a bike sharing model could work in Memphis. About a year and a half ago, a group led by DCA principal Doug Carpenter came together to discuss where things stood. DCA was funded to take on the project and an advisory group came together.

That group has about 25 members and a board of directors with eight members.

In addition to creating a bike share entity, part of the effort includes education.

“Looking at transportation as a larger piece through our community input sessions we realize there is a perception of Memphis that the geography that we are spread out and not really connected,” Studdard said. “But look at FedExForum to South Memphis is a 16-minute bike ride. We’re closer than we think and we believe Bike Share can help us connect as a community.”

The lack of neighborhood density where high concentrations of jobs and residences are, for example, does present a challenge. A key is the continuation of bringing more people back to the city center, which will enable the creation of a more robust walking and biking network, Carlson said.

One challenge that isn’t going away with the flip of a switch is the amount of service that has to be provided to a greater land area. Geographically, Memphis is about the size of Dallas with half the people. That lack of density places an extra burden on Memphis Area Transit Authority as it works to make its routes more efficient.

That includes examining bus routes in the community to see how they match up with changing employer location trends. And efforts to reduce delays and other service improvements can work with efforts such as Explore Bike Share to help connect those pieces.

“Bike Share solves the first mile, last mile problem,” Carlson said. “You may have a bus route to where you’re going but maybe a little too far to walk the rest of the way. It makes Uber or the transit system start to make sense.”

Studdard said the idea is that bike share stations will connect to MATA via strategic locations along popular bus routes.
“How do we help with that last mile with folks getting to work where bus routes maybe don’t fit,” Studdard said. “Bike Share can fill in those gaps.”

Technology also will help. The TransLoc app, for example, is doing a beta test in Memphis that connects transit to Uber. The trip planner shows transit routes to a destination or Uber options.

Maybe a bus gets a person within a mile of a destination. Uber can finish the route.

Studdard said people tend to label themselves as a car driver, bike rider or transit user. But the new transit reality sees those labels blurred.

“You don’t have to be one,” she said. “You can take a car one way and take a bike share home or even Uber. We think bike share will add another asset for people to think differently about how they commute.”

An effort that will start soon will see Innovate Memphis, through the Commute Options program, look to reduce drive-alone commuting and increase use of transit, walking, rideshare and bicycling. Communication with a select group of worksites will help understand what goes into the commuting decisions of employers and employees.

The result could be the creation of workplace programs and incentives that could serve as examples for other employers across Memphis to encourage the increased adoption of transit options.

“Some of it comes down to small steps,” Carlson said. “For example, going to the grocery store. Can we get people to try riding a bike if they had a certain type of bag on a bike? That trip can fit easily into their pattern.”

Organizations are setting the example. Memphis in May International Festival had bike racks stationed at the entrances to Beale Street Music Festival. And the Levitt Shell will promote biking to its summer concert series.

Neighborhood efforts also make a difference, showing that the increased use of cycling doesn’t have to be on a grand idea of biking 10 miles to work.

Back to Bike to Work Day. Carlson said people interested in the effort should register at biketoworkmemphis.com. Some businesses will do promotions that encourage riders to check in.

Other communities have business competitions, but in Memphis education is an important part of the effort, even on the most basic level.

The need for a shower after arriving at work is an initial barrier for commuters hesitant to bike to work. But as Carlson points out, commuting on a bicycle is different than racing on one. It’s not a fast ride.

Bringing a change of clothes to wear for work is helpful. Other bike commuters might have methods that include using baby wipes to freshen up.

“I think it’s just doing it for the first time and if a shower is an option it’s important for employers to let people know that,” Carlson said.

Offering incentives is another idea. Employers in Downtown Memphis typically pay for parking. What if bike riders received financial incentives, or free transit passes were offered to encourage an increase of bus riders?

It’s just one more idea in a movement full of them, from car sharing to bike sharing, Uber and even improved public transit, all in an effort to increase ridesharing.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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