Transportation conversation begins with parking summit

The Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Innovate Memphis looks to start a broader transportation and parking conversation with a parking summit that brings together national experts with local leaders.
When the Memphis Medical District Collaborative formed earlier this year, the nonprofit organization’s mission in part was to unify the efforts of the various neighborhood entities in reshaping the community.
The health care and educational institutions of the district in many ways work in islands, ones that are separated by large swaths of parking lots and busy streets.
Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Innovate Memphis will hold a summit Oct. 3-4 featuring a group of national experts who will meet with medical district leaders, city government officials and other community and business representatives to talk about parking. More specifically, the idea is to look at how Memphis has possibly more than its fair share of parking and how future development in the city’s core can occur without creating more empty lots and garages.
The Memphis Medical District Collaborative estimates that roughly 270 acres of the greater neighborhood is parking. Tommy Pacello is President of the collaborative. He said the idea for the summit is to look at what currently is done with parking spaces and think about future alternative uses.
“We’ve talked to 2,200 employees and students in the Medical District and one of the things that comes up is transportation and parking and how to get to and from and around the district,” Pacello said. “People do whatever is easiest. Today the easiest way is to drive your personal car and park in a parking space. We might move it a couple of times a day and then you move it at night and go home. It’s easiest because we have so many parking lots.”
The summit isn’t an anti-parking event. Pacello said it’s an opportunity for all of the individual institutions in the medical district to take what they’ve done to address their own parking needs and examine what the collective approach should be.
Gabe Klein is a former transit commissioner for the cities of Washington and Chicago. He’s written and spoken extensively around the world about how to increase the use of buses, bikes and walking. He’s one of the featured speakers at the parking summit.
“We rely on cars and single occupancy, and how it relates to parking is we see that so many people drive and so we think we need more parking,” Klein said. “Data shows us you can’t build your way out of a problem. It’s like thinking the way to help obesity is to get a bigger belt. It doesn’t work that way. All too often we focus on the symptoms instead of the problems. The problem is 75 percent of trips to work are by car.”
Klein said the solution isn’t to make more lanes and parking spaces, but to take them away. In fact, during his time in Washington there was a revamp of the parking system, which included taking away some parking spaces across the city for use as bike lanes.
In Memphis over the past six years the number of bike lane miles has more than quadrupled to an estimate that is well above 250. Encouraging walking and bike riding is a pro-business strategy, too, Klein said.
“If you want to kill real estate values and make it where people don’t want to stop at your store then widen the road and add parking,” he said. “We forgot what cities are like when we built highways. Cities became places for traffic. People from a certain generation their frame of reference is warped. We’ve been living in cities for over 10,000 years. This moment in time where we built around roads is short-sighted.”
 The Memphis Medical District Collaborative estimates that roughly 270 acres of the greater neighborhood is parking
Klein said it takes leaders to step out and have the courage to make change. Visionary leaders must provide the guidance that empowers people to experiment and make mistakes.
The Medical District Collaborative certainly has the opportunity to provide that leadership. Its anchors employ 16,000 people and educate 8,000 students. Many of those new students and employees from outside the city can provide a new point of reference for what transportation issues look like, particularly those who come to Memphis from communities with strong public transportation options.
“When they get here that’s where it falls off,” said Abby Miller, Program and Data Director for the Collaborative. “People look for the easiest solution. People want options and we want a city and district that can provide the options that people want.”
Pacello used the example of his alma mater, University of Georgia where a circulating bus system moves students around the campus. It’s something growing nationally; even the University of Memphis now has the Blue Line.
Those former students become young professionals in the Memphis Medical District, or possibly are in the city to continue a health care education. They come to the Bluff City with expectations for public transportation options that just don’t exist.
But what if the Memphis Medical District actually functioned like a large university campus with a similar transportation option?
“With the parking summit specifically we’re not coming at this with a set of solutions that are prescribed,” Miller said. “We’re not in any way taking a position of this is what needs to be done.”

The summit will feature three leading experts with various perspectives of how to approach the transportation issue. A morning summit will bring together the leadership of partners in the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, city of Memphis stakeholders and other key business leaders with a focus simply on a starting point.
In addition to Klein, the summit will feature internationally renowned transportation and planning experts Allison Simmons and Paulo Nunes-Ueno. The three will meet with various stakeholders to discuss more sustainable and efficient approaches to parking challenges in the city in general and the Medical District specifically.
Nunes-Uneo is an expert in sustainable transportation and effective urban solutions for transit, mobility and parking. As Director of Transportation and Sustainability for Seattle Children’s Hospital, he led the development of Seattle Children’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan and the associated Seattle Children’s Livable Streets Initiative. The commitment to smart transportation and community engagement opened the way to double the hospital while reducing its drive-alone rate and save $25 million in parking construction costs.
Simmons is President of Ease Consult, a Boston-based firm that specializes in sustainable transportation services for nonprofits, companies and municipalities. Over the past 20 years she has worked for several Boston Transportation Marketing Associations, and served as the founding director of the Artery Business Committee TMA, formed as a mitigation measure for Boston’s Big Dig.
There also will be a discussion Oct. 4 at High Cotton Brewery that will focus on “How To Leave Your Car at Home.” Simmons, Nunes-Uneo and Carol Coletta of the Kresge Foundation will lead the discussion that looks at ways Memphians can change transportation behaviors and reduce the use of cars in daily life.
The event is free, but does require registration at
Bringing various community leaders to discuss transportation issues is at the heart of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative’s mission.
“Our charge is connecting dots of what’s happening across the campuses and use them as a way to strengthen the communities between them,” Pacello said. “Transit is just one piece of that. This is a small part of a much larger strategy and thinking about these quality-of-life issues, safety and security, jobs, the environment – all of these things lead into this. One of the connecting factors is the idea of transportation.”
In the end, this summit is simply about having a conversation that moves the issue forward.
“That’s the goal of the parking summit,” Pacello said, “to just say we’ve identified this as a pain point. The quality of the built environment causes the district to struggle a bit. Let’s all get in a room together and hear from other cities about what they’re doing and how do we apply that in Memphis in the Medical District or Downtown?”
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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.