South Memphis is an incubator for pedestrian improvements under national initiative

Much of the conversation about improvements in South Memphis centers on building better spaces for residents to learn, work and play. But, there are also investments being made to provide safe, accessible means for residents to travel. Since 2017, the Memphis Big Jump Project has been developing ways to improve mobility options and foster safer streets in the ZIP codes 38103, 38106, 38109 and 38126. 

The local effort is part of a national, three-year community development initiative established by the nonprofit, People For Bikes. From a field of 100 applicants, Memphis is one of 10 cities that will receive targeted investment to its neighborhood of choice – South Memphis – to improve walking, bicycling and traffic calming.

“Anything we can do as a city to make it easier and safer to walk and bike isn’t just a recreation benefit, it’s improving quality of life,” said Nicholas Oyler, manager of the Bikeway and Pedestrian Program for the City of Memphis. “That’s really why we went with South Memphis. We know that about one-third of households in South Memphis do not have access to a car.”

Working alongside Oyler and the City of Memphis are 13 additional local partners. In addition, there is an advisory committee of local neighborhood stakeholders and organizations.

One-third of households in South Memphis do not have access to a car.

Local partners and the advisory committee identified five benefits of Memphis Big Jump:  safety, neighborhood networking, community programming, local business support, and publicity.

For transportation safety in South Memphis, the project includes re-surfacing and re-design of multiple streets.

“We conducted a number of workshops last February, where we guided residents through a design process and let them tell us what they wanted to see,” Oyler said. “By and large, they wanted to slow down traffic and make it safer to walk.”

One of the residents who has helped vocalize transportation concerns is Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson, executive director of SCORE CDC.

“Folks view walkability as a plus. However, sidewalks are in great disrepair. They create a hazard to not only walkers but to wheelchair residents. There are instances when a person in a wheelchair can be seen traveling in the street because of the badly damaged sidewalks,” Matlock Hutchinson said. 

With the national backing of Big Jump, Memphis moved expeditiously on neighborhood street and sidewalk construction plans. A major player in the completion of this portion of the project is local partner The Works Inc., a nonprofit that serves the housing and community development needs of South Memphis. The nonprofit distributed mailers and helped advertise the construction plans to local residents.

“It’s not enough to just put down a new bike lane in a neighborhood and then walk away and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. If people in the neighborhood don’t understand what this new infrastructure is, or appreciate it, or know how it benefits them, then, at best, it’s not going to get used. And, at worst, there could be a sense of resentment,” Oyler said.

The resurfacing of Mississippi Boulevard is nearly complete with final striping and signage underway. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Walker Avenue are next up for re-designs.

Traffic calming is also part of the safety strategy for Memphis Big Jump. Solutions under consideration include pedestrian crossings signals and beacons, protected bike lanes, bike sharing and traffic circles.

Local project partner Explore Bike Share (EBS) has taken a lead on showcasing alternative means for transportation. Launched in May, the nonprofit installed seven bike share stations in South Memphis. With a boost from the Big Jump project, it hopes to install more.

“We still have a lot of work to do to fully realize our goals in South Memphis. Habits and attitudes take time to change, but we're in it for the long haul,” noted Trey Moore, executive director of EBS.

Related: "Bike share program will connect South Memphis, Orange Mound & Binghampton with core city"

“Our plan is to increase the number of bike share locations in South Memphis in 2019, from seven to 12 or more. EBS is planning to offer cash payment options through community partners in the area and provide lower-priced membership options.” 

Oyler added, “The reality is there are a variety of options out there that we don’t use that are pretty commonplace in other cities. Things like neighborhood traffic circles, which are like mini roundabouts. We want to use South Memphis as a proving ground for some of these traffic calming methods that actually have some advantages over things we have been using.”

Exposure to other transportation best practices across the country and aboard played a part in educating and uniting the neighborhood around this project. People For Bikes, in addition to The Hyde Family Foundation, paid for eight members of the Memphis advisory committee to participate in a study trip to the Netherlands over the summer. Participants produced a community project, and current ideas up for implementation include a simulator-based bicycle safety course and safety park for neighborhood youth and bicycle motocross-style pump track.

Building a sense of responsibility around Memphis Big Jump is part of the big picture of making transportation a sustainable opportunity. Organizers of Memphis Big Jump have recruited about 15 youth and adult resident ambassadors to promote the benefits of walking and biking.

Ambassadors are trained on how to safely ride a bicycle, fix flat tires, repair brakes and more. In addition, they receive leadership development relating to neighborhood development and safety awareness. Weekly, ambassadors also lead the free Glide Ride where anywhere from 10 to 80 people come together for a slow-paced group bicycle ride through South Memphis.

Local partner Revolutions Bicycle, a nonprofit dedicated to making bicycling a desirable transportation option, has taken the lead on training ambassadors.

“Revolutions was a natural partner to do that education work,” explained Sylvia Crum, director of Revolutions Bicycle. “The Big Jump Project is meant to focus on a specific neighborhood and see if we get things right. Does it make it safer for everyone, since we’re all pedestrians at some point on-foot, to be in that neighborhood? It’s very important that residents participate and be the ones inviting other residents.”

Partnership has worked two ways for another local partner, Knowledge Quest. The urban farming nonprofit aims to utilize bicycles to launch delivery services from its Green Leaf Learning Farm.

“Knowledge Quest intends to hire teenagers who don’t have driver’s licenses from the neighborhood to be the ones actually doing the deliveries. There are cost savings for Knowledge Quest because they don’t have to worry about the gas and car maintenance and all the insurance that would come with a delivery truck,” Oyler explained. “Knowledge Quest is in the process of purchasing the bikes and we hope to have it up and running by their next growing season.”

Nearing the halfway point of the initiative, fall will be a busy time for Memphis Big Jump. On October 27, the Memphis Big Jump Open House will take place at 10:30am at the Gaston Community Center, 1048 S. Third Street. There, the draft implementation plan and one-month traffic calming demonstration project for Walker Avenue will be officially launched. Concurrently, a Glide Ride will kick off at South Memphis Farmers Market, 1400 Mississippi Boulevard.

With the completion of the national Big Jump initiative, estimated for 2020, Memphis will be one of the cities featured in a project documentary that will be produced by Active Towns. Follow the progress of the project at

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Read more articles by Ashlei Williams.

Memphis native Ashlei Williams has been writing for business, philanthropic, minority and academic audiences for a decade. She earned her master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School and bachelor’s in English from Spelman College. In 2016, she started GJC Publicity, focusing on editorial, marketing, advertising and creative writing. Get in touch with her at [email protected].