Madison Heights

Medical District steps up to Commute Challenge and shared mobility

May marks the third annual Commute Challenge, Innovate Memphis month-long initiative to encourage Memphians across the metro area to ditch ride-alone commutes in favor of biking, walking or shared transportation.

Throughout the month, individuals and companies can log the miles they travel by bike, foot or shared transport for work, lunch and meetings. Mileage is converted to points, and every six points earns an entry into weekly drawings for prizes. The challenge culminates in a wrap party on May 31 with awards for top commuters and companies. The top three companies also win a pizza party.

Last year 231 participants logged more than 1,100 bike commutes, 1,300 carpools, 300 mass transit rides and 700 walking trips in one month.

This year’s special events include a bike ride with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on May 15 and the May 17 Bike to Work Day. Bike riders in Downtown and Midtown can also join the weekly Bike Train Tuesday, a group ride or “train” with designated stops. 

Participants use RideAmigos to track their travels, connect to coworkers for shared commuting and locate bus routes and Explore Bike Share stations. Partner Memphis Medical District Collaborative is providing access and support for RideAmigos. 

“It’s kind of this one-stop-shop mobility tool,” said Taylor Smith, program associate with MMDC.

Sylvia Crum, Innovate Memphis’ Commute Options program manager, said the organization recognizes Memphis is a car-dependent city and alternative commuting won't replace solo commutes overnight. They hope the challenge simply exposes people to the many modes of shared mobility and begins to change behaviors.

“It’s just a chance for folks to try it [and ask], ‘Could I leave my car behind and try a different mode to get to work?,’” said Crum. “We want to be able to celebrate that there are lots of commute options in Memphis and people are out there giving them a try.”

Innovate Memphis is hosting Bike Train Tuesday during the Commute Challenge. Each Tuesday, the train moves from Midtown through the Medical District and into Downtown. Riders can join and get off at designated stops. (Alejandro Paredes)

Beyond the Challenge

Innovative Memphis and MMDC are regular partners in wider alternative transportation efforts across the Medical District. They hope to increase connectivity between people and places, reduce environmental impacts and parking demands and improve equitable access to reliable mass transit options for people in the Medical District.

Studies and surveys conducted by the MMDC show a 97 percent drive-alone rate across the district. 

“[Shared mobility] is important not only environmentally but for the connectivity of the district,” said Smith. “Having more people out walking or using different types of shared mobility opens up not only ways for people to connect and get to know each other but allows the safety and positive perception of the district to increase.”

MMDC and Innovative Memphis have been working with MMDC’s eight anchor institutions, all major medical facilities located in the district, on transportation plans that encourage students and staff to reduce their single-rider travel.

MMDC provides implementation support, education, activities and RideAmigos accounts with ongoing incentives for the anchors’ staff and students. Local businesses in the Medical District offer discounts or lunch specials to alternative commuters and gift certificates as prizes. MMDC is also compiling a digital coupon book of neighborhood businesses.

Southern College of Optometry students voted on the design of the new Groove Shuttle, which will run from the campus in Madison Heights to Harbor Town where 60 percent of students live. The shuttle is a partnership between SCO and the Memphis Medical District Collaborative. (Submitted)

The overarching goal of MMDC’s anchor network is to collaborate to address some of the district biggest concerns like housing, connectivity, aesthetics and amenities so that people who work and learn in the district might also choose to live and play there.

According to MMCD Vice President Abby Miller, the district's anchor institutions employ over 20,000 people, serve some 13,000 students and have a combined operating budget of more than $3 billion. 

"Because of their commitment to place and their economic power, anchors are uniquely positioned to stabilize local economies and begin to reverse the devastating effects of urban disinvestment," she said. 

“It’s been a win-win for all of the anchor institutions,” said Jim Hollifield, anchor Southern College of Optometry’s director of strategic communications and marketing. “You gain respect and knowledge of what’s going on, and there’s been increased communication all the way down to the security, programming opportunities [and] networking.”

Committing to the Alternative

Southern College of Optometry is located at 1245 Madison Avenue near the western edge of Madison Heights, which is one of several distinct neighborhoods in the Medical District.

SCO became a MMDC anchor in February 2016, and in summer 2018 the school began working with MMDC on a transportation plan that incorporates alternative modes of transportation for its roughly 530 students and 200 faculty.

“Hopefully as more people engage [with] other commute options, they’re engaging differently with the Medical District and exploring and discovering new things and connections,” said Rebecca Griffin, SCO’s student services and admissions officer.

Hollifield said it also gives students a deeper empathy for transportation challenges and barriers to healthcare when they've navigated Memphis by bus, bike and foot.

In the last year, SCO has added dedicated carpool parking in prime locations and participated in bike-to-work and walk-to-lunch events. The campus' Explore Bike Share station opened in May 2018 and SCO sponsored a station at Crosstown Concourse where their FocalPoint clinic is located. The school offers MATA passes during challenges and events, a discount for bike share memberships and free bike share passes to prospective students.

In Aug 2018 they partnered with MyCityRides to provide staff and students lease-to-own scooters. They're single-rider but are affordable for low and moderate earners and get almost 90 miles to the gallon.
Don Henson, campus security manager with Southern College of Optometry, poses on a MyCityRide scooter. SCO began offering the scooters to its staff and students in 2018. The scooters are leased-to-own at affordable rates and get almost 90 miles to the gallon. (Submitted)Related: “My City Rides pay-as-you-go scooter purchase program expands to Memphis students

In fall 2018, they partnered with MMDC for a carpool challenge and learning events, and for this year's Commute Challenge, the school participated in MMDC’s May 8 Walk to Lunch Day and will join the May 17 Bike to Work Day.

“I’d say there’s a lot of energy and eagerness to find options that are going to work for everyone in the campus community, students and staff,” said Griffin.

SCO's efforts aren't without challenges, but the staff said it’s part of the learning process. For example, students on campus for ten hours a day and toting suitcases of books and equipment can’t feasibly walk, bike or scooter home.

This summer, SCO is partnering with MMDC to pilot the Groove Shuttle, a free shuttle that will run between the campus and Harbor Town where roughly 60 percent of SCO students live.

“I’m not going to fault someone for not wanting to bike, so it’s sort of meeting them where they’re at and figuring out what other options reduce the number of single car drivers,” said Kate Bucko, SCO’s grants and community engagement coordinator.

SCO currently has only seven employees logging their Commute Challenge trips on RideAmigos because the challenge coincides with finals and the beginning of summer break when students and most employees are off-campus. Griffin said this taught them to push promotion more heavily among year-round staff.

“We will continue when the students come back next year, we’ll have some additional challenges under RideAmigo whether that’s walk or bike or carpool,” said Smith of MMDC and SCO’s ongoing commitment.

The Memphis Medical District Collaborative hosted a Walk to Lunch Day on May 8. Pictured L to R at Los Comales Mexican Bar and Grill in Madison Heights are Southern College of Optometry's Kim Griffin-Pugh, administrative assistant and interview coordinator, Rebecca Griffin, student services and admissions officer, Sunnie Ewing, director of student recruitment, and Christopher Pope, class of 2022. (Submitted)

The partners say the collaboration and long-term investment are worth it. Safe and reliable pedestrian and mass transit options are big selling points for parents and students, and networking with other institutions increases opportunities for hands-on service, a core component of SCO's curriculum. Students are increasingly interested in community engagement and want to know that SCO is committed to reaching beyond its own walls. 

SCO said the Commute Challenge and other shared mobility efforts are one way to literally go beyond the institution and showcase assets that already exist and possibilities for the future. 

“We all know the negative stereotypes about Memphis, but what are the things we want to sing praises about?,” said Bucko.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.