The road to a new transportation network in Memphis

City leaders, urban planners and community groups are looking at new ways to tackle Memphis' transportation challenges
while gauging what citizens want and need.

"Our public transit has a bright future. There's a lot of excitement in the air," said Nicholas Oyler. He is the Transportation Planner for the Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), and he sees good things happening in Memphis.  

According to Smart Growth America, "smart growth" means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. Offering options to people in how they travel in their community plays a vital role in a city's ability to position itself as a community of choice. Memphis leadership, citizens and grassroots organizations have made significant strides in the last 10 years in changing the Bluff City’s transportation menu, but they still have a long road ahead of them.

Future plans for the region include higher capacity for public transit in Midtown, a possible inner city rail system and an additional Memphis-Chicago trip via rail (along with other plans for rail systems), plus the many bike/ped strategies underway.

"The Arkansas (State) Highway and Transportation Department just conducted a feasibility study for a rail line going from Memphis to Little Rock and possibly connecting to Dallas. The MPO was part of those meetings, and TDOT is conducting their long-range plan, and part of that is a possible statewide rail plan," Oyler said. "Memphis is in a very advantageous place for all of these things. We are located in a very critical spot."

"Then there are the Main to Main project (linking Memphis to West Memphis with roads and bike/ped paths), the Hampline (a protected bike lane linking East Memphis to Midtown), and the Shelby Farms Greenline. Once all of these are opened, I think they will act as a catalyst for more development," Oyler said.

Increasing transportation options to service the population spectrum lends itself not just to sustainability but also to keeping Memphis competitive on the national stage, particularly in the eyes of young professionals.

"People want to spend their entire life cycle in neighborhoods where there are more housing options and more transportation options. They want neighborhoods that serve teens, young adults, people starting out working, and the aging population, who want a smaller house and don’t want to drive as much or can't drive as much," said John Paul Shaffer, Livable Memphis Program Director. "With millennials we're seeing they're not wanting to drive as much and not wanting as much house, or they're delaying these things. They're more interested in choices."

"It comes down to trying to broaden people choices for their own mobility," he said.

"We've heard it from everywhere, from outlying counties. People are tired of having to drive half an hour to get anywhere," Oyler said.

New private alternative modes of transportation, including ride-sharing from companies like Uber and Lyft, have further expanded how Memphians get around. Leaders in transportation agree Memphis is at the start of a major shift in its approach to transportation offerings, a change that is long overdue for the city.

Solving sprawl
According to local planners, the road to transportation reform is paved with years of urban sprawl to overcome.

"For many years, for decades, Memphis has experienced one style of development. It's been a very car-oriented style of development," Oyler said.

The implications of this type of system are far-reaching, the first of which is a vicious circle of car dependence. "The more development created for cars with large parking lots and wide roads, the more you increase dependency on cars," Oyler said.

Then there are health issues generated by urban sprawl.

"Car-oriented development promotes a sedentary lifestyle. Fifty years ago, even if you couldn't walk to work, you could walk to the corner store or church or to the park. Now if you want to exercise, you have to make a conscious effort," Oyler said. "If you look at Europe, exercise isn't as much of a craze because they are physically fit, but because it's built into their lifestyle."

Perhaps what has become most obvious to those in city leadership roles are the financial implications of continuous urban sprawl.

"It's financially unsustainable. Take the area of Memphis within the I-240 loop. For the most part the public infrastructure is the same today as it was several decades ago--the same mileage of roads, the same sewer and utilities in place. However, the population density has decreased over the years. The roads and sewers that are there have to be maintained, but the tax revenue has decreased, so the city has to find a way to support the infrastructure there with a decreased revenue source," Oyler said. "People living in the city are supporting development occurring in rural areas while hurting their quality of life inside the city."

Shaffer agrees.

"Basically we've been playing a massive game of catch-up for decades," said Shaffer, who holds a master’s degree in city and regional planning. "There's a laundry list of implications that it's had, including health implications and being financially unsustainable. Our transportation spending is vastly outpacing our funding for it."

Memphis is 315 square miles, with a population of 650,000. By comparison, Atlanta is 134 square miles with 420,000 people. This creates obvious challenges in moving the dispersed population of Memphis about.

"We have a very sprawling land use pattern, and our population is stagnant. It's just being redistributed. Our region isn't growing by any significant measures. It's just spreading out," Shaffer said. "We can barely afford to maintain what we have."

And the financial implications on individuals play a part in the conversation as well. "Maintaining a car is very expensive. It's a huge cost. And by providing transportation only for cars, that's like regressive taxation," Shaffer said.

An awakening
There have been movements to change this dynamic, both from the City and from grassroots campaigns working to shift the way our community looks. In the past four years Memphians have seen more than 100 miles of bike lanes created.
Tactical urbanism efforts have sprung up, with neighborhoods taking ownership of their streets and focusing on walkability. The city has seen neighborhood stakeholders create small changes, such as pedestrian crosswalks and street diets, that have had larger implications, including business development and increase in residents.

These mobilizations are all part of an awakening taking place in Memphis that is part of a larger conversation.

"Memphis is seeing that expanding and annexing are no longer sustainable ways to grow its tax base. We are seeing we already have a mountain of maintenance," Shaffer said.

Shaffer suggests planners and developers turn their eyes back toward the idea of center city density and underutilized areas. "I think, in the long term, communities that are somewhat more dense and more walkable and have more transportation options will be more competitive, and they will be cheaper to maintain," he said.

"The cost to deliver services on a per-person basis is much better in a high-density community," Oyler said.

And city leaders seem to be listening. Citizens want options in their travel choices, and in response public officials are looking to expand the city's options beyond the car-only model. "If you build a street that's only built for cars, that's not a choice," Shaffer said.

A city built to be traveled by car limits mobility to only those with vehicles and limits economic development by placing the financial burden of owning a vehicle on the taxpayers. "We have to rethink the entire way we build or rebuild communities. First we have to reinvest in the communities we already have."

Keeping jobs in these communities is one component to reinvestment.

"We need to focus on neighborhoods with existing infrastructure that's underdeveloped or that has been vacated by the industry, like the Firestone area. There's so much developable land. We need to position them as growth areas so that companies don't have to go out of town to build a facility."

Working together
Both Oyler and Shaffer agree that transportation planners and land use development departments must work in conjunction  to create a more sustainable future.

"It's important to understand the transportation and land use connection. You can't spend millions of dollars on a new light rail system if land use is not compatible," Oyler said. "You have to make sure you have a land use plan in place with an integrated approach."

"We have built ourselves into a system that's practically impossible to serve by transit, where transportation and land use and development have been, if not completely divorced from one another, not coordinated," Shaffer said.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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