Great Streets pilot project reshapes vision for Memphis roadways

It was a party. A street party to be exact.

Hosted by the Downtown Memphis Commission, the “Street Party for Great Streets” kicked off the Great Streets pilot project on Tuesday, June 27.

The event featured live music, games, refreshments, extended happy hours and sidewalk sales. It also coincided with the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals’ national conference, hosted in Memphis this year.

The City of Memphis, in partnership with the Urban Art Commission, undertook the innovative project to re-envision Memphis streets. Peabody Place in Downtown Memphis got a pedestrian-friendly makeover. 

“We are taking a nearly mile-long corridor through the heart of Downtown and transforming it into a street that works well for everyone who uses it whether they’re on foot, on a bike or in a car,” said Nicholas Oyler, bike and pedestrian Manager for the City of Memphis.

The concept is centered around the belief that high-quality, people-oriented design can transform streets into a true public space. Infrastructure can be elevated to an amenity that’s safe and adds vibrancy to the community.

The city provided a thin layer of the asphalt along the corridor. Everything else – from the paint, decorative and lane markings – was provided by private donations and cost around $200,000.

The timing of the project was coordinated around the 2017 Professional Development Seminar conference. It is one of the largest conferences of its kind in the country. Past meetings had upwards of 400 to 500 attendees.

“It got us thinking: what can we do, being on the national stage for this one week, to show and demonstrate Memphis is doing great things to make our city more walkable, more bikeable,” said Oyler.

While the confab was a motivating factor, the hope is that it will serve as impetus for something larger and permanent.

“The conference is great for one week with visitors in town but it also needed to be something that benefits Memphians. And gets Memphians to start to think that there is an alternative to the way many of our streets are currently designed,” said Oyler.

Most major thoroughfares were designed for automobiles. The concerns of pedestrians, cyclists and riders of public transit were often secondary.

There has been some headway. Bike paths have an imprimatur on many oft-traveled streets connecting Midtown with the Downtown area, for example. But much work still needs to be done to capitalize on the potential.  

"In a city where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, many people don’t have the option of a car. Anything we can do to make it easier for people to get around the city, to access jobs, opportunities for education, or recreation, improves quality of life."

“With support for these kind of projects, these kind of changes, we can do this around the city. It doesn’t have to be just Downtown. All neighborhoods should have great streets,” said Oyler.

The Great Streets pilot project will run an east-west corridor for cyclists and pedestrians from the riverfront to the FedEx area. Bike lanes and a spacious pedestrian plaza will be installed. The latter will feature outdoor dining, pop-up vendors and local art.

The first leg of project started at Peabody Place due to its excess width. For two blocks a lane of traffic has been removed. Some elements are familiar. The restriped road puts parking on either side of the street, one lane eastbound, the other west. The extra width is devoted to pedestrian space, bike lanes and so forth.

In addition, IKEA donated outdoor furniture of tables and chairs for the project.

Financing has been achieved through private sponsorship and donations, which have covered about two-thirds of the $200,000 cost. Dozens of sponsors have emerged. They range from large donors, like FedEx and Autozone, to smaller businesses like Silly Goose Lounge.

All design was done in-house. Oyler drew up the conceptual designs. The city’s engineering staff converted those into construction drawings.

Other big cities in the U.S. have tried similar street improvements in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago which are all first tier and globally recognized.

“I think to bring it to Memphis really is special. It’s something I believe will put us ahead of our peer cities and show we are doing innovative things in Memphis,” said Oyler.

The city targeted Peabody Place for the project due to its excess capacity and way-too-wide lanes.

The ultimate success of the project will be based on performance metrics of City Engineering. Safety, usage, and economic development will be the key. If all things go as planned, in a year, an application for a federal transportation grant to fully re-construct the passage will be submitted by the city to make it permanent.

Another benefit of the project is that it creates a seamless connection from Midtown to Riverfront to travel by bike.

“Since we have this connection, we believe we’ll see more people riding their bikes to the Riverfront, Downtown and Midtown, whether it’s for recreation or commuting for work,” said Oyler.

This will fill a gap in the city’s overall bicycle network. The route of Peabody and MLK Boulevard acts as a natural entrance to the Downtown area when biking from Midtown. This summer, the City will install protected bike lanes on MLK that end at the Downtown-Midtown nexus.

Along with the newly announced Bike Share program, projects like Great Streets are encouraging an alternative way of thinking about transportation.

But they need to work together. Bike Share’s success hinges, in large part, if there are enough bike lanes around the city to make it worth the effort.

“There really is a synergy between a bike share and what the city is doing to make our streets safer to bike. And everything else we are doing to encourage other modes of transportation, making it easier to get around the city without a car,” said Oyler

Those first and last mile gaps are important pieces to the transportation puzzle. Biking has an opportunity to fill some of the breach.

“We are never going to have a bus line on every street so we have to find to make up that gap," said Oyler.

Nicholas Oyler, bike and pedestrian manager for City of Memphis, Lauren Kennedy, executive director for the UrbanArt Commission, and DougMcGowan, COO for City of Memphis, kicked off the June 27 event.
"In a city where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, many people don’t have the option of a car. Anything we can do to make it easier for people to get around the city, to access jobs, opportunities for education, or recreation, improves quality of life."

Bike lanes aren’t just about recreation and exercise. They are mainly about transportation and open access for all Memphians.

The project isn’t complete. The basic street work has been done. The popup retail market, meanwhile, is a month away. Vendors will share the pedestrian space.

LRK is designing new open-air booths. EPIcenter will manage the booth rentals and vendors which are mainly small businesses and entrepreneurs lacking brick and mortar space.

A large public art component is also still to come. The Urban Art Commission is curating a free-standing mural wall. Every two to three months a new artist will paint it anew.

“This exciting project will demonstrate what’s possible when city planners and engineers collaborate with artists on projects that enrich a community,” said Lauren Kennedy, executive director for the UrbanArt Commission.

Streets are a public space, not asphalt and a little paint. Cycling and walking allow people to view the city from a different vantage point.

“For this to be successful, it’s an important the public feels a sense of ownership for this space and its amenities,” said Oyler.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.

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