Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Path to Bike Lanes

Other transportation battles suggest how to get there from here.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Who knew that bike lanes could be so controversial?

The proposal to revamp Madison Avenue in Midtown to accommodate bike lanes has had its nasty moments. A viewpoint column in the Flyer last week by Eric Vernon of the Bar-B-Q Shop prompted some angry comments and renewed threats to boycott businesses on Madison that are seen as bike-unfriendly.

After a series of public meetings where alternatives were presented, the Madison Avenue project is in the hands of Mayor A C Wharton and bike coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday. It's not the war in Afghanistan or the debt limit or entitlement programs or even Southeastern Conference football, but it sure has some people wound up. Can this adversarial relationship be resolved?

I asked Memphians with inside experience in other controversial transportation projects ranging from interstate highways to pedestrian paths to bike paths.

The granddaddy of Memphis road wars was the battle over running Interstate 40 through Midtown and Overton Park, which spanned 25 years and reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Attorney Charles Newman helped save the park and is now working on the Harahan Bridge Project bike trail over the Mississippi River.

"On the expressway, the city business leaders, government, and the major newspaper all got locked into a position and became too confident that they would prevail," Newman said. "If they had done an honest study of alternative routes, it would have been hard for us to be successful."

He thinks the Madison Avenue flap reflects "a sort of irrational predisposition" in favor of car traffic.

"I'm not in the restaurant business, but I think Madison is sort of neglected and bike lanes will be beneficial in tangible and intangible ways," Newman said. "I suspect the opponents are underestimating the benefits and exaggerating the potential hazards. I think it will have minimal impact on cars and their ability to get to those businesses."

Greg Maxted is executive director for the Harahan Bridge Project, which aims to connect the bridge with North Parkway, Broad Avenue, and the Shelby Farms Greenline.

"On the Greenline, there was opposition at the first meetings," Maxted said. "People were afraid it would bring crime to their neighborhoods, but as the project moved forward, those people got less outspoken. The leaders spoke to each of them individually. I don't see the criticism any more."

He has not been involved with the Madison Avenue project.

"Both sides seem pretty entrenched, and I don't know if there is a way to get them to agree," he said. "The city might want to find a bike road where there is no opposition."

He said there has been less opposition at public meetings to bike lanes on North Parkway, which he sees as a vital link.

"We need citywide connectivity," Maxted said.

Twenty years ago, the proposed bluffwalk on the South Bluffs was opposed by some property owners and developer Henry Turley. Ritchie Smith Associates came up with a design that cut the sidewalk into the bluff, buffered it with shrubbery, and diverted part of it into the South Bluffs neighborhood.

"There were some really heated meetings at the time," said Lissa Thompson, landscape architect at the firm. "We learned never to have a public meeting at a place that serves alcohol."

One rejected compromise would have diverted part of the bluffwalk eastward, with no view of the river.

"People were apprehensive," Thompson said. "It was a whole different time in our history. At the time, Memphis didn't have any of those kind of amenities. After it was completed, some of the same people came forward to say what a great asset it was. Over time it got to be an attraction that raised the appeal and value of those properties."

Thompson said "there is probably a solution" to the bike lanes that will resolve the issues of route and design. Like the Greenline, the idea is somewhat novel here but "we are a bit behind the curve."

"When people work together you can usually work those things out," she said. "Reality is much different than what some people fear."

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