Friday, October 31, 2014

Report: Bicycling Amenities Deepen Memphis Inequality

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 12:59 PM

Building bicycling amenities in Memphis deepens inequality here and shows a bias in the power structure toward the “creative class” and “growth machine elites.”

That’s the “sobering conclusion” of a new academic article soon to be published in the journal Urban Studies.

The report is called “Behind a bicycling boom: Governance, cultural change, and place character in Memphis, Tennessee.” It’s by three academics: Kevin T. Smiley from Rice University; Wanda Rushing of the University of Memphis; and Michele Scott of North Carolina State University.

The report notes that bicycling has taken root in Memphis as the city has seen a “massive increase in bicycling infrastructure.” While the movement has been a boon to the city, the authors say it raises “important questions about place distinctiveness, place-building, and urban development.” Simply put, the city is changing but a closer look is needed as to how it’s changing.

The bicycling culture here has been pushed by a new political culture, “particularly an energetic, creative, class-centric government and the many citizen-consumers on bicycles.” This new culture wants to push bicycling in Memphis to attract tourists, and lure creatives here to live and work. This is a new model of economic development, the study says, and the new bicycle amenities feed it.

But this focus does not serve all in Memphis equally, the article says.

The government and private developers got behind the group of citizens who clamored for bike amenities years ago. Specifically, the study cites an online petition signed by 1,301 bike proponents pushing Memphis Mayor A C Wharton to paint bike lanes along Madison Avenue.

That petition came with more than 500 comments many of which claimed the person’s interest in living, working, playing, or eating on Madison. Many of those comments came, too, with the notion that the person who left the comment had the financial means to back up their preferences.

“These themes are associated with a class status higher than that of many of their fellow city residents, and also map onto typical portrayals of creatives,” the study says. “Moreover, among the more than 100 comments stressing bettering portrayals of Memphis through bicycling infrastructure, none made any connections or references to race and few took up issues of inequality as something that can be addressed through bicycling, despite the centrality of those issues to the city’s place character.”

Looking forward, the study says the Main Street to Main Street bicycle path project will deepen the “racialized gentrification” already present in the South Main neighborhood. The authors point to U.S. Census data that show a “sharp decrease in black population and a rise in socioeconomic status” in the neighborhood over the last decade. The Main to Main project will further this, the study says.

“More generally, it shows the symbolic shift toward making projects like the [Harahan Bridge portion of the Main to Main project] a priority for citizen-consumers as well as traditional growth machine advocates, the latter of whom stand to benefit politically from the popularity of bicycling and to gain from the financial windfall associated with the property development adjacent to bicycling infrastructure.”

Finally, the study notes that Memphis is, indeed, experiencing changes in “place character,” though it remains “deeply shaped” by divisions of race, city/county boundaries, and stagnant population growth. So, the new bicycling culture here may only result in “superficial changes to the city’s image.”


“With place distinctiveness as the backdrop, researchers and citizens alike need to consider how place character changes, such as those with creative class amenities like bicycling infrastructure, will come to define the city. Our analysis offers a hopeful point paired with a sobering conclusion. Place character at the city level is more malleable than previously theorized; yet, change does not automatically benefit all citizens. In fact, changes in place character of cities may play an active part in perpetuating inequalities in who has power and for whom that power is used.”

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