Car-Free in Memphis! 

Mayor Wharton’s office challenged Memphians to give up driving for the month of April. Some tried. Some succeeded. All have stories to tell.

Bianca Phillips

Justin Fox Burks

Bianca Phillips

In a city like Memphis, with its busy interstates, urban sprawl, and somewhat sketchy public transit, going without a car for 30 days might sound a little crazy.

But that's exactly what Kyle Wagenschutz, the bike/pedestrian coordinator for the City of Memphis, proposed with the city's first "30-Day Car-Free Challenge." During April, participants were to be as car-free as possible — using public transportation, rideshares, bicycles — anything besides driving their own cars alone. Occasional carpooling was allowed.

click to enlarge Kyle Wagenschutz - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Kyle Wagenschutz

Eighteen participants, including the Flyer's Bianca Phillips and Alexandra Pusateri, were chosen as the challenge's "model citizens." They were asked to write about their experiences on the city's Car-Free Challenge blog. The challenge was open to anyone, and a number of people signed up and tweeted about their experiences using the hashtag #carfreememphis.

"There's this idea that it's impossible to get around by a bicycle in the city or that you can't use a bus because you'll never get there," Wagenschutz says. "We've heard a lot of negative stereotypes about how getting around Memphis without a car is not going to happen, that it's not physically feasible."

Through the challenge, Wagenschutz hoped to put those stereotypes to rest.

By 2016, the city plans to extend bike lanes by another 130 miles, Wagenschutz says. Since he began his job in 2010, the city has created 71 miles of lanes.

The city now stripes bike lanes as streets are repaved or resurfaced, but that method can create some bike lanes that end abruptly and leave others seemingly unfinished.

"From a network perspective, it can be challenging where you get small segments of new bike lanes or trails that don't seem to be connected right now," Wagenschutz says. "Even if you're building the network a piece at a time, over time, the network will begin to come together."

The Challenge didn't come without, well, challenges for participating cyclists. Some reported debris in bike lanes. Another issue was the fact that many Memphis drivers seem unaware of how to share the road with cyclists.

Some Challenge participants who walked for their commutes complained about the state of some sidewalks around the city. But that' not the city's fault. Sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of individual property owners. South Main, as an example, has been redeveloping for years without some sidewalks filled in or improved. Wagenschutz says the city is working with property owners all over Memphis to fix sidewalks.

"It's not just a South Main problem. It's a problem all over the city," he says. "The complication is how the city addresses an issue that is closely linked to property ownership in a way that is fair and equitable." As for debris, Wagenschutz says cyclists can call the city's 311 Public Works hotline to report blocked bike lanes or debris.

While the month-long project wasn't called a challenge for nothing, Wagenschutz believes the benefits of going car-free extend beyond helping the environment, being healthier, and saving money. It also can help change your outlook.

click to enlarge MATA’s Interim GM Tom Fox - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • MATA’s Interim GM Tom Fox

"In a real way, getting out of your car has a great mental benefit of being in the city, experiencing the city at a different pace," he says. "It really just provides a great sense of civic pride. One of the most independent things you can do is freeing yourself from driving around in your car every day."

Tom Fox, interim general manager of MATA, agrees. Fox committed to completing 15 days of the Car-Free Challenge, traveling by bike, trolley, and of course, bus.

"I generally hear from people who have bad experiences on the bus, but I took 16 bus rides in the month, and for the most part, my buses were on time," Fox says. "If they were late, they weren't really late to the point where I got messed up on a connection."

But Fox does recognize that MATA lacks service in certain areas of town, which can cause long-lasting trips and long wait times. He says MATA's $55 million operating budget, which is subject to cuts from city, state, and federal governments, is too tight to expand service into areas with less residential and employment density.

"We have to concentrate our service on the areas where we get the most bang for our buck. We're always cognizant of serving lower-income areas, where people don't have alternatives," Fox says. "With more money, we could serve the transit-dependent population and have a little bit more to track people who do have a choice in those outlying areas. Park 'n' Rides, express services — those are the things we could add if we had more money."

MATA lacks a dedicated funding stream, meaning there is no money coming from a source dedicated to public transportation, such as a sales tax that would earmark money for MATA. A penny gas tax on the local ballot in 2012 would have provided such a dedicated stream for MATA, but it was voted down.

Cities with higher levels of bus service tend to have dedicated funding streams and more advanced trip-planning technology, such as smart phone apps designed to plan bus routes. MATA has the mobile MATA Traveler website, and Fox says a more user-friendly smart phone app is in the works.

One Flyer staffer who participated in the Challenge had a mostly positive MATA experience with one exception — the dirty bathrooms at MATA's North End Terminal. Fox says he has "experienced the same thing ... I've been unhappy with those bathrooms." But change is coming, he says.

"We have some procurements in process to get some of the fixtures replaced in there, and we have manpower assigned to clean those bathrooms throughout the day," Fox says.

Fox adds that he's hopeful that the increased exposure from the Car-Free Challenge will convince more people to leave their cars at home and take a bus.

"The more that we can let people know that [public transit] is not just for low-income people and service is relatively convenient, the better," he says. "And it's certainly better for the environment."

Of Blisters and Bicycles:Bianca's Story

There I was, speed walking down the Main Street Mall in brand-new ballet flats, blisters already forming on my heels as I hustled to make it into the office for the 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting. It was day one of my 30-Day Car-Free Challenge, and I'd already screwed up.

My plan to take trolleys from Midtown to my downtown office started off okay as I boarded the Madison trolley at 8:45 a.m. But I'd failed to check the schedule for the Riverfront Loop, my planned transfer trolley. It doesn't start running until 9:30 a.m. — when I was supposed to already have my butt in a chair at our meeting. So I hoofed it from Madison to the Flyer offices on Tennessee Street, despite my lack of proper footwear.

"Whew, this is gonna be a rough month," I thought to myself.

That was one of a few hiccups throughout April, as I attempted to trade my car for buses, trolleys, and my bicycle for 30 days.

I say "attempted" because there were some days when I simply could not be car-free. My line of work often requires me to attend press conferences, public meetings, and interviews all over town, and when one needs to go from downtown to Germantown to Whitehaven in one day, only a car will do.

But my car-free days didn't turn out to be as bad as I thought they'd be. My main transit of choice was my trusty mint-green Electra Ladies' Cruiser. On nice days, I'd wake up an hour earlier than usual, strap on my helmet, and take the North Parkway bike lanes in Crosstown down to the Main Street Mall, then head south toward my office.

The morning rides were quiet and, for the most part, uneventful, except for one day when I took a detour on Manassas. I was biking on the far right side of the wide street when a man in a City of Memphis truck honked his horn and motioned for me to get on the sidewalk.

I didn't budge, since state law gives bicyclists the right to be on the road. Mr. City Employee is supposed to know he has to share the road and give me three feet between his car and my bike.

But that moment was made up for later that day, when I rode home down the Main Street Mall in the beautiful 75-degree afternoon. People were lounging on patios, sipping cocktails. A tourist couple stopped me to ask directions to Beale Street. People nodded and waved, and my quick ride through the water fountains in front of City Hall made me feel like a kid again. You experience the world through different eyes while riding a bike.

I also rode my first city bus last month. My commute by bus takes about an hour, and I can drive to work in 15 minutes. But time aside, my bus experiences were overwhelmingly pleasant. My buses were always on time (or early), and the bus drivers were extremely patient with my newbie questions. Busing may not be a viable option for me to commute on a regular basis, but I can see myself using buses to travel to art walks, festivals, and bars when I know I'll be having a few drinks and would rather not have to drive.

My only negative MATA experience? The filthy bathrooms in the North End Terminal. On the first day I rode a bus to work, I needed to make a pit stop while I waited for my transfer bus. But much to my horror, every stall in the ladies' bathroom was, um, well let's just say, worse than a porta-potty. Meanwhile, a guy was mopping the floor in the terminal's lobby. Perhaps those bathrooms should have been a janitorial priority.

But potty talk aside, the Car-Free Challenge was an enlightening and empowering experience. I learned to use the city buses, and I burned thousands of calories on bike rides and walks, even if they were done in uncomfortable shoes.

— Bianca Phillips

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