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.

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Transportation By Any Other Name: Alexandra's Story

click to enlarge Alexandra Pusateri rides a trolley - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Alexandra Pusateri rides a trolley

Using public transportation worried me. The idea of independence that comes with driving a car is ingrained within some of us, and I was definitely one of those people.

I grew up in Raleigh and East Memphis, where you can pull into in a parking lot right in front of a building, take care of your business, and leave.

But since moving downtown, where parking is a commodity, I decided I should start to make the best use of public transportation. And hey, maybe I could save some gas money, right?

The city's 30-Day Car-Free Challenge was right up my alley. I utilized all methods of transport available to me — trolley, bus, bike, and naturally, my two feet. When the challenge began, my favorite mode quickly became the trolley. I particularly enjoyed riding the Madison line. Unfortunately, an early April trolley fire on the Madison line put an end to that, but the bus line that temporarily replaced the trolley might have been the next best thing.

While riding the bus and trolley, I was able to read, catch up on homework, andappreciate my surroundings more than I would have in a car. When I arrived at my destination, I was usually more relaxed and in better spirits.

Commuting by bicycle was another adventure. I learned very quickly which roads were suitable for a newbie's travels, and I got an instant lesson in topography. The hilly Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is not to be messed with for an unprepared cyclist. What would have been a 10-minute drive from home to work turned into an hour-long commute by bike due to my lack of conditioning.

As I got around town on a bicycle, the bike lanes made me feel safer. I didn't feel like I had to move into the center of a shared lane to prevent a driver from overtaking me. I found most drivers stayed out of the bike lanes, but there was still a stubborn person or two who seemed to think the bike lanes didn't exist, particularly on Madison Avenue.

By mapping routes ahead of time via Google Maps, I was able to figure out quickly and easily where I needed to go on the MATA routes. Gone are the days of memorizing bus maps — although that wouldn't hurt.

MATA offers a texting service through which you're supposed to be able to text a number from a bus stop to a MATA email address and receive arrival times for the next three buses at that stop. But the return texts from MATA took far too long to be helpful.

I needed to catch a bus to a class at the University of Memphis, but MATA didn't text me back to tell me a bus was due in 30 minutes until an hour later, well after I'd already caught the bus to class.

During the last bit of the challenge, I came down with a cold and was no longer able to commute by bike. Also, as though to taunt me, the weather changed for a few days to a nippy cold in the mornings and evenings, leaving me not wanting to stand outside and wait for a bus.

Thankfully, Lyft, a mobile ride-sharing service, launched in the Memphis market in the nick of time. Lyft bills itself as "your friend with a car," which is just what I needed.

As soon as Lyft launched in late April, I began using it up to three times a day. Lyft is cheaper than a taxi ride, and the drivers arrived at my apartment within 10 minutes. Every driver I encountered was friendly and helpful and, since all the transactions are done with the mobile app, there's no exchange of cash.

Despite a few hiccups, the Car-Free Challenge went swimmingly. I learned a lot about my city, and I only hope Memphis continues on its path of innovation and improvement to make it even easier to travel by bus, trolley, or bike.

— Alexandra Pusateri

Dawn Vinson
Downtown Memphis Commission's Director of Marketing & Events

click to enlarge Dawn Vinson - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Dawn Vinson

Dawn Vinson made it for 30 days without a single car cheat, which she credits to her being "stubborn like that." But she admits it was no easy feat.

She lives in Hickory Hill, an area with limited bus service, so the nearest bus stop to her home is a three-mile walk or bike ride away.

"Buses don't run out there. The bus I take, the 36, is always packed, and a few stops after I get on, it becomes standing-room only. Obviously, people need it. I wish it ran more often or we had another choice," Vinson says.

Vinson would strap her bike on the bus' bike rack and take it downtown. From her stop, she biked the remaining few blocks to her office at Adams and Main. Her evening commute, however, usually involved a two-hour, 20-mile bike ride home, since the earliest evening bus to Hickory Hill doesn't run until 7:15 p.m.

"There's a one-mile stretch on Mount Moriah that is so awful that I walked [on the sidewalk] for about one-third of it. There are seven lanes of traffic with interstate on and off ramps," Vinson says. "The sidewalks are so awful. You could break an ankle trying to walk. That's the one place where I've gotten a flat tire."

But despite her long (and at-times treacherous) commute, Vinson says she enjoyed the Challenge and hopes to be totally car-free one day.

"I love that I can get anywhere I need to go whether I have a car or not," Vinson says. "For me, that's as good as money in the bank."

click to enlarge Tiffany Futch - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Tiffany Futch

Tiffany Futch
Instructional Designer at ServiceMaster

On the days Tiffany Futch tried busing from her Midtown home to her Bartlett office, she had "a two-mile walk and a two-hour bus excursion." She quickly learned that busing to work would be "too much of a hassle."

Lucky for Futch, her friends were happy to carpool.

"My friends really jumped in to make sure this was a success for me," Futch says. "I could call or text someone at 6 a.m. and they would say, 'Yeah, I'll get you to work.'"

Biking was Futch's transit option of choice for flexible weekend days, when she had the time to bike to Shelby Farms. And she relied on her own two feet whenever she could. But being a pedestrian didn't come without some challenges

"The worst sidewalks I encountered on a regular basis are on Madison, right in front of the Center for Independent Living," Furtch says. "Every time, I stub my toe or I trip."

Shahin Samiei
Research Associate for the University of Memphis

click to enlarge Shahin Samiei - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Shahin Samiei

Shahin Samiei already lives without a car in Memphis, but he signed up for the Car-Free Challenge anyway.

The Memphis Bus Riders Union secretary says he's "pretty savvy" about the MATA bus system, and he has a direct bus line from his East Memphis home to his job in Midtown.

Samiei said the challenge gave him the chance to reflect on his years of riding the bus and to think about how some routes he used to frequent no longer exist thanks to budget cuts that have forced MATA to trim service.

"MATA can not do a better job than it does without the proper funding," Samiei says. "They have been facing year after year of budget cuts from all three levels — city, state, and federal. Without those dollars, they simply can't serve the people of Memphis."

click to enlarge Darrell Cobbins - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Darrell Cobbins

Darrell Cobbins
President/CEO of Universal Commercial Real Estate

Darrell Cobbins lives about a mile away from the Midtown real estate business he owns, so biking seemed the most viable option for commuting to work during the Challenge. But there was just one problem.

"I haven't ridden a bike since I was 13 or 14 years old. I'm 41 now," Cobbins says.

But Cobbins dusted off his cycling skills and put foot to pedal for the month of April. He quickly learned from cyclist friends that he needed to wear a helmet, something people just didn't do when he was kid. And he said his former football coach's wisdom helped him play it safe on city streets.

"My coaches always said, 'Keep your head on a swivel, so you don't get knocked out.' I find myself just continuously looking around at every angle [while cycling]," says Cobbins, who thinks drivers could use more education on how to share the road with cyclists.

Cobbins says he appreciated the extra workout he got by biking, and he's beginning to see the city through fresh eyes.

"When you're in a vehicle, you don't really take in your immediate surroundings," he says. "But [cycling] makes you more aware of things that you didn't realize were right there in walking distance of your house."

​Patrick Jones
Legal Assistant at Miles Mason Family Law Group

click to enlarge Patrick Jones
  • Patrick Jones

Patrick Jones' first trip on a bus ended when the bus broke down. It did not deter Jones, however, who continued to ride the bus (and his bicycle) throughout April. His subsequent bus experiences weren't nearly as dramatic.

"I took the bus down Poplar to Clark Tower, and the bus was actually going so fast that he had to pull over and stop for three minutes because they were ahead of schedule," he said.

On one commute, he had an issue finding the bus stop.

"I looked down the street and there was a bus stop across the street with a shed and a bench," he said. "But that wasn't the direction I wanted to go. I looked to the right and didn't see any green signs or poles. I realized that all the green signs look the other way. Every time I saw a sign on a pole, I had to turn around and see it's a 'No Parking' sign [instead of a bus stop]."

Bicycle events

* On May 16th, the Downtown Memphis Commission will host its fifth annual Bike To Work Day, when downtown workers are encouraged to commute by bicycle. The three companies with the most participants will win a trophy at the lunch-time Bike Expo in Court Square. The Expo, featuring food trucks and live music, begins at 11:30 a.m. To register, go to www.biketoworkmemphis.com.

* On May 17th, the annual Bikesploitation festival kicks off at the National Ornamental Metal Museum. The day-long event will feature a bike parade and slow-ride jam, a bicycle painting garden, a mobile music machine (a 15-foot bicycle carrying live musicians), mini-bike races, film screenings, a group bike ride, and more. For a full schedule, go to www.bikesploitation.com.


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