Overheard in a Midtown restaurant: "Do you play 'World of Warcraft?'" The reply: "Yes, I ride my bike in Memphis." It was humorous, but also symptomatic of how far Memphis has to go to get the fundamentals right, the kind that attracts new talent, new jobs, and new investments in other cities.
Not too long ago, bicyclists suggested a bucolic lifestyle not far removed from the past. Today, the bike-friendliness of a city is a "marker" for college-educated, 25-34-year-old professionals as they decide where to live and work.
From 2000 to 2006, Memphis lost 14,508 people in this demographic, speeding up a skid that began in the 1990s with a decrease of 6,814. This is the age group determining if cities succeed in the knowledge economy. They are the most educated, the most entrepreneurial, and the most mobile generation in history, and every city wants them.
Because jobs follow them, they are the gold standard for cities. In a CEOs for Cities poll, they said they want to live in a city that is clean, green, and safe. Translation: a city that is tolerant and with options.
In Portland, Oregon, the new mayor, Sam Adams, literally rode into office on a bicycle and a platform of sustainability that was pioneered by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who transformed his city into a world leader of "green" policies. He added a lattice of bike paths as he moved toward his goal of making Chicago "the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S."
If Portland and Chicago are setting the pace in the marathon for talent (as their mayors commute to work), Memphis brings up the rear, as the irresistible force of cycling runs headlong into the immovable object that is the city engineer's office.
The monument to its myopia is the new Walnut Grove Road bridge over Wolf River entering Shelby Farms Park, whose destiny, according to its supporters, is to become "America's great 21st century park." Cyclists — not to mention pedestrians — engage in one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives if they dare to pedal or walk into the park.
Amazingly, the $36 million project at the front door of the park is a cars-only project. Long-time Shelby Farms Park activist Art Wolff — who was instrumental in saving the park from commercial development three decades ago — filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of "an engineering arrogance that builds a city for cars, not people."
It's the public works version of the police residency controversy, because they raise basic questions. If Memphis can't find 200 people to work as police officers, how can it find several hundred people to work in the UT-Baptist Research Park soon to come out of the ground? If Memphis can't get bike lanes right, how can it create the quality of life needed to attract and retain talent?
Bicycling magazine already calls Memphis one of the three worst cities for cycling in the U.S. and cites the Walnut Grove bridge as the poster child for a "bureaucracy [that] has repeatedly ignored or rejected requests from bike clubs, shops, and other organizations for facilities."
And yet, despite frustrations and against all odds, cycling is moving quickly from being a group of enthusiasts to becoming a community of activists, and in doing so, it is becoming the active, vocal force for change in Memphis as it is in other cities.
One leader of the new movement, the ebullient Anthony Siracusa of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop, grasps the significance of bicycles as vehicles for community change. In his view, cycling is a key indicator of a city's livability and democracy, and he is encouraged about the new momentum.
He speaks of a "new shift in leadership opinion," citing Sustainable Shelby as a catalyst and pointing to its new biking strategies, the Metropolitan Planning Organization's growing understanding that its job is about more than cars, and yes, even city engineering's intentions to add a budget line item for biking improvements.
"Cities that promote cycling also are cities that seem to take care of their people and have great quality of life," Siracusa says. "People are moving out of Memphis. We have to reconsider business as usual. It's no longer a matter of whether cycling is a priority. It's now a necessity. There's not an option anymore, because this is about more than cycling. It's about making Memphis a livable city."
And that, in the end, will determine if Memphis' future is as a successful talent and job magnet. M