Cities like Pittsburgh getting innovative to befriend bicyclists
MEMPHIS — When a sprawling, six-lane extension to a highway divided an old railroad town more than a decade ago, Broad Avenue became a ghost town.
Rents plummeted along the 1.4-mile street. Businesses fled until the economy tanked and desperation brought them back.
“When we moved here in 2008, the street was, well, pretty ugly,” said Pat Brown, 53, co-owner of T. Clifton Art Gallery in Memphis' Binghampton neighborhood. “But we needed something cheap.”
Brown and fellow business owners pitched their solution to city leaders: protected bike lanes.
“We needed a way to slow traffic, to encourage people to see what these storefronts could look like. We weren't going to get any government money right away, so we asked to paint them ourselves. Honestly, I think the city thought we wouldn't get around to it.”
What began as an offhand OK by Memphis officials spawned an incubator for community-driven innovation. Business owners dispatched college kids, urban planners confirmed the parking regulations, and buckets of bright white house paint cut the four-lane road down to two.
“Look around now. We have murals and foot traffic, restaurants, bars and studios,” she said. “People are still wandering in our shop saying, ‘I never noticed you were here.' They had no incentive to stop before.”
Memphis' bicycle-pedestrian coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz credits mayoral support and the city's inclusion in the Green Lane Project as a huge boon in establishing the infrastructure that supports more than 133 miles of bike lanes, up from 62 in 2010, with nearly funded plans for 140 more.
The two-year PeopleForBikes grant Memphis won in 2012 — awarded to Pittsburgh in 2014 — helped the city to find federal transportation grants for almost 80 percent of projected costs. Locals are taking on the rest, Wagenschutz said.
With the grant, city leaders get $25,000 for bike lane improvement, including paint, signage, bollards, curbs, planters and landscaping, plus $250,000 in in-kind engineering, training and outreach support.
Pittsburgh planners are looking to other cities for inspiration, said Eric Boerer, advocacy director of BikePgh.
“Portland and San Francisco — these big cities knew they could pull it off. Memphis was sort of the outlier, the midsized city with comparable resources and not a lot of cash,” Boerer said. “This year we're the Memphis of our class.”
Estimated at $3.6 million, Memphis' two-mile Hampline connecting existing trails to the city's 342-acre park is believed to be the nation's first bike lane project covered in part — about $78,000 — through crowd-funding.
“Too often, cities look to big-budget projects to revitalize a neighborhood,” Memphis Mayor AC Wharton Jr. said during an urban planning conference in April. “There are simply not enough of those projects to go around. We want to encourage low-risk, community-driven improvements all across (Memphis) that can add up to larger, long-term change.”
If you build it, they will come, Wharton said.
Designed to spur networking across state lines, the PeopleForBikes grant helps connect problem areas in one city to others that addressed them.
Chicago doubled commuter rates in two years. San Francisco addressed hills with electric bikes and a winding trail dubbed “The Wiggle” that avoids the city's most treacherous climbs. Dense urban cores such as Philadelphia are addressing a lack of space similar to that in Pittsburgh.
“For cities more our size, there's Baltimore, Louisville, Cincinnati, Madison, Wis.,” Boerer said. “We can learn from what each of these towns is accomplishing.”
Smaller markets with limited resources tend to find the most creative solutions, he said.
“And the best part, the city administrations are meeting each other,” Boerer said. “Bike/ped guys are traveling to see what everyone else is up to. There's a huge amount of cutting-edge collaboration here and proving these projects really are feasible.”
In Pittsburgh, city planners cite topography, bridge crossings, narrow streets, potholes, mass transit access and a scarcity of bicycle parking among their chief concerns.
“We're at this great time in the city where there's all this energy around good urban design and safe streets for people, regardless of whether they're 8 or 80,” BikePgh director Scott Bricker said.
Mayor Bill Peduto announced a plan this month to install the city's first five miles of protected bike lanes during the next two years. Bicycle-pedestrian coordinator Stephen Patchan said meetings with city officials, community groups and residents will determine where they crop up this fall.
Coming along quickly
A bike share program will begin this year.
“Pittsburgh is coming along so quickly, it's insane,” said Chad Kelly, 27, of Robinson. “I ride everywhere I go — in Tennessee, Colorado, even Ecuador — but the infrastructure and attitudes here get better every time I come home.”
No two cities, no matter how similar, are going to be the same, Wagenschutz said.
“In Memphis, we look a lot to other Green Lane Project peers, but we can't address a curve or strange street the same way Pittsburgh would,” he said. “It's about coming together to find what works best in that one neighborhood or on that one street.”
Like the renaissance on Broad Avenue, often solutions spring from the people who know a neighborhood best: its residents.
“Memphis created a lot of ownership and pride in these streets when they let us test out this crazy idea,” Brown said.
“It's a funny thing. All we needed was a little faith and a fresh coat of paint.”
Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.