Bicycle use in Memphis is increasing at the fastest rate of growth compared to any other city in Tennessee. A recent report released by the League of American Bicyclists titled Where We Ride: Analysis of Bicycle Commuting in American Cities identified Memphis as the 14th fastest growing cities for bicycle commuting in the United States between 1990 and 2013. The city’s own research, released last March in the 2014 State of Bicycling report indicates this trend is directly correlated to the increase in dedicated bicycle infrastructure, especially pronounced in the city since 2008. Furthermore, the city’s report indicates that if the growth trend continues to rise as new infrastructure is developed, that bicycle use will continue to rise as well.
Last week, the academic journal Urban Studies published an article titled “Behind a Bicycling Boom: Governance, Cultural Change and Place Character in Memphis, Tennessee” in which authors Kevin T. Smiley (Rice University), Wanda Rushing (University of Memphis), and Michele Scott (North Carolina State University) review the recent social movement and potential implications to improve and invest in bicycle infrastructure in Memphis with a focused analysis on who benefits from this kind of investment in the community. The authors conclude by offering words of optimism and caution – that change to the character of a place is possible and able to reshape culture (in this case that bicycling infrastructure can have positive impacts to local businesses, attracting new residents, and improving the image of a community), but such change isn’t always immediately beneficial to all citizens (in this case that bicycle infrastructure and its use are limited to an elite group of residents, mostly white and affluent, and that lower income minorities are excluded from both the process to develop and benefits of increased investment in bicycle infrastructure).
Throughout their article, terms like “creative class amenities” refer to bicycle infrastructure like the bicycle lanes on Madison Avenue or the proposed Harahan Bridge project, and “political and economic elites” refer to those promoting the use of bicycles for personal gains. Many of the assumptions and ultimately the conclusions of the article rest on the interpretation that bicycle use is somehow limited to a small, elite group of residents to the detriment of residents who lack the political or financial ability to thwart the “traditional growth machine.” The article does this without actually offering any analysis of current bicycle use, how that use has changed over time, and how current and future programs in place seek to offer a better social and economic equilibrium to all Memphians.
First, an examination of the composition of bicycle users in Memphis. The most consistent and comparable data source we have to measure and benchmark city-wide bicycle use comes from the US Census’ annual American Community Survey data. While not ideal for many uses (it can’t give you a corridor by corridor number of bicycle users), it is the most readily available data source across the country and can help to identify trends and measures at larger geographic areas like a city. This data represents trips taken between home and work for all modes of transportation, including bicycles.
In 2000, approximately 58% of bicycle commuters in Memphis were white, while only 42% of bicycle commuters were Black or African American. Since that time, however, the growth of bicycling among those identified as Black or African American has risen to 57% of bicycle commuters in 2013 while white commuters represent only 36% of total bicycle commuters. So, if the authors were writing this article in the year 2000 there may have been a factual case to some of their assumptions, but since that time, through the intentional efforts of community leaders and bicycle advocates across this city, bicycle use is growing not just among Black or African American populations, but also very quickly among other non-white populations to the degree that the racial composition of bicycle users is very similar to the racial composition of the city itself.
We can verify this growth of bicycle commuting among the African American population by looking towards the growth of bicycle trips which are combined with public transportation trips taken on MATA. Since 2010, all fixed-route MATA buses have been equipped with bicycle racks, and over the last two years, MATA planners have kept track of the numbers of patrons that bring a bicycle onto the bus with them. Roughly 5-6% of trips made each month on a MATA bus involve a bicycle before and after hopping on a bus. MATA services are used almost exclusively (89%) by Black or African American populations in Memphis, making it likely that this same population is combining their bus trip with a bicycle ride.
Since 2005, there has been tremendous growth in bicycle commuting in Memphis by men, while female growth has been stagnant to declining over the same period of time. This trend closely mirrors national trends when understanding the role that gender may play in bicycle use. As the City of Memphis continues to focus on the implementation of protected bicycle lanes and cycles track (also known as Green Lanes), because it recognizes growth among female riders critical to the success of future bicycling in Memphis. Some of our partner organizations like Revolutions Bicycle Co-Op are incorporating new programming specifically designed to increase the percentage of female bicycle riders commuting in Memphis each day.
While the age of Memphis’ workforce hasn’t changed dramatically since 2005, there have been some significant changes in the age of bicycle commuters over the same time period. Young people still comprise a large percentage of bicycle commuters compared to their share of the workforce, and it might be true that those transportation habits carry forward over time. Compared to 2005, workers age 25-44 years and 45-54 years were much more likely to bicycle to work in 2013. During the same transition, young workers age 16-24 fell in their respective percentage of bicycle commuters, but are still over represented compared to their percentage of the workforce.
Second, an examination of where people are bicycling in Memphis reveals that the highest levels of bicycle use, as measured by bicycle commuting in the US Census, occur in predominantly Black or African American neighborhoods. It isn’t downtown Memphis or East Memphis suburbs that have the highest levels of bicycle use. Instead, neighborhoods like Smokey City-Klondike (5.6%) and Binghampton (2.8%) top the list. Areas like downtown (1.1%) and Cooper-Young (0.5%), implied as places in this article where the “creative class” might reside, pale in comparison to the levels of bicycle commuting in these other neighborhoods.
A map created by the Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in the new draft version of the 2014 Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan indicates where the highest potential for bicycle use resides. Certainly this map indicates that downtown and midtown Memphis do have a high potential to measure increased bicycle use. High residential density and a concentration of destinations (churches, grocery stores, schools, restaurants, libraries, parks, etc.) make bicycle infrastructure investments in these areas make sense. The pent up demand for safe bicycling infrastructure, mixed with environmental and land use conditions, align well with the short-trips and efficient nature of bicycle travel. A person without this knowledge reading Behind a Bicycle Boom, might be surprised to see neighborhoods like Frayser, Hickory Hill, Whitehaven, South Memphis, and Orange Mound also top the list of neighborhoods with the most potential for increased bicycle use. It’s no coincidence that the City’s future plans for expanding the bicycle network include projects in these neighborhoods. Some have already been started, while others are in various phases of development.
When speaking about the geography of where bicycling occurs in Memphis, it is also important to analyze how that geography might play into perceptions of use by different demographics. A comment found recently on the Memphis Flyer website contains references to some of these observations and perceptions:
“There are African Americans on the Greenline every weekend, but they are far outnumbered by the white folks. That’s just a fact, regardless of how anyone wants to interpret it.”
The observation here is that a user sees more white people riding bicycles on a specific corridor compared to Black or African American riders. It is important to remember that the act of riding a bicycle, especially for utilitarian or commuting purposes is typically a very localized activity. Trips more than 2-3 miles are only made by a small percentage of individuals riding bicycles. Observations like the one above are more indicative of the segregation that still exists within our neighborhoods than within the use of our transportation network. Simply put, if you ride a bicycle in a neighborhood where a majority of the residents are white, you’re more likely to encounter more white residents riding bicycles than Black or African American. The reverse is also likely true.
Finally, Behind a Bicycle Boom also ignores the great work happening in geographically diverse neighborhoods all across the city. In 2010, residents of South Memphis worked with City Council to officially adopt the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan (SoMe RAP) which includes a number of neighborhood-based recommendations that will encourage the increased and safe use of bicycles in South Memphis. To that end, city engineers worked with community partners and neighborhood leaders to install bicycle lanes on South Parkway in 2011. Future extension of those lanes are planned in 2015. Even more substantial, city officials also sought federal grant funding on behalf of South Memphis residents to design and construct the South Memphis Greenline, a trail to be built along an abandoned rail line in the neighborhood. From its inception, this project was brought forth and included in the SoMe RAP plan directly from community residents. Other projects like the Chelsea Avenue Greenline, the extensive on-street bicycle network in Frasyer, and the growing connectivity of the Wolf River Greenway in North Memphis continue to be supported by neighborhood residents and advocates in light of a much bigger transportation revolution and dialogue occurring over the last couple years in Memphis.
To measure the intention the authors had when constructing the article is difficult. The article succeeds in its argument that attempts to reshape place-making theory on a local level and utilize the rapid growth of Memphis’ bicycle network as an example of how local community advocates can reshape popular public opinion and policy. Where the authors fall short, however, is by relying upon tired and mythological stereotypes about the people that are benefiting from increased attention to bicycle infrastructure. City officials must always consider equitable development and the well-being of all city residents before going forward with a project. Fortunately, bicycle infrastructure appears to be one of the more diverse and truly collaborative efforts underway, cultivating positive working relationships between local advocates, neighborhood leaders, city officials, private developers, and philanthropic organizations. What the future holds is hard to say. With great optimism, city staff work to increase bicycle use among children, women, and seniors. Are there struggles still to overcome? Yes. Does Memphis still have a lot to prove in terms of the efficacy of its bicycle programs? Sure. But make no mistake – bicycling in Memphis isn’t limited to a specific group of people or residents of a particular neighborhood and there are plenty of benefits still to go around.