Walker Ave. Becomes Testing Ground for Designs New to Memphis and the U.S.

The temporary traffic circle located at Wellington and Walker is part of a one-month traffic calming demonstration project.

Despite its name, Walker Avenue in South Memphis isn’t such a great place to get around by foot, or on a bicycle for that matter. Talk to residents along the street about passing car traffic, and you’ll hear a common theme of speeding and running of stop signs. A recent history of crashes, including one involving a three-year-old pedestrian in 2017 (his injuries were fortunately minor), support this narrative. A recent traffic count and speed measurement we conducted found that a select few drivers recklessly travel this street at speeds over 60 miles per hour (the posted speed limit is 35 MPH, but one could make a case for an even lower regulatory limit on the residential stretch from South Third St. to Mississippi Blvd.). Fortunately for the residents of the area, this segment of Walker Ave. falls within the boundaries of the Big Jump project.

Towards the goal of dramatically boosting the number of people walking and bicycling in South Memphis, the Big Jump will deliver safer streets to the area. Some of these improvements may include traffic calming features not commonly seen in Memphis. Enter Walker Ave.

With this demonstration project, the City can provide temporary examples of what these new traffic calming features look and feel like — allowing citizens a chance to experience them in real life, not just on a presentation slide — but also prototype them on a street with known safety concerns in preparation of permanent safety improvements to come. This kind of demonstration with temporary, low-cost materials has become popular among communities around the country, and allows the City and residents to experience a particular design before irreversibly committing money and resources to a permanent version that may not go over well or have the intended impact.

The project was conceived from the study tour that members of the Big Jump Advisory Committee took to the Netherlands in June 2018. Eric Neimeyer with The Works, Inc.  (a community development corporation based in South Memphis) saw an opportunity in Walker Avenue for the street to act as a demonstration for safety improvements. A fair number of people walk or bike along the street as is, but a high number of children-specific activities and uses along the street (an elementary school, park, library, community center, and Knowledge Quest are located directly on Walker Ave.) bring extra attention to the need for safety improvements. We coordinated with The Works, Inc. to host a community meeting, meet with stakeholders along the street, and canvass residents door-to-door to seek feedback and share information about the project.

A group of volunteers consisting of neighborhood residents as well as faculty and students from the adjacent Ida B. Wells Academy joined us and staff from The Works, Inc. on a Saturday morning late in October. Several hours later, Walker Ave. boasted some new features.

Volunteers from the neighborhood worked with us one Saturday morning to install the demonstration project.

As mentioned above, many of those features are rare in Memphis, but commonly used in other US cities to help slow traffic, including:

  • Traffic Circles

The traffic circle, seen here at night, helps to slow down vehicles through the intersection and prevent the running of the stop sign — a complaint commonly heard from residents during the door-to-door canvassing.

Signage along the project provides an explanation of the individual elements as well as general background.

  • Bump-Outs

These temporary bump-outs have been enhanced with decorative dots (using the school colors of Ida B. Wells Academy) as well as with some vertical element that light up at night.

  • Pinch Points

A pinch point or neck down narrows the street and helps to slow down traffic. Permanent versions can include landscaping.

One feature, though, is not just new to Memphis, but also to the U.S.: Slow Shoulders. Also known as advisory shoulders or advisory bike lanes, slow shoulders may seem unusual at first, but are commonly used in other countries and have recently been introduced in some US cities. This demonstration version on Walker Ave. is one of the first of such facilities in the country. With slow shoulders, drivers stay in the center lane of the street, and merge into the adjacent shoulder on the right to pass on-coming vehicles. This may seem confusing, but actually reflects the way that people for the most part drive down Walker Ave. or neighborhood streets of similar width: they stay toward the center of the street and weave to the right as needed to pass on-coming cars. In other communities, slow shoulders have effectively slowed traffic and helped create safer streets for biking and walking.

Slow shoulders, a.k.a. advisory shoulders, may seem radical at first glance, but often reinforce the way most people drive down relatively narrow neighborhood streets.

The demonstration will remain on the ground until the first week of December 2018. Depending on the results of this test (including data collected and input from residents along Walker Ave. and side streets), the City will return to the street in 2019, re-pave it, and install permanent versions of some or all of these approaches.

To see the project for yourself, visit Walker Avenue between Wellington St. and Mississippi Blvd. Be sure to check out the oral history art piece at Walker Ave. and Lauderdale St. installed by local artist and city planner Roger Ekstrom as part of the demonstration. Ekstrom worked with a 12th-grade student from Soulsville Charter School to interview a neighborhood resident and turn his tales from the neighborhood’s past into the art piece. The “Culture Cube” is mounted to a utility pole and doubles as a pedestrian-scale street light at night.