Learn how Memphis, TN, is creating Complete Streets with new policy and implementation brief

Broad Ave., Memphis, TN
The reconfigured Broad Avenue in Memphis. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

Earlier this year Memphis, TN, passed the 500th Complete Streets policy in the United States. In a new policy and implementation brief, we detail how Memphis achieved its Complete Streets successes so far, the ongoing efforts in the region and the work that remains to be done.

Suffering from high rates of obesity, diabetes and pedestrian fatalities—and called out nationally for its poor bicycle facilities—Memphis knew it needed to improve its streets. From the brief:

Where sidewalks even exist, they’re often in very poor condition (the city was recently estimated to effectively be on a 75-year paving cycle), do not accommodate users with disabilities, and put pedestrians right next to high-speed traffic.

Transit is limited almost entirely to conventional bus service, which struggles to efficiently knit together the sprawling city. A heritage streetcar system has been running vintage trolleys on short downtown loops since the early 1990s, and while it has significantly boosted overall transit system ridership and helped revitalize the area along its 2.5-mile route, the trolley has always been more oriented to shuttling tourists around the Main Street/riverfront area and to the clubs of Beale Street than to moving Memphians between the places where most of them live, work, and shop.

As for bicycles, many key routes are hostile places for cycling, and there were few alternatives on or off the street. The city didn’t have a single mile of marked bicycle facilities until late 2010.

One major part of the City’s strategy to address these problems was to develop a Complete Streets policy and integrate a Complete Streets approach into local transportation and planning processes. Conditions for walking, biking, and transit in the city slowly began to improve, but the grassroots movement for safer, more vibrant streets most visibly coalesced in the Broad Avenue area in east Memphis:

Building on a series of design charrettes and stakeholder meetings, [the Historic Broad Avenue Business Association and local partners] came up with a plan to demonstrate the district’s potential as a mixed-use, multimodal corridor. In November 2010…scores of volunteer organizers enticed residents out of their cars with pop-up businesses filling vacant storefronts and lots. They reconfigured the street with home-brew restriping that added buffered bike lanes protected by diagonal parking, and further improved the pedestrian realm with slower traffic speeds, shortened intersection crossings, street furniture, and landscaping.

Organizers hoped maybe 5,000 people would show up over two days—they got 13,000.

Now, Complete Streets in Memphis are taking off. Last month the city’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz joined transportation and planning experts from across the U.S. in celebrating 500 Complete Streets policies at an event in Washington, DC. (Here’s the video of the event, in case you missed it.) Wagenschutz’s comments from the event are included in the brief:

Implementing a Complete Streets policy in a relatively poor city like Memphis has been “a work of innovation, a work of patience,” but the City is already reaping demonstrable benefits through a series of inexpensive changes—and more importantly, a change in mindset about how to do the work of making streets function better for everyone. “Complete Streets, for us, doesn’t mean expensive streets,” Wagenschutz said. “We want a policy that’s affordable now, but sustainable in the future.”

The reawakened Memphis is taking advantage of every opportunity to provide low- or no-cost street improvements, engage with the community and change its institutional mindset about public space. And the approach is already paying dividends. More than 50 miles of bicycle lanes have been built since 2010, with 15 more on the way. After a once-moribund business district started planning for better sidewalks, bike lanes, and slower traffic, the corridor attracted 25 new businesses and $20 million in reinvestment, with 30 properties being rehabbed in the area and retail taking off. Citywide, bicycling is up 400% since 2011. All of this is thanks in part to a wide-ranging grassroots coalition, with businesses and developers motivating the process as much as community groups and advocates for walking and bicycling.

Learn more about Complete Streets in Memphis: Download “Complete Streets in Practice: Memphis, Tennessee.”

Complete Streets