Memphis adopts the 500th Complete Streets policy in the U.S.

A new pedestrian crossing in Memphis. Photo: John Paul Shaffer, Memphis Urban Area MPO
A new pedestrian crossing in Memphis. Photo: John Paul Shaffer, Memphis Urban Area MPO

On August 14th, 2013, the National Complete Streets Coalition will mark the adoption of the country’s 500th Complete Streets policy with an event celebrating the communities across the nation that have committed to building safer, more accessible streets for all users. Please join us for a live video stream of the event’s speakers and panels. In the meantime, we invite you to get in on the conversation at our Facebook page or with the #500policies hashtag on Twitter.

The celebration will be focusing in part on Memphis, Tennessee, whose new Complete Streets measure pushed us over the 500-policy mark. Earlier this year, Mayor A.C. Wharton signed an executive order directing that new road facilities and major renovations in Memphis accommodate all users and all modes. In addition to the development of a new multimodal Street Design Guide, per the executive order, Mayor Wharton announced plans to further expand the city’s bicycle facilities, including construction of 15 miles of new protected bike lanes. This official embrace of Complete Streets is part of a remarkable, citizen-driven turnaround for a city so long built around the automobile that Bicycling magazine twice named it one of America’s worst cities for bicycling.

Remaking streets from the ground up

For years, dedicated Memphians had worked to improve conditions for walking, biking, and transit in the city, but the grassroots movement for safer, more vibrant streets most visibly coalesced a few years ago in the Broad Avenue area in east Memphis. Originally the commercial corridor for nearby railcar manufacturing, Broad Avenue had fallen into neglect by the 1990s, with only a few active businesses in a landscape of fast roads, acres of parking, endless curb cuts, and indistinguishable sidewalks–a bleak environment where nobody would walk if they could help it.

Demonstration project in Memphis. Photo: Kyle Wagenschutz, City of Memphis
Demonstration project in Memphis. Photo: Kyle Wagenschutz, City of Memphis

This was the scene faced by the Historic Broad Avenue Business Association and local partners including Livable Memphis when they decided to highlight the vitality they knew was locked away under all that asphalt. In November 2010, during a two-day festival they called “A New Face for an Old Broad,” scores of volunteer organizers demonstrated the district’s potential as a mixed-use, multimodal corridor, enticing residents out of their cars with pop-up businesses filling vacant storefronts and lots, and reconfiguring the street with home-brew restriping that added buffered bike lanes protected by diagonal parking, slowed traffic speeds, shortened intersection crossings and placed landscaping to improve the pedestrian environment.

The corridor is also the keystone of the planned Overton-Broad Connector, a two-way protected cycle track that’s part of the city’s work with the Green Lane Project. The Connector provides the final on-street link between a popular new rail-to-trail path and Overton Park, a classical urban park in midtown Memphis. This application of Complete Streets design concepts catalyzed the district’s rebirth, with scores of new businesses and sizable private investment moving to the area since the demonstration. Longtime area business owners specifically credit the narrower, slower street and the bike lanes for attracting more people to pass through and linger in the district.

A growing commitment to Complete Streets throughout the region

Broad Avenue is just part of this new chapter for Memphis and the mid-South, where work to better serve all road users is underway throughout the region. Local partners, including ULI Memphis and the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, have helped build local capacity and fund Complete Streets training and planning. In response to greater citizen and business engagement, key government bodies are changing the way they make transportation decisions, with Memphis marking dozens of miles of new bike lanes and hiring its first bicycle/pedestrian coordinator in 2010, the metropolitan planning organization adopting its first regional bicycle and pedestrian plan in 2011, and Tennessee DOT partnering with Smart Growth America in 2012 to study how to improve state transportation planning in a constrained fiscal  environment.

Join us next week for more about how Memphis and communities across the nation are working to improve conditions for everyone on the road.

Complete Streets