Pleasant biking: a liberal plot? Not in Tennessee

December 20, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Memphis pedestrian and bicycle coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz at a bike lane project.

Boston Magazine is warning darkly that bicyles are the newest wedge in the culture wars between urban and rural sensibilities. And in most state transportation departments, the attitude toward allowing protected bike lanes on state roads that run through urban areas — let alone helping fund them — ranges from hesitance to outright resistance.

Maybe someone forgot to tell the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

"Most people are not going to feel comfortable riding in a bike lane with just a stripe protecting them," TDOT bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Jessica Wilson said in an interview Wednesday. "That extra protection is really going to encourage people to change. … That's when you really start seeing reduction in traffic, because people feel comfortable enough to shift modes."

Next spring, TDOT will fund its first protected bike lane project, a 3.5-mile stretch of State Route 1 in Memphis, along Danny Thomas Boulevard and Crump Avenue, that was already due for repaving.

Wilson said she'd approached a colleague to ask if the protected lane construction would be eligible for reimbursal from the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program.

"He was like, 'Sure,'" Wilson said. "'Let's go out and make pictures and use this as an example for stuff across the state!'"

That sort of attitude might boggle the minds of officials in other states. But Wilson said Tennessee isn't motivated by any deep pro-bike progressivism — mostly just by fiscal conservatism and a small-government deference to the wishes of city in question.

"If the city is all for something, we'll pretty much go along with it. as long as it's a reasonable request," she said.

TDOT pedestrian and bike coordinator Jessica Wilson.
TDOT pedestrian and bike coordinator Jessica Wilson.

Wilson added that as the mother of a young son, physical separation from auto traffic will make the difference between whether she'll let him ride on a street in her home city of Nashville.

"When he's five or six when we're out there riding, I'd feel a lot better putting him on a protected bike lane than just on a highway with a stripe," Wilson said. "In that case, I wouldn't let him ride."

For thousands of Tennessee families, building physical activity into daily life is a matter of health as well as convenience and economics. A 2007 study found that the state has the nation's fifth-highest rate of overweight and obese children, a statistic that has been rising rapidly in every U.S. state. Nationally, the number of people who ride a bicycle daily has been rising fast in every age group but one: children aged 5 to 15.

In the case of the L-curving State Route 1, Wilson said, the state was "lucky" to be working with a street that, like many in Memphis, could sacrifice street space without worrying about congestion.

"We had wide shoulders on the northern part, and on the southern part we had seven lanes of traffic," she said. "We just did not need that, so we were able to take away two lanes of traffic."

From the state's perspective, since pavement markings and flexible delineators are both on an official list of infrastructure that's eligible for 100 percent reimbursement from the federal HSIP, it was a way to get a street project done at no state cost.

"We see funding decreasing with state DOTs and we see more and more just having to do routine maintenance," Wilson said. "This is a way we can get bike facilities in without having to do new and reconstruction projects, which frankly we're seeing less and less of every year. … This is not some hard difficult thing. it's been a pretty easy process. I think a lot of people think it's so hard, but it's really not that hard."

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org. Top photo courtesy Wagunschutz. Bottom photo courtesy Wilson.

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