Monday, July 11, 2011

Living Carfree in Memphis Tennessee

The citizens of Memphis, Tennessee, can benefit from redesigning sections of town into miniature carfree cities for up to 5,000 people. According to Wikipedia, “a carfree city is a population center that relies primarily on public transport, walking, or cycling for transport within the urban area.” 
In addition, adding solar and wind power in these sections of town will remove them off the grid permanently. In addition, retailers should improve customer relationships by providing carfree facilities like locker systems for backpacks, instead of requiring customers to leave such items with employes in unguarded areas. Also, there should be improvements like GPS tracking for Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), which would enhance the carfree experience. The result is that Memphis, Tennessee, would become one of the most walk-bike friendly communities on the globe. 
There is more than enough impetus for redesigning Memphis to become more carfree, as the citizens are breathing in 7.8 metric tons of CO2 each year. Reducing this number means creating social environments similar to what some European nations have done for decades. 

To get an idea of this European lifestyle, I met up with celebrated folk artist Stephen Hudson at the Center of Southern Folklore located downtown on Main Street, located just off the trolly line. At the time of our meet up, Hudson was applying the finishing touches to one of his paintings entitled Walking is Memphis.
I remember it clearly, as he looked back over his shoulder while he was working on it and said, “Did you know that I have been all over the world as an artist, and I found that people were walking and biking far more in other countries. In fact, I have lots of artwork from my traveling days.” Hudson walked me over to his huge pile of prints and said, “Let’s look through these.” 
I saw several prints that I liked right away and picked one up. Hudson then said, “That print you're holding in your hand David is a print from one of my paintings that I did while I was in France. It portrays another painter, Mr. Moulet, who is painting the Notre Dame.” The painting portrayed Moulet working from his bicycle, which had all his art supplies on it. Hudson completed his Moulet painting in 1982 and sold me a print of it for a nominal fee. 
From what I saw of Hudson’s collection and from what I had gathered from our ongoing conversation that day, the Europeans are truly in tune with walking and biking for utilitarian purposes.
As a carfree citizen living in Memphis, I have walked or bicycled to shop for basic needs. As for biking, I can hardly find a secure bike rack anywhere. I have tried using public transit to go shopping and it always takes all day simply because everything I need is far beyond a ten-minute walk or bike ride. 

There are only a hand-full of places to shop in my community and most all of them mark up their prices by at least 30%. This is why people in my community leave and go shop elsewhere across town. Such a trip can take up to five hours to accomplish by public transit; not to mention is one has other stops to make, which prolongs the journey. 

During my own shopping trips across town, I generally take a backpack full of essentials: bike tools, bike lights, clothing changes, water bottles, food, and toiletries for hygiene because I fully expect to be gone a long time from home.

The concern is that not all people can readily afford to take all this baggage with them, just to pick up more baggage. 

The rich and/or educated call themselves Car-Free and seem to look at this as some nostalgic environmental movement to improve the world.  

But, there are others who have been living a Car-Free lifestyle their whole lives; they are the poor who are more often called Car-Less.
In fact, the majority of the carfree population, nearly 10,000, here in Memphis live in dire poverty. Most earn between $5,000 to $10,000 a year at best. For them, there are no walk-bike facilities to enjoy in the same way as more affluent people. The poor are unable to meet all of their utilitarian wants, needs, and desires within ten minutes of their homes. 

Rich or poor, the fact remains that no carfree citizen gets the respect they deserve on the streets of Memphis. No matter how well they present themselves to the public they are not treated favorably. Carfree citizens are all in the same boat regardless of their social class. 
To illustrate, when I walk through the doors of most retail establishments with my backpack, I am often treated like a shoplifter. Moreover, when I shop at several stores in a row, I am often told to leave my backpack and shopping bags next to an unprotected counter whereby the employees claim they will watch it for me. The fact is folks, these employees are often to distracted and they can’t possibly keep an eye on your property. 

Of course, these stores could improve their customer relationships by offering dedicated locker systems, public rest rooms, secure bike racks, and bike repair stands. Even without all this, a change in their attitude would help. 

Not all of my retail shopping experiences are as bad as all that, but if yours is, try shopping online with alternative merchants if you have access to a computer. 
The good news is that walking and biking in some Memphis and Shelby County communities is taking a nominal foothold, especially for recreational purposes. Even Mayor AC Wharton is behind such efforts as proven by his support for Green Up Memphis , 55 miles of bike lanes and the Shelby Farms Greenline . This rise in local walk-bike participation and facilities is due mostly to federal and state government policies set into place. These policies advocate a collaborative effort to carry out a walk-bike plan at the local level. 
To illustrate, the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration allocates funding and support for walking and biking.  This Federal walk-bike policy came about during the 1990s. It was a response to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century with advice and help from public agencies, professional associations and advocacy groups. 
The Bike Walk Tennessee mission statement is adequate: “By advocating for safety, facilities, and increased government and public relations, Bike Walk Tennessee will promote cycling and walking in Tennessee for the benefit of health, recreation, tourism and a cleaner environment for all.”
Founders for BTW come from Nashville, Bristol, Hendersonville, Collierville, Murfreesboro, Maryville, Chattanooga, Johnson City, Brentwood, Knoxville and Memphis.
BTW provides a video link whereby John Puncher, professor of planning and public policy, Rutgers University, speaks for 45 minutes on “Cycling for Everyone.” 
Bill Walters and Anthony Siracusa are founding members of Bike-Walk Tennessee. Both of them represent the metropolitan area of Memphis. Reach them via e-mail at mailto:
It appears that walking and bicycling organizations benefit more when they affiliate themselves with federal and state government, corporations, related non-profits, and key people who believe in the same mission and vision. 

For example, Walk-Bike Nashville (WBN) and Share the Road Mid-South (STRM) have become full service advocates for their local communities. WBN concerns themselves with facilities for improving safe routes to schools, among other things. STRM works toward drivers and cyclist getting along safely on the road. In Shelby County, there is a nonprofit organization called Bike Memphis. Their mission is as follows: “If you would like to ride a bike more often, more safely, or more skillfully, Bike Memphis can help.”
Despite local, state, and federal support for walking and bicycling, the City of Memphis is still the 5th most dangerous city to walk in according to Transportation for America. As my own experiences show, bike riding is not safe either. Inside city limits, I have observed that there are nominal bike lanes; trail systems, or greenway paths adequate for utilitarian purposes.
Please take notice that I am distinguishing the difference between recreational walk-bike use and utilitarian walk-bike use.
Of course, Vauban, Germany serves as a perfectly good example of a community that is both utilitarian and recreational. Vauban started their walk-bike planning process during the early 1990s. Vauban's 5,000 residents have no driveways or car garages. All paths lead to essential shopping destinations and parks alike. Getting to all destinations is easy because the community is a highly condensed urban center. In Vauban, carfree citizens come from various economic backgrounds. It is a secure community economically, with mixed-use facilities and systems laid out for all citizens to enjoy.
Memphis is far and away from creating a walk-bike plan like Vauban. In fact, the most affluent people in Memphis maintain vehicles and hardly ever make use of public transit, much less rides a bike or walks to a store to meet essential needs. And, it is not their fault because their communities are simply not designed for alternative modes of transportation. On the other hand, the people who make the most out of public transit come from the most impoverished sections of the community. In fact, the majority of the poor are solely dependent on mass transit. More often than not, these trips can become an agonizing experience if not fully prepared to face the elements.  
The solution is clear: provide all the citizens of Memphis with the proper facilities for living a carfree lifestyle with less stress. 

So we need to shift our thinking, because jobs are on the line right now. 
For example, carfree citizens, who live in public housing, have stated to me several times that the man has told them they should get a good education, so they can move up on a job. These jobs, more often than not, require a car to get to them in the first place because these jobs are hardly located nearby a public transit stop. Even if they were located near a  bus stop, the buses hardly arrive in a timely fashion. 

As for obtaining vehicles, there are a few organizations with programs that will help some people get a car. But to qualify, each recipient must complete a self-sustainable social welfare program. Of course the guidelines of such programs are so strict that hardly anyone can maintain the expected standards for a long time if the wage is low and/or sporadic. 

But let's be honest, the reason for that is that the jobs are generally temporary at best. These jobs last one-week-at-a-time. While only a few people actually gain longer-term employment. These employees are often laid off every few months. This cycle of joblessness is ongoing and breaks down communities to become more like on-call servants instead of employees. 

Therefore, getting all of them into vehicles is not truly as sustainable as advertised by those welfare to work programs. Face it, as a result of the way things are set up right now, poor people do not make enough money to maintain a vehicle in peak condition anyway. 

Moreover, many of these vehicles become pollution producers that hardly pass inspection. Once these vehicles break down completely, they become part of the community’s junk pile. Want some proof: the illegal dump sites in Memphis have tires piled sky high.
Of course, most people will blame the victims for not keeping up their vehicles or keeping jobs. Yet, a solution is all to clear: instead of spending energy and funding on vehicles and job programs for  temporary work, we should be creating a carfree city that is removed from the grid via solar and wind power. Perhaps rainwater collection barrels could be installed. And, there should be a network of small mom and pop businesses nearby that meet all essential needs and that also hires the people who actually lives within the community. 
These businesses could offer bike repair shops, insurance to cover bike theft and damage, or perhaps could offer secured loans to buy top of the line Dutch work bikes or YUBA cargo bikes along with various other walk-bike necessities, such as bike tools, bike helmets, backpacks and carts. With Dutch bikes and push carts people could become legitimate street venders by selling spices and organic foods grown within their own community gardens.  
People who are carfree and who depend on mass transit do not deserve to spend their days tied up with Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). There are better things to do with time. On average, passengers spend up to 25 hours of that time  waiting on MATA each week to arrive at stops. These buses are often to early or to late at any given time. 

It is no wonder why some bus riders feel demoralized and demeaned while standing out in the elements waiting at unsheltered bus stops to go to temporary jobs that give them no hope at all. Theses long waits usually start 20 minutes before a scheduled bus stop, so as not to miss the bus at all or be late to work. Even still, the bus can show up late or sometimes not at all.  
I have heard nothing but complaints from other bus riders: MATA does not get them to their jobs fast enough and the jobs are located all the way across town. 

I knew that was true simply because MATA is well-known as the slowest bus system in the country according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Nonetheless, despite the problems with MATA,  many of the passengers who ride on the bus are quite pleasant while shuffling to and from work; and many MATA drivers are knowledgeable, safe, informative, and friendly. 
To improve on the most pleasant attributes of MATA, we need for the buses to arrive in a timely manner like every 10 minutes instead of 30 minutes to an hour. For now, waiting on the bus and getting to a job can take an hour or two just for a one-way trip. Thus, GPS tracking would enhance MATA’s service potential by allowing people to wait somewhere inside until the bus is just about to arrive at a stop.  
In addition, retailers could collaborate and offer air-controlled shelters at key locations like major business districts, grocery stores, schools, universities, and community centers. They could also add bike racks, repair stands, and public restrooms with baby changing stations. 

Smartphone applications might enhance the experience by making text message announcements of when the bus is coming and how close it is to every bus stop along the line.

Although I walk and bike the majority of the time, I have also used MATA as my sole transportation for long distance travel for several years. 
In fact, let me tell you about one of my trips to the University of Memphis for a class one day. 

I woke up and I studied during the morning hours. 

Then, I left home by 1:00 P.M. to go to a three-hour class that started at 5:30 P.M. 

It took me one and a half hours to get from my downtown home to the University of Memphis. 
After class time, I walked about one mile to the grocery store near Poplar and Highland. At this intersection, I tried to cross the street without getting hit by a vehicle.  The walk sign changed to don’t walk as soon as I took my first few steps across the street. 

And sure enough --- one of those SUV soccer moms thought she could go while I was out in the middle of the street. She came to close to hitting me too. She was talking on a cell phone, so how she made that turn toward me with just one arm, I will never know. 

After the grocery store visit, it was off to the bus stop once again, which is a five minute walk across the parking lot to the street. While sitting there, the exhaust fumes from passing vehicles was more than one could stand. 
In addition, Memphis weather varies within a few hours. So on that very same day, it rained and was freezing cold at one point. Then, the sun came out  and I became so hot that my clothing became soaked with sweat. I had on a lot of bulky clothing and no safe place to store them out of the way. Who can know when they will need all the right stuff to withstand the elements here in Memphis.  Therefore, adequate bus shelters would be nice.  

Now, imagine a bus with 60 people on it who is suffering from the same fate as me that day. Imagine how the proper facilities and systems in place would improve our lives. 

For us, a carfree city would mean far less traffic and ample time for mass transit to flow smoothly through our city. Hopefully, one day, getting to point B in Memphis will allow all of us to relax and enjoy our lives like the most affluent people do who ride along past us in their luxury vehicles. 
Really --- I do not see how anyone can ask the most impoverished carfree citizens to work extra hard to get off public assistance, when much of what they have within their own communities are public systems that do not work well for them, including MATA that gets them nowhere fast. 

Many of these carfree citizens live in zip code 38126, touted as one of the poorest communities in the Mid-South region. If there is any community in need of a makeover it is this one. 

Hopefully, the makeover will be the same or similar to the carfree city of Vauban, Germany. 
For further reference about the 38126 community and others like it in Memphis, there are several nonprofit organizations to consult: Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), Advance MemphisStreets MinistriesMustered Seed, Inc, and The Episcopal Center
Please make donations to all the organizations in this blog. And please, let everyone know that you fully support redesigning Memphis to become a carfree city.  

My Bike 

My Grocery Getter with reinforced wheels added,
two black bike bags clamped onto the back side,
a huge red waterproof dry sack, and a backpack.    
Stephen Hudson's Print "Mr. Moulet" 1982
Center of Southern Folklore 


  1. The real driving force to accomplish making a carfree lifestyle a reality is for all cyclist to start using their bikes! We didn't build all of these roads until we had cars! We will build bike friendly communities when people are using their bikes in mass. Unfortunately, the "poor" people in this country are materially much better off than the poor in the rest of the world. Proof positive that the "Great Society" is one of the best intentioned failures that our government is still trying to implement and reinforce. Wake up, stop feeling sorry for people who would rather take a hand out than to take personal responsibility! I am a cyclist, I use my bike at work, at home, and for recreation. Join me and the revolution, for the right reasons. Find a a reason to ride your bike! Be on the road. Be considerate, but, let others know that the bike is a vehicle, that will be part of the traffic mix! Then planners will do their part and all will be well in time.

    1. Good post over all. I want to readdress one thing: feeling sorry for people who are poor. Not all people who are poor want a handout. What they do want is to live with dignity and respect with full-time job options with benefits. But this is not really the case no matter how hard they try. In fact, the majority of people who are poor are often kept this way to satisfy the craving for cheap labor by the powers-that-be. Therefore, there are few or no full time jobs, but ongoing temporary and part-time work that Memphis, TN, is notorious for. Thus, the only reason that the majority of businesses come to Memphis and then stays here is because of our low wage labor force. This labor force is intentionally kept as dumb as possible, just knowing enough to get by on. Case-and-point, the majority of our public schools here is a complete failure and is being shut down. Lack of full-time long-term employment is the reason for poverty and ongoing economic hardships. This makes it so much harder for those people in poverty to take on personal responsibility, although it can be done for perhaps a few people through intensive assistance programs. And even still, it is an uphill battle for these organizations. Memphis Area Transit Authority is going to cut back on almost all of their bus routes. Moreover, they are notoriously late, early, or do not showing up on time anyway and people are getting fired for being late to their jobs. But MATA is the only transportation that many impoverished people has had to depend on; yet it has never been absolutely dependable for several decades. Moreover, the retail stores have relocated far and away from of the most impoverished communities. I know because I live in the heart of one of these poor communities. In fact, my bike ride to the nearest grocery store is 20 minutes. And once I load my bike up with groceries, it takes much longer to get back home. Not everyone in my community, including me at times, can bike or walk that far to meet their essential needs. When I take the bus to the closet grocery store, it usually takes 2 1/2 hours one way. Sometimes, I can’t even catch the bus coming back home in a timely fashion because some busses are way over crowded since the massive cutbacks. When it is this jam-packed with so many people, I cannot carry more than a couple of small bags of groceries onto the bus comfortably. Besides, I am often standing up on the bus with one hand holding on to a rail just to keep my balance, as people are rocked back and fourth onto me each time the breaks are put on. In an attempt to avoid all of that, I just sit there at the bus stop and wait for another hour, or even more, for the next bus to come that may or may not be as crowed as the last one. Systems like this are set in place intentionally to keep people severally poor and the powers-that-be is directly responsible. So the poor are hardly responsible for this predicament being forced onto them for this many decades. Besides, the jobs these poor people should have right now have been shifted over seas whereby the powers-that-be gets over on those people too. This kind of power and control is a global epidemic and has led us all towards an environmental travesty!

  2. Over 8,000 amazing people read the blog posts for CAR-FREE MEMPHIS — and you’re amazing too!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.