Wagenschutz, Memphis Recognized as Industry Leader


When Kyle Wagenschutz took over as the bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the city of Memphis in 2010, there was all of one mile of bike lanes to manage.

Kyle Wagenschutz, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the city of Memphis, recently was named one of the White House’s 2015 Transportation Champions of Change.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

In some ways, being the first person charged with developing a bicycle network with only one mile probably had its challenges. On the other hand, the bar was pretty low, giving Wagenschutz the opportunity to create something the city and its bicycle community can take pride in seeing develop.

In just five years, the city has grown from that one mile to 200, and Memphis now is seen as a leader in some ways, a city to emulate. That leadership was seen in October when Wagenschutz was named one of the White House’s 2015 Transportation Champions of Change.

And the day after returning to Memphis from that visit, Wagenschutz boarded a 17-hour flight to Australia. He was the invited keynote speaker at the Bike Futures conference in Melbourne.

It seems the news is spreading about the bicycle growth in Memphis. Wagenschutz’s talk in Australia focused on how a car-dominated city like Memphis has been able to make positive changes in the bicycle infrastructure and policy.

“There has always been a strong group of people who have bicycled in Memphis, certainly among those who value the recreational and athletic aspects of it,” he said. “Now having the infrastructure in place leads to other groups: families, moms and everyday people. Maybe there is a bike trail now that takes them to the library. Maybe they’ll ride it instead of take the car, or bike to a favorite restaurant.”

Wagenschutz recalls childhood summers spent riding bikes with his friends. One summer in particular he mowed lawns to earn enough money to purchase his first gear bicycle.

Because his father was in the Navy, the family moved up and down the East Coast. They transferred to Millington when Wagenschutz was in high school; he has called the Bluff City home ever since.

Wagenschutz’s enthusiasm for bicycles waned as he got older, but a visit to Revolutions Bicycle Co-op renewed his interest. Volunteering his time working on bikes eventually led to becoming director in 2008.

“We put thousands of bikes back on the street, but we also began to realize that simply helping people get bikes wasn’t enough to get the number of people riding up,” he said. “People still had a strong sense of not being safe while riding on the street. The city wasn’t proactive in developing the infrastructure.”

Wagenschutz and others became some of the first voices to raise awareness in the community about the need for a bicycle infrastructure, leading to the first sparks of advocacy. When Memphis Mayor A C Wharton added a bicycle program manager in 2010, Wagenschutz applied and has been in the position since.

The city already had a master plan in place. Wagenschutz’s first task was updating the then 5-year-old plan. The updated plan essentially provided a skeleton of a network that determined the most critical corridors.

More than 3,000 individuals participated in the development of the first plan, proving a real thirst in the community to see a bicycle plan developed.

The plan was updated in 2014. Currently, the city is up to just more than 200 miles in the bicycle network, 100 of which are separate bicycle spaces such as trails and dedicated lanes in roadways. The others are in neighborhoods and assigned bicycle paths.

The network of lanes continues to grow as part of the city’s standard procedure in repaving streets.

“Every time a road gets repaved it’s reviewed to see if a lane can go in,” Wagenschutz said. “If it will have an impact, we’ll have a public process to review it. Generally speaking, the bicycle network will grow at a natural rate just through the paving operations in the city.”

The next step is connecting the network. While 200 miles sounds like a lot, in a city as spread out as Memphis those lanes and paths can be hit or miss. Part of Wagenschutz’s job is identifying federal transportation grants that can help fill the gaps.

“Paving will give us the miles but not the network,” he said. “Two hundred miles is a drop in a bucket in terms of what it looks like on a citywide basis. We have to strategically think of how we fill those gaps. We have 140 more miles of bike routes and trails funded through federal transportation grants that will fill many of those gaps. The processing can take some time.”

Memphis remains a city dominated by car transportation, leading to plenty of negative conversations about the addition of bike lanes. But Wagenschutz said Memphis isn’t alone on that front.

“If you Google other cities in the world, look at the news stories and scroll down to the comment section, you’ll see the same negative comments – even in places like Portland,” he said. “A lot of cities have already gone through these discussions and come out ahead. It’s not always bad to be late to play the game. We can learn from others.

“To some degree we’ve flipped that script and people are calling us and asking how we’re doing it in Memphis.”