‘Catching Up’

Memphis making strides in increasing transit options, stakeholders say

By Patrick Lantrip

Memphis’ desire to land Amazon’s multibillion-dollar second headquarters faces several headwinds. While many critics have pointed to the city’s insufficient labor pool and lack of direct flights to the West Coast as the most likely deal breakers, Memphis lags behind many of the consensus top contenders in another area: connectivity.

Among the requests for tax incentives and workforce requirements, Amazon’s Sept. 7 request for proposals asked all interested metropolitan areas to list all of their connectivity options, including “sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”

When this caveat is considered, it’s not a coincidence that all of the cities considered serious contenders to land the $5 billion jackpot are known for a variety of transit options.

Chicago, Illinois, for example, which the Brookings Institution listed as a top contender for Amazon’s so-called HQ2, was also listed as the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. last year by Bicycling Magazine.

Memphis is making strides in creating bike lane infrastructure – the lanes along North Parkway are well-established and widely used – but the city doesn’t have the full transit “toolkit” yet.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Denver, Colorado, San Francisco, California, New York City, Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. – all of which have all been listed at some point as serious contenders for the new Amazon headquarters – all rank within the top 15 slots on that list. Seattle, Washington – Amazon’s birthplace – ranked fifth.

Suzanne Carlson, transportation and mobility project manager at Innovate Memphis, said these types of infrastructure investments and where corporations choose to relocate go hand in hand.

“Chicago has done a terrific job investing in protected bike lanes,” she said. “They made a commitment to build 100 miles of bike lanes in Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel’s first term.”

Carlson, who used to live in Chicago, said the city got a lot of pushback from some people who thought bike lanes weren’t realistic or a practical use of money.

“But then they launched the bike share and suddenly it made sense,” she added.

Since then, Chicago has been able to land several major corporate relocations, including Motorola and McDonald’s, which are both considered massive victories, even for one of the largest cities in the country.

However, Carlson added, Memphis is making strides in catching up to some of these cities.

“I think Memphis is making some great moves around bike lanes,” she said. “I think those investments have been great for business districts.”

A cyclist rides through the intersection of Sam Cooper Boulevard and East Parkway into Overton Park in Midtown. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Carlson also noted that Memphis’ own Downtown relocation renaissance, most notably led by ServiceMaster, is fueled by the same source as larger metro areas like Chicago.

“Surveys are showing that younger workers and high-tech workers value these types of assets in a city, so my guess is that companies are moving back Downtown because they have the assets that draw that workforce,” she said.

To the east, Memphis Medical District Collaborative president Tommy Pacello and his organization have been making similar strides to create a more walkable, bike-friendly atmosphere in the formerly auto-centric neighborhood with the hopes of bringing in more business to the district.

“What we’re seeing is a strong connection between corporate recruitment and what I would refer to as good urban design principles,” Pacello said. “Mixed-use, mixed-income (neighborhoods) that are walkable and vibrant really begin to create the outline for attracting Amazon and other corporate headquarters.”

Recently, Orion Federal Credit Union announced it will relocate its headquarters into the soon-to-be-renovated former Wonder Bread factory in the medical district.

Pacello said that while enhancing bike lane infrastructure in Memphis is important, it’s only one piece to the sustainable transit puzzle.

“It’s all about transit options. Bikes are just a part of that,” he said. “It’s about having a complete set of transportation options for the employees.”

Those options, he added, include bike lanes, bike and ride sharing options, pedestrian enhancements and a reliable public transit system.

“All of that stuff is starting to come together. It’s just that some cities are ahead of where we are in Memphis, but I believe we’re doing a really good job of catching up,” he said. “They have the full toolkit. In Memphis right now we don’t have the full toolkit yet, but we’re building it.”