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No Big Brother Here

The city's new bike lanes are a sensible response to a long-term need.

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I'll admit it: I'm not a very good planner.

I don't track my finances in an Excel spreadsheet, I often wait till I'm lost before seeking directions, and when traveling abroad, I often forgo museums for aimless bumbling in the streets of a new city.

So in 2003, when I was asked by the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to join 41 other bicycle "stakeholders" in a two-year planning process, I accepted with trepidation. But in 2003 the MPO needed "bike people."

U.S. transportation policy since the 1990s has mandated bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning. Section 1202 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, signed into law in 1998, required that "transportation plans and projects shall provide due consideration for safety and contiguous routes for bicyclists and pedestrians."

The problem for the Memphis MPO in 2003 was simple: It had never made "due consideration" for bicycles and pedestrians.

In compliance with federal transportation policy, the MPO assembled an ad-hoc committee and charged them with creating a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan to complement the region's long-term transportation plan. Completed in 2005, the plan is clear in its purpose: "This plan is intended to identify the opportunities for enhancing bicycle and pedestrian travel within the Memphis MPO region. The recommendations contained in this plan should be used as guides for taking advantage of these opportunities."

The completion of the Memphis MPO's bike and pedestrian plan brought the MPO into compliance with federal transportation policy, but in itself — as a recommendation — the plan was incapable of forcing the construction of a single mile of bike lane or sidewalk within the nine municipalities and three counties in the Memphis MPO region.

In fact, until recently, local government's commitment to a walkable and bikeable region has been less than impressive. In 2008 and 2009, Memphis was spotlighted in Bicycling Magazine as one of the three worst cities for cycling in America. This year, the Memphis region was evaluated by Transportation for America's landmark "Dangerous by Design" report as the seventh-most dangerous area in the country for pedestrians. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Shelby County's obesity rate in 2008 was 33.4 percent. The national obesity rate is 26.5 percent.

Although Article 46, Section 490 of the municipal charter for the city of Memphis explicitly states that "the governing authority shall have power to pass all laws to preserve the health of the city," this provision does not contradict John Branston's recent assertion in his column that "it isn't government's job to get people to bicycle." We must remember: The bike plan is far from law. It's just a suggestion.

But this debate about the role of the government in our lives — be it municipal, state, or federal — constitutes a perennial debate in the U.S. In the Federalist Papers, founding father James Madison noted this tension in his discussion of how the federal government relates to the states.

His response to "the adversaries of the Constitution" — those seeking to evade federal power in favor of full state power — was to say that such critics had "lost sight of the people altogether in their reasonings on this subject. They must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone. ... Truth, no less than decency, requires that the event in every case should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents."

The Memphis MPO and its constituents — the nine municipalities and three counties in our region — met their federal transportation obligations by designing and regularly updating a bicycle and pedestrian plan. But the people of our region — through a process of public participation, advocacy, and civic engagement — are the ones responsible for the bike lanes, trails, and sidewalk improvements popping up across the city.

Whether we agree that the promotion of bicycling and walking are the responsibility of local government, a central tenet of our democracy is that government be, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, of, by, and for the people. Cities across the United States are rushing to reorganize roadways to include bicycle lanes. New York City leads with more than 200 miles of bike lanes created since 2009.

In these cities, government has proven an able partner for bike advocates — recent political leadership in Memphis included. But the blame for this surge of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure belongs not with the government. Instead, it lies with the citizens of our city. Not a single mile of infrastructure would have been created without this people-powered movement. And for that we should be grateful.

Anthony Siracusa, a native Memphian and founder of Revolution Community Bicycle Shop at First Congregational Church, spent a year investigating bicycle cultures on four continents as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow.

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