In 2011, the average Memphis household spent 27 percent of its total income on transportation costs, such as gas or vehicle maintenance. That's one of the highest percentages for a metro area in the nation.
In part, the high cost of driving in Memphis may be related to the lack of other options, such as easy-to-use public transit and bicycle and pedestrian access. But a proposed Complete Streets policy being considered by both city and county mayors might eventually give commuters cheaper and safer options for travel.
The Complete Streets approach, which is being taken up by cities across the country, would refocus city and regional transportation planning to look at the needs of not only drivers but walkers, cyclists, and public-transit users, when designing new streets or repaving old ones.
"Complete Streets focuses on the needs of all users — pedestrians, cyclists, and transit in particular. But in our region, motorists and freight are still really important," said Wesley Riddle, spokesperson for the local Complete Streets Policy Development team.
To some extent, the city has already been using a Complete Streets approach when repaving streets. Take, for example, Madison Avenue and McLean Boulevard, both of which had bike lanes added during recent repaving projects.
But according to Riddle, the Complete Streets policy will be about more than adding bike lanes.
"Putting together a bike network is a huge part of the equation, but it's not the whole equation," Riddle said. "Complete Streets does not mean we want a bike lane on every road. It doesn't even mean we want a sidewalk on every road. It means we need an overall transportation network that functions for more than just automobiles."
With a Complete Streets policy, engineers and design teams look at each street and determine the needs of future users. Some streets would be designed to carry mainly automobile traffic at higher speeds, while smaller roads with slower traffic would have safer lanes for bicycles and a walkable network of sidewalks.
"What it will look like exactly, I'm not sure we can articulate that right now. But I think it would have some dedicated public-transit lanes that run really efficiently, a network of bike lanes so the whole city is connected, and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that are served sufficiently by public transit," Riddle said.
As for how the Complete Streets policy would benefit vehicle traffic, Riddle said adding bike lanes and pedestrian access actually improves roads for cars at the same time.
"What's safer for pedestrians and cyclists is also proven to be safer for cars," Riddle said. "Slowing down car traffic is safer for everyone."
The policy is being sponsored by Livable Memphis, and it's currently awaiting both mayors' signatures in the form of an executive order.
For more than a year, the Complete Streets development team has been studying similar polices in other cities to create the best local version. Riddle said he'd like to see the policy in place within the next year.
"We know that bike and pedestrian trips are on the rise, and we have to be intelligent about anticipating increased conflicts," Riddle said. "It's no longer going to be a motorists-only world."