Before taking over Kyle Wagenschutz's position as Memphis' Bikeway and Pedestrian Program manager, Nicholas Oyler spent six years living in Germany and Texas. The experiences couldn't have been more opposite. Texans cursed him for biking in the street. Germans scolded him for stepping into the bike lane. But Oyler learned abroad that walking and biking are engrained in everyday life — a vision he told the Flyer that he sees for Memphis. — Joshua Cannon
- Nicholas Oyler
Memphis Flyer: What is your professional and personal background prior to this job?
Nicholas Oyler: I was away from Memphis for about six years, with most of that time in Germany and the rest in Texas. Along the way, I worked as an urban planner with the goal of one day returning home with a collection of experiences and lessons applicable toward improving Memphis. After returning three years ago, I worked at the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization and re-acquainted myself with my hometown and the changes that had occurred while away.
What improvements did you see in terms of cycling and walkability?
As you expect, a lot had changed by the time I returned. Perhaps the greatest change was a heightened sense of awareness in the community on the importance of these issues and the fact that an alternative to the car-dominated status quo was possible. During my undergraduate studies at the [University of Memphis], I hoped that the city would adopt something as simple as Share the Road signs; the thought of bike lanes was wishful thinking. So, imagine my astonishment and renewed optimism when I learned the city was experimenting with some of the most cutting-edge designs for bicycle facilities in the country. If anything, these improvements fueled my belief that Memphis really could become the sustainable, livable city I envisioned.
How is Germany's biking and walking culture different from America's, specifically in Memphis?
There are no perceptions against or stigmas toward walking and biking as a poor person's, child's, or — I dare say — hipster's mode of transportation. These are simply ways to get around. But what makes this taken-for-granted attitude possible is a well-connected, safe, and efficient infrastructure network, not to mention land-use regulations that encourage denser development. Even the home country of BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche acknowledges that the transportation network should work for all people, regardless of their ability or desire to drive a car. The pedestrian, bicycle, and transit networks in German cities are extensive and connected well enough that no person faces limited mobility without a car. Girls as young as 8 years old and women as old as 80 ride bikes in the street. Kindergarteners walk themselves home from school. Memphis and most U.S. cities are a long way from these conditions, but I believe it's a vision worth striving toward.
How do you commute?
I walk to work every day, rain or shine. The walk takes about five minutes, and the only traffic I encounter are some squirrels on Main Street. On days when I have a morning meeting outside of downtown, I ride a bike or take the bus. Of course, many people in Memphis don't have these choices readily available to them as convenient or practical options. My wife and I prioritized living in a walkable neighborhood that was within easy access to our places of work, but, in my opinion, that desire shouldn't immediately limit our choices to a couple of neighborhoods. Memphis has a handful of truly walkable neighborhoods, but in most, current conditions don't provide safe or comfortable connections. Because of this, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the implementation of the city's Pedestrian and School Safety Action Plan, a planning document that recommends strategic improvements to our pedestrian network and will lead to a much more walkable city overall.
Read the full interview at memphisflyer.com.