By BOBBY ALLYN
Published: December 28, 2012
MEMPHIS — John Jordan, a 64-year-old condo appraiser here, has been pedaling his cruiser bicycle around town nearly every day, tooling about at lunchtime or zipping to downtown appointments.
“It’s my cholesterol-lowering device,” said Mr. Jordan, clad in a leather vest and wearing a bright white beard. “The problem is, the city needs to educate motorists to not run over” the bicyclists.
Bike-friendly behavior has never come naturally to Memphis, which has long been among the country’s most perilous places for cyclists. In recent years, though, riders have taken to the streets like never before, spurred by a mayor who has worked to change the way residents think about commuting.
Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr., elected in 2009, assumed office a year after Bicycling magazine named Memphis one of the worst cities in America for cyclists, not the first time the city had received such a biking dishonor. But Mr. Wharton spied an opportunity.
In 2008, Memphis had a mile and a half of bike lanes. There are now about 50 miles of dedicated lanes, and about 160 miles when trails and shared roads are included. The bulk of the nearly $1 million investment came from stimulus money and other federal sources, and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, was recently awarded an additional $4.7 million for bike projects.
In June, federal officials awarded Memphis $15 million to turn part of the steel truss Harahan Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River, into a bike and pedestrian crossing. Scheduled to open in about two years, the $30 million project will link downtown Memphis with West Memphis, Ark.
“We need to make biking part of our DNA,” Mr. Wharton said. “I’m trying to build a city for the people who will be running it 5, 10, 15 years from now. And in a region known to some for rigid thinking, the receptivity has been remarkable.”
City planners are using bike lanes as an economic development tool, setting the stage for new stores and enhanced urban vibrancy, said Kyle Wagenschutz, the city’s bike-pedestrian coordinator, a position the mayor created.
“The cycling advocates have been vocal the past 10 years, but nothing ever happened,” Mr. Wagenschutz said. “It took a change of political will to catalyze the movement.”
Memphis, with a population of 650,000, is often cited among the unhealthiest, most crime-ridden and most auto-centric cities in the country. Investments in bicycling are being viewed here as a way to promote healthy habits, community bonds and greater environmental stewardship.
But as city leaders struggle with a sprawling landscape — Memphis covers about the same amount of land as Dallas, yet has half the population — their persistence has run up against another bedeviling factor: merchants and others who are disgruntled about the lanes.
A clash between merchants and bike advocates flared last year after the mayor announced new bike lanes on Madison Avenue, a commercial artery, that would remove two traffic lanes. Many merchants, like Eric Vernon, who runs the Bar-B-Q Shop, feared that removing car lanes would hurt businesses and cause parking confusion. Mr. Vernon said that sales had not fallen significantly since the bike lanes were installed, but that he thought merchants were left out of the process.
On McLean Boulevard, a narrow residential strip where roadside parking was replaced by bike paths, homeowners cried foul. The city reached a compromise with residents in which parking was outlawed during the day but permitted at night, when fewer cyclists were out. Mr. Wagenschutz called the nocturnal arrangement a “Cinderella lane.”
Some residents, however, were not mollified. “I’m not against bike lanes, but we’re isolated because there’s no place to park,” said Carey Potter, 53, a longtime resident who started a petition to reinstate full-time parking.
The changes have been panned by some members of the City Council. Councilman Jim Strickland went as far as to say that the bike signs that dot the streets add “to the blight of our city.”
Tensions aside, the mayor’s office says that the potential economic ripple effect of bike lanes is proof that they are a sound investment.
A study in 2011 by the University of Massachusetts found that building bike lanes created more jobs — about 11 per $1 million spent — than any other type of road project. Several bike shops here have expanded to accommodate new cyclists, including Midtown Bike Company, which recently moved to a location three times the size of its former one. “The new lanes have been great for business,” said the manager, Daniel Duckworth.
Wanda Rushing, a professor at the University of Memphis and an expert on urban change in the South, said bike improvements were of a piece with a development model sweeping the region: bolstering transportation infrastructure and population density in the inner city.
“Memphis is not alone in acknowledging that sprawl is not sustainable,” Dr. Rushing said. “Economic necessity is a pretty good melding substance.”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 29, 2012, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be A Friendlier Place for Cyclists.