In parks, people count. Cars don’t.

April 2nd, 2021


(published in The Daily Memphian)

I would add a bit to that. In parks, people count. And dogs count, and birds count. And while I don’t like cats or squirrels, even they count. And cars don’t. So there. And while we’re counting:

“If you sat for one hour by the side of the road in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, September 1, 2020, you would have been passed by a total of 904 bicyclists, runners, walkers and skaters, and 11 dogs.”

That’s from an article in the March issue of “Parks and Recreation,” the magazine of the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). The road in Rock Creek Park, the largest park in our Capitol city at about 2,000 acres, has been closed during COVID and NRPA volunteers decided to count the non-vehicular traffic.

“The results were astounding, with more than 28,000 persons counted over 163 hours. Almost two-thirds of them were bicyclists, the rest split between walkers, runners, a generous smattering of dogs, and even one cat and one bird (riding on a shoulder).”

“To say there is pent-up demand is an understatement,” said one of the volunteers, “We even counted the mayor going by on her bike.”

The road is Upper Beach Drive. My brother Jim lives in Washington and I’ve driven that road through the park. A squirrel can’t make it across much less a cyclist. A survey showed that that the park had 12 million visitors a year, and 9 million of those were just driving through ... fast, my friends. That survey is 20 years old. Before the pandemic, there were even more cars than that and a lot less squirrels.

The article went on to discuss the efforts of other cities to reduce or eliminate traffic through parks, you know, like New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Denver, and this:

“During normal years in auto-indulgent Memphis, Tennessee, a four-lane parkway alongside Tom Lee Park overlooking the Mississippi River is car-dominated from June through April. In 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the region’s commerce and thousands of Memphians rallied to the riverfront for camaraderie, Mayor Jim Strickland feared a spike in infections from too much crowding. In response, the city closed all the parking lots in Tom Lee Park, as well as all lanes of Riverside Drive. The result was unexpected.

“‘We found that when the roadway was closed to cars, people flocked to it, but now there was twice as much space,’ says Nick Oyler, bikeway and pedestrian program manager for the city. ‘In fact, there were as many people choosing to bike and walk on the street as in the park itself. Not only was the wide roadway easier for social distancing, but the surface was also better for bikes, scooters and skaters’”

What have we learned from the hard lesson of Overton Park’s greensward? What has the COVID experiment taught us? What is the conclusion for “auto-indulgent Memphis, Tennessee”?

Close Riverside Drive. Period. No more traffic easing or slowing or speed bumps or lane reductions or any other euphemism for cars on Riverside below the bluff bordering Tom Lee Park.

Close it to cars. Open it to people. Absorb it into the park.

Let’s do some more counting for you readers already revving your engines.

Go to Second Street. It has a capacity of 24,000 vehicles a day and it’s getting about 6,000. Third has the same capacity and averages 8,000 a day. Front has the same capacity and averages 7,500 a day. Big, wide Crump Boulevard has a daily capacity of 48,000 and the average daily count of only around 13,000. And when the state finally builds the approved roundabout I wrote about recently at the south end of Downtown, everything down there will flow better.

We’re about to spend millions upon millions improving Tom Lee Park. Yet we’re still considering making getting there safely a crap shoot.

Nobody with a baby carriage should have to play dodge ‘em cars to get across Riverside. Nobody with a cooler, or a cane, or a leash, or the hand of a child should have to risk life and limb to get to the river.

Close Riverside Drive. Period. And do it right. No ugly barricades, or orange barrels. Maybe retractable bollards that can be lowered for emergency vehicles, for loading in and out for festivals, and for food trucks.

Close it to cars. Open it to people. Absorb it into the park.

Let’s do so more counting for you readers now loudly honking your horns.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for pedestrian/cyclist deaths in Shelby County – 71 total. In 2015, that number was 29. The Memphis region was recently ranked as the third most dangerous place for pedestrians in the nation. 

Those numbers are nothing to be proud of, they can’t be part of the equation for a park we all will be proud of – a park where people count, and cars don’t.

As for that car we so love to indulge, take it to the drive-thru at Baskin-Robbins and buy it some ice cream.

I’m a Memphian, and it’s time to close Riverside Drive. Period.

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