Trail of the Month: May 2016
“It all works beautifully. Everyone can use it for free and as equals ... ”
Memphis is singing a new song to the tune of a bike bell. The Home of the Blues, once settling near the bottom of lists ranking pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly cities, is climbing its way up thanks largely to an explosion of demand sparked by the Shelby Farms Greenline, one of the city’s most popular multi-use trails. Just last year, the city earned a Bronze-Level Bicycle Friendly Community designation, an honor that just a few years ago would have seemed unlikely if not downright impossible.
“It has changed the face of people-powered transportation in Memphis,” says Steven Sondheim, a former board member of the Greater Memphis Greenline, a nonprofit group that first advocated for the trail and continues to support the development of other multiuse trails in the city and throughout Shelby County. “It launched a whole bike and pedestrian movement in Memphis that wasn’t here before.”
The 6.7-mile paved pathway is not what you might expect in the heart of a major urban city. Beginning in Midtown, the trail unfurls largely under a canopy of large oaks and other shade trees, making it pleasantly cool and green in summer. Dotted with wooden trestles over scenic wetland and riparian areas, and with few street crossings, deer, wild turkeys, armadillos and other wildlife occasionally wander through the hushed corridor.
“You don’t know you’re in the city at all; it’s pretty secluded,” says Stephen Edwards, the interim bikeway/pedestrian program manager for the City of Memphis, noting that there’s even a section of the trail called the ‘cathedral’ for its ceiling of leaves. “I’m an avid backpacker and the Greenline gives you that same kind of feeling.”
Other parts of the route open up to residential neighborhoods, and the trail provides a vital transportation and social linkage through these communities, connecting them to each other and to parks and recreational amenities within the city.
“Neighborhoods along the Greenline are some of the wealthiest and some of the least wealthy in the city,” says Jen Andrews, executive director of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, which manages the trail. “It all works beautifully. Everyone can use it for free and as equals on this unique public asset owned by them.”
The Greenline opened in 2010 and Andrews remembers the occasion vividly: “I was at the trail’s groundbreaking and its ribbon-cutting; both were remarkable experiences. The groundbreaking was in 2009, and the city had never done anything like this before. People were excited. It unleashed a wave of enthusiasm in the city.”
On its east end, the trail is anchored by one of America’s largest urban parks, five times larger than New York’s famed Central Park. At 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park offers just about every type of outdoor activity imaginable: horseback riding, ziplining, disc golf, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, nature trails, the fantastical Woodland Discovery Playground—even a herd of buffalo. The developing Heart of the Park project, anticipated to open this fall, will add even more amenities, including a new visitor center, event pavilion and signature restaurant.
In tandem, a 4.3-mile eastward extension of the Greenline is also underway and expected to open this summer. The new trail section, being developed by Shelby County, will run from the trailhead in Shelby Farms Park out to a former train station in Cordova, once a railroad stop on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (and later CSX line), the same corridor on which the rest of the rail-trail is built.
Another 2.3 miles of trail, in the planning stages now, will continue the trail even farther east from the Cordova depot to Lenow Road. As the route will pass a popular sports complex, several businesses and a new mixed-use development recently approved by the city, the new segment will add another valuable piece of connectivity for the community.
The two extensions will nearly double the length of the Shelby Farms Greenline, making it the longest rail-trail in Tennessee, just beating out the newly completed Tweetsie Trail on the eastern end of the state.
“We went from zero bike lanes in 2010 to 70 miles of bike lanes and 32 miles of shared-use paths today,” says Edwards, who shared data showing that by the end of 2017, the number of bike lanes and trail mileage in Memphis will nearly double.
“The trail is linear; it’s like a spine,” says Sondheim, who credits the Shelby Farms Greenline as the catalyst of this bicycle and pedestrian boom. “You want people to be able to get to it, so bike lanes and trails were developed to get to it, and now it’s no longer just recreation, you can get to places.”
Even better, these projects are part of an even more expansive and ambitious effort called the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan (often referred to as simply the “Greenprint” by locals), which will add approximately 500 miles of trails and 200 miles of bike lanes across Shelby County and its neighboring counties (including parts of Arkansas and Mississippi) by 2040.
If the Shelby Farms Greenline is selected by the public for entry into the 2016 Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, it will be the first from Tennessee in a prestigious group of the country’s top rail-trails, a well-earned victory for the state’s evolving trail movement.
“Memphis is a very different place than 10 years ago,” says Andrews, who moved to the city just a few years before the Greenline opened. “Memphis has a long way to go, but it’s making a lot of progress. There’s something so uplifting about the trail. It makes you feel hopeful. It makes people feel optimistic and proud of their city.”