On July 29, 2014, the City of Memphis held a public meeting at Beale Street Landing to make a presentation and receive comments about the ongoing pilot project making half of Riverside Drive a pedestrian and bicycle only path and the future use of the roadway.
About 45 people were in the audience for the meeting and many repeatedly expressed, in sometimes caustic terms, a frustration because they felt the city proceeded with the pilot project first without an opportunity for public input, taking them by surprise.
The apparent opponents of both the pilot project and any plans to continue the narrowed use of the street by motor vehicles seemed to outnumber those who voiced support. There were a number of complaints regarding safety of those driving cars and trucks on the now two lanes open to motor vehicles, about traffic congestion, about actual use of the part of the road now reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. This report is not to diminish any validity such complains may or may not have nor does it favor one proposal over another, including returning the road to its former four lane motor vehicle use or keeping its use divided.
In answer to one person asking why the city did not hold such public meeting before closing one side of the road for the pilot project, City Engineer John Cameron noted that it is often difficult to get people to attend any such meeting until something is actually done, like this pilot project, that gets the public’s attention. He had also let the people know that this was one of the top fast-track proposals endorsed by consultant Jeff Speck and outlined in a public meeting more than a year ago.
This frequent observer of public meetings believes Cameron was telling a sad truth. The public usually does not make itself aware of what its government is doing or plans to do and often does not actively participate until something happens. Then those who make their voices heard are typically those who do not like what has been done.
More to the point addressing the complaints of those who said they did not know about the plan to close one side of Riverside Drive until it happened was that the city’s announced plans for the pilot project implementation got major play by the news media, including by The Commercial Appeal on March 8, was also outlined in the Memphis Daily News April 22, the Memphis Business Journal March 10, WMC-TV March 11, and WHBQ-TV March 11. The southbound lanes of Riverside Drive were closed for much of May, as usual for the Memphis in May festival, and the pilot project keeping those lanes closed to motor vehicles ensued after that. This time line means the public got more than two months to voice whatever comments it had about the plans before the city actually began the project. The city council meets about twice a month and a member of the public may request to speak on any subject, the matter does not have to be on the agenda. Letters, phone calls, and e-mail messages could have been directed to council members, the mayor, the city engineer, and others. If people do not take the time and effort to try to stay informed and then participate in our self- government, it tends to make them look less than diligent when they later complain about not having had an opportunity for input.
There were one or two comments at the July 29 meeting that messages left with the city were not returned. Cameron said he was disappointed to hear that, leaving the impression that if his office gets legitimate communications from the public he expects it to respond.
Certainly the comments at the late July gathering, including those that were seemingly tinged with animosity, are valuable feedback to the city about what some of the residents think and Cameron promised to take the suggestions under consideration. It is rarely too late for the public to tell its government what it wants. It is good that the opponents, as well as those favoring the reassignment of Riverside Drive, were at the July 29 meeting. It is a shame that less than 50, excluding the media, city officials, and Beale Street Landing employees, chose to attend. Regardless, as they would probably admit and as their questions clearly implied, there could be better timing for comments for those who opposed any change to Riverside Drive and it would seem that the months between the announcement of the plan and its implementation would have been that better time.
The outrage expressed by some of the public about not having a reasonable opportunity to address the issue with the city seemed, for the most part, to be outrageous. Since this was not a major concrete and earth moving project requiring a long term advance commitment, it could be argued there was a significant amount of time and opportunity for the public to express itself.
If residents of a city do not inform themselves and take part in their self-government, then it could be said they deserve what they get, whether they like it or not.
Although there may well be times for outrage, it would seem obvious that it might be worthwhile for all of us to devote a little more, or perhaps much more, time to learning what our various levels of government are doing, then to express our opinion to our elected and appointed officials, preferably in a timely and courteous manner, not after-the-fact and with animosity because we did not, in fact, inform ourselves and make our voices heard earlier.