Toks Omishakin, who lives with his family in a sidewalk-less neighborhood in Antioch, fastens his bike to his car and drives a few miles down the road when he wants to reach the nearest bike trail.
“The ‘bike-path czar’ shouldn’t be driving to Mill Creek to get some recreation time,” Omishakin said. “I’d love to be able to commute to the store.”
It’s been 18 months since Mayor Karl Dean tapped Omishakin, 33, to oversee the city’s bicycle and pedestrian activity, a new position carved out of the mayor’s office. The goal? “Transform Nashville into one of the most walkable and bikeable cities in the country,” Dean said at the time.
The fact that Omishakin’s house is so far away from any sidewalks or bikeways suggests Nashville has a ways to go to reach the mayor’s vision. So it’s surprising when the former Metro Planning Department staffer, who manned a similar job there, says Nashville compares favorably in terms of “bike-ability”with other cities of its size. Still, places like Madison, Wis., and Portland, Ore. — two cradles of bike-friendly living — seem like different worlds compared with vehicle-dominated Nashville.
Dean, who places his bike-and-pedestrian initiatives under his oft-trumpeted “quality of life” umbrella, said there’s an enormous level of “pent-up demand” for Nashville to embrace a more bikeable, walkable lifestyle. The issue, he said, is doubly important here, considering Nashville consistently sits near the top of lists that rank the nation’s unhealthiest cities.
“There are clearly cities that have done a lot more, and there are probably many more cities that have done a lot less,” Dean said. “I’m not really worried about comparisons, but just making sure we’re moving forward in a thoughtful way, but in an aggressive way.”
So far, Nashville’s bikeway-pedestrian movement is incomplete, with actions geared mostly toward facilitating a “mindset change” often cited by Omishakin. But soon some more pointed initiatives will be in place, including a new bike-share program, which even avid cyclists are unsure if Nashville is ready for.
Dean made his first move on the bike-pedestrian front shortly after his inauguration when he appointed a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Activity Committee, an 18-member body that meets six times a year to update the city’s sidewalks and bikeways plan, among other things. One of the first recommendations the group made was to install a full-time bicycle and pedestrian coordinator inside the mayor’s office. Dean appointed Omishakin, who has since been crowned the office’s “health czar” of sorts, as well.
Working in conjunction with the committee, Omishakin has set some long-term goals: Eventually, every Nashvillian should live no more than one mile from a sidewalk, two miles from a bikeway and four miles from a greenway. Over the next five years, he’d also like to see Nashville add another 50 miles of both bike lanes and sidewalks, and 20 to 25 miles of greenway paths.
But sheer numbers aren’t his top objective.
“I wouldn’t say that numbers are necessarily going to be what says we’ve improved from a walking, biking, healthy-living standpoint,” Omishakin said. “I think it’s going to be a cultural mindset change, and what aids that is the fact that we’re building and supporting that lifestyle more.”
To that end, Omishakin said two recent projects, ostensibly minor, are poised to make major headway.
A few weeks ago, Metro workers installed the first of what will eventually be 12 artist-designed bike racks across downtown and midtown. The gigantic tomatoes and cornstalks near the Nashville Farmers’ Market and the large microphone on Roundabout Plaza — those, believe it or not, are bike racks.
Months before, the city implemented a new green bike-lane design on two Nashville streets — Davidson Road, which leads into Shelby Park, and Rosa Parks Boulevard in north Nashville. The design, which according to Omishakin is the first of its kind in the nation, delineates separate bike lanes with green, rubber material, complete with bicycle seals and arrows. Next year, the green lanes are to be placed on stretches of Charlotte Pike and Ed Temple Boulevard when both are repaved. Funding comes from a combination of local and state dollars.
“Those are two projects there that, in a sense, are facilities that people can use, so it’s actually improving infrastructure for people to bike,” Omishakin said. “But at the same time, they serve as educational pieces, community awareness tools. People are going to see the microphone, and say, ‘Maybe I should think about biking or walking.’ ”
The next initiative on the table, Nashville’s new bike-share pilot program, has already generated plenty of buzz. Under the plan, originally scheduled to start in the spring but postponed because of the flood, people will be able to borrow bikes at two monitored locations — Music City Star’s riverfront station and Shelby Bottoms — before riding and returning them that day.
Participants are required to show their driver’s license to pick up one of the 30 single-speed bikes, a helmet and a lock. Next spring, the program is poised to dramatically expand, with 10 solar-powered, unmonitored parking stations set to dot various locations across county. There, riders will swipe cards to lock and unlock the bikes themselves.
Omishakin, who believes there’s a need for a bike-share program, said he’s optimistic the program will succeed, adding it has “a lot of potential” in Nashville. Others aren’t so sure.
Scott DeShon, co-owner of Eastside Cycles, repaired the actual bikes that will be a part of the pilot program after they were damaged in May’s flood. Nonetheless, he has doubts.
“Most people who are going to commute or would commute already own a bike or will buy a bike, a rack or whatever they need,” DeShon said. “Now, as far as a bike-share program where you just want to get from one part of downtown to another, that might leave a little area for a bike-share program to expand.”
Advancements toward increasing bike ridership in Nashville extend beyond that program. In theory, cyclists will soon be able to ride from one side of the county to the other — from Percy Priest Lake to Warner Park — by way of bike lanes or trails via the “Music City Bikeway.” All that’s missing is one more connection in the Richland Creek Greenway, slated for construction next year through a federal stimulus grant.
From a policy standpoint, Omishakin said, there’s also a new shift toward what planners call a “complete streets” policy, whereby designs of new streets take into account accessibility to bikers and other pedestrians, not just vehicular traffic. The new approach was used when overhauling downtown Deaderick Street, with the new Korean War Veterans Boulevard extension and the proposed 28th Avenue connector up next.
“This is not just office rhetoric, or some kind of PR campaign,” Omishakin said. “This is serious to [Dean].”