Earlier this spring a small stenciled image of a bike appeared on the pavement at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Luttrell Street. An arrow painted beside the bike pointed to the right. What's this? I thought.
Later, I noticed more of the small stenciled bikes zigzagging through North Knoxville, leading the way down quiet neighborhood streets and little-used roads near industrial parts of town. They perfectly matched the route my husband takes when he bikes our child to school in the bike trailer.
"You did this!" I said.
He denied it.
Still, it must be a personal route, I thought, marked by a cycling enthusiast with an anarchist streak, pointing the way to a party; or maybe it was part of a whimsical scavenger hunt. But, the marks were quite consistent, the distance covered was large...could it be a city-sanctioned route? And yet, the stencils were a little low-tech to be official. They seemed to hover in a gray area somewhere between city traffic markings and graffiti.
After going through a short list of suspects, I got a promising tip, and one day I received a call from a man I'll call "AC."
"You wrote asking about these ‘mysterious bike stencils,'" he said, "Well, it was me."
AC ordered the stencil off the Internet, cut it out of matting, and used white spray paint to mark the road. The purpose of these little stenciled bikes is to trace the official Transportation Planning Organization's bike route from downtown to Harvest Park and Knoxville Center Mall.
This route is just one of a series of the safest and most enjoyable routes TPO has developed for Knoxville cyclists to travel from one high-destination point to another, taking into account traffic speed and volume, road width, and other factors.
TPO designed these routes, but it is up to the city transportation engineers to sign the roads. Frustrated at the delay of what he sees as an important project, AC spent about five hours one day in March marking the whole mall route by himself. When the city repaved some roads, he went back out and redid the paved-over stencils so the route would remain complete. He believes the money for signing the TPO bike routes was set aside during the Haslam administration and the project just got "swept under the rug." Until his bike stencils appeared, this route through North Knoxville existed only on TPO's mostly obscure maps.
AC lives in South Knoxville, but, an avid bicycler, he frequently bikes through North Knoxville. Considered an authority on the subject, he's often asked about the best routes for biking through the city. AC says he marked the Knoxville Center Mall route as a service to people who ride bikes, to show people a good bike route through North Knoxville and "hopefully get more people out riding bikes."
Though familiar with the engineering department, AC is not a city transportation engineer and feels a bit uneasy about "intruding on their turf."
"Though," he adds, "they should have done this long ago."
He describes his stenciling project as an "interested-individual effort."
Ellen Zavisca, senior transportation planner, has noticed the stencils and cautiously approves of the project.
"They are helpful in that they provide good routes for cyclists...in the interim," she says, noting that the city will eventually sign all the TPO routes, including the one to Knoxville Center Mall.
In fact, according to a May 24 press release, the city has finished Knoxville's "first signed bike route" from downtown to Cedar Bluff. The city's signage is "way more official-looking that what I did," says AC. The Cedar Bluff route is marked with green directional signs, about the same size, shape, and height as a street-name sign. Orange signs along the way caution drivers to "Share the Road."
AC feels optimistic about the Rogero administration's interest in biking issues and believes that in the next few years significant headway will be made in the signing and developing of Knoxville bike routes.
Meanwhile, all the TPO bike route maps can be found online at knoxtrans.org/plans/bikeprog/resource.htm. For cyclists interested in a meander down "Knoxville's scenic backroads," the small spiral-bound guide book, Mini Adventure Series: Knoxville, Tennessee Bicycling Routes, is also a good resource.