Is Knoxville Always a "Bike-Friendly" City?

A couple of asterisks for our new designation

Knoxville was designated a bike-friendly city by a national organization that monitors these things, and I was tickled to hear it. I've been commuting by bike for a few decades now, and always thought bicycling was easier here than people like to say it is, but I'm grateful to the many efforts that have made that more obvious. I have never had more company. Bicycling may even be getting even more popular than it was a century ago, when we were first smitten with the internal-combustion engine.

But I feel obliged to point out a couple of exceptions.

Three months ago, I was invited to a meeting at Tea at the Gallery on Western Plaza. It sounded like a charming break, on a nice day, so I rode my bike, via the Third Creek bike trail. I've taken that route to Bearden-area interviews many times before.

I knew there was construction, TDOT's project to rebuild the bridge over the railroad tracks. I'm an old hand at negotiating construction projects, with or without my bike. In the city, you can almost always find a way around, regardless of your vehicle, or lack of vehicle. In Bearden I met my Waterloo.

It's not just that there's no sidewalk on Kingston Pike, at Forest Park. A lifelong Tennessean, I have low standards for sidewalks. Rubble, a good ditch, or a shoulder will pass. But on a short segment of Kingston Pike, there was no shoulder, no margin, no curb. Just a concrete wall, a stripe, and several tons of sheet metal and chrome coming at you. With no stoplight or signal close by, you'll find, the cars come at you pretty fast. There was no signage, no warning, no flagman, no suggestion to citizens lacking automobiles.

Thus, at teatime, I found myself in an extreme situation. As a bicyclist, I'm not sure I've never encountered a situation quite so exciting.

I assumed TDOT had just gambled on a brief safety shortcut. Maybe a flagman was sick that day. So two months later, when I was invited to another meeting at the new Highlands Grill, I figured it had surely been corrected, and took the bike trail from downtown again. It was exactly the same scene. I made a Hail Mary dash into traffic, hoping to not die.

The section between Knox Plaza and the Ice Chalet is not long, just a couple hundred feet, but it's vital to cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The neighborhood offers no detours around it. During its project, TDOT made it cars-only.

I can just avoid riding in Bearden until it's all over. Neighbors don't have that option. The Bearden-Sutherland area has a high concentration of people who don't, or can't, drive—from graduate students to handicapped retirees who grocery-shop in wheelchairs. For the duration of this project, they can't safely get to Long's, or CVS, or the Fresh Market, or any of the other businesses from Western Plaza to Old Kingston Pike.

TDOT planners might say it's not practically possible to do more. But here's the weird thing: Between the two lanes of traffic is a turn lane. And, there being nowhere to turn, drivers don't use it. I stood there, cars whooshing by inches from me, wishing I had some of that empty space over here on the side, where I could put it to use.

"Well, it's just temporary," everyone says, until the construction project is finished. In this case, "temporary" is several months. If you want to know what temporary feels like, try to get through that bottleneck on your two feet.


Another is less problem than puzzle. I generally like the new transit center, even if it is just a bus station, all these years after we began touting the word "intermodal," because we liked the sound of it. It was our, conservative, low-cost way to sound transit-savvy. After it was divorced from the likelihood of rail access, I argued it was still "intermodal" because KAT buses have bike racks. Bicycling's a mode.

There's a lot to recommend the new center: a modest cafe and a public amenity missing downtown for years, a public bathroom. It also offers an interesting historical exhibit of some stuff they found in excavating the site: marbles and trinkets and soft-drink bottles from the '30s. (Remember Mil-Kay?) The interesting micro-historical exhibit is called "The Heart and Soul of a City Block." An error in one of the historical maps adds to the fun—see if you can find it.

But there's a counterintuitive detail about the center's design that may remind you of Mr. Sisyphus.

That station is at the bottom end of the Church Avenue viaduct. But the passengers' specific destination, the second-floor platform where the buses depart, is not far from State Street, visible through a big opening to the platform level. From downtown, it's the first thing you encounter, much closer than the station itself. It's so close enough you can recognize the drivers and holler at them. But to get to it through the station, you have to walk more than 100 yards down the hill—just for the privilege to come back up, 39 steps.

The night I rode directly onto the platform, a KAT guy chased me down as I boarded a bus and told me I was never to do that again. How, then, I asked, am I to get my bicycle to the bus at the Intermodal Transit Center? Well, he explained it to me. You ride down the hill to the main entrance and carry it in through two sets of doors down there. Then you carry it through the station. Then, he said, you carry your bicycle up the escalator or the elevator. Then you've just got two more sets of double doors. Then, voila. You're outside again. About where you were a few minutes ago. And ready to load your bike and ride the bus.

Now there's a No Pedestrians signs at that faux entrance. And, since then, I've opted to catch the bus at one of the downtown corner stops. That's as easy as it ever was.