Bike Routes: As Bikes Become More Popular in Knoxville, Our Laws Need Another Look

Well, that's it. After a sputtering spring, Memorial Day is behind us and the long days of summer lie stretched out ahead. Over the winter, as I waited for the trolley on chilly mornings, I couldn't help but notice a big increase in people commuting to work by bicycle. There have always been some. But bracing myself against the icy wind this past year, it struck me that downtown's got more hardcore bike commuters than ever before. And as summer has settled in, weekends are bringing more casual bicyclists to downtown than anyone has seen in recent memory. Part of that is due to the overall growing popularity of cycling in America (in no small part to save on fuel costs). And part of it is a reflection of the increase in the density of the population in the near-in neighborhoods that surround downtown. In any case, all indications are that downtown's poised to see more cyclists this summer than, perhaps, ever in its history.

It's hard to say how much of it has to do with the city's growing accommodation of cycling. While the city's greenway system has its roots in the last century, the movement to retool the city's greater infrastructure to welcome riders and acclimate drivers to sharing the road is more of a recent advancement. That shouldn't really come as a surprise, given that the city's current director of engineering is an avid cyclist who hails from Portland, Ore., one of the country's preeminent biking meccas. In all likelihood, though, it has as much to do with practicality as anything. Even the American Automobile Association, a group that was founded largely to lobby on behalf of automobile drivers (and against non-drivers), has begun incorporating bicyclists into its roadside assistance program.

The City of Knoxville is rising to the challenge. At a public meeting last month, the administration began taking comments to help hone a bicycle facilities plan with a 50-mile network that promises to focus on the safety and convenience of the biking public. With a list of over 200 potential separate projects, it's evident that the draft plan focuses more on re-envisioning existing streets to accommodate multiple modes of transportation rather than creating alternative routes dedicated to bicyclists. Not too surprisingly, only a handful of those projects are slated for downtown. I suspect that's because it's already more hospitable to bikes than so much of the city overall.

A few weeks back, Jack Neely had an excellent piece in these pages on the uneasy relationship between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Nowhere is that more evident than downtown. I can't think of anywhere else in the city where the three confront one another more often. One of the things he noted was the propensity some cyclists have for disregarding traffic lights and signs. There are differing views on that. State law already permits both motorcyclists and bicyclists to proceed through intersections on a red light under certain circumstances. And there's even state legislation currently under consideration that would permit bicyclists to "proceed through red lights when such actions can be done safely."  The full-blown versions of these laws, sometimes known as the "Idaho Stop," allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. Which is exactly what seems to trouble so many people.

But those laws make some sense. After all, there were no stop signs or stop lights before the introduction of the automobile. Older forms of transportation, including bicycles, didn't have the momentum, or the challenge of stopping, that are inherent to piloting a ton or two of metal down the street. Considering that cars aren't supposed to turn right on red until after they stop, I'm not sure cyclists are any worse at obeying traffic-signal laws than drivers. But in any case, I rarely see much enforcement by the Knoxville Police Department of any moving violations downtown. Parking, yes—though, as I've said before, the only pedestrians I've ever seen injured by parked cars deserved it. But I'm still hesitant to bike across Henley Street at Clinch Avenue under a red signal since cross-traffic can appear very quickly, and the laws of physics are rigorously and brutally enforced.

Speaking of turning right on red, that option for drivers only showed up on the books in the early '70s, introduced for one of the same reasons biking is growing in popularity: as a means of conserving fuel. It was created to avoid drivers having to sit with engines idling at intersections (though studies have since shown the change to have been responsible for increased auto collisions with both bikes and pedestrians at those intersections). As we move into a new era, one where biking is making steady gains while miles driven continues to drop, maybe it's another one of our laws that needs a second look. But for now, let's stick to a familiar downtown theme, and figure out where we're going to build the new bicycle parking garage.