Clang Went the Trolley: Knoxville's Terrain Remains a Barrier to Tying Downtown Together

I've been riding the trolley more lately. About the only time I drive anywhere is on the weekends to do my hunter/gatherer routine in the fertile domestic shopping grounds of the 'burbs. I used to keep my car in a garage near home. But the company I work for pays for a space in one of the municipal garages, and I decided to save a few bucks by storing it there. I can always get to it if I need it. Since parking on my end of Gay Street is free at the Jackson Avenue municipal lot on nights and weekends, I usually bring it home at the end of the workweek to use for my foraging, and return it to the garage on Monday. During the week, I either walk, or hop on the Gay Street trolley for the commute to the other end of the street. It's free, it's convenient, and it goes where I want it to go.

Over the years I've lived downtown, I've been sporadic about riding. I used to occasionally hop the Orange Line to get to the Walgreen's on Cumberland for the odd necessity. But before KAT reconfigured the trolley routes a few years ago, there wasn't really a circuit that worked well for my commute up and down Gay. That linear route now runs from its northernmost stop at Gay and 5th Avenue almost the full length of the street down to the bridge before making a jog up to the Marriot and back down Gay. With two coaches serving the route, you can (usually) count on one about every 10 minutes.

Overall, I think the new routes make much more sense than the old ones. But I do miss the former Late Line. Its primary purpose was to ferry UT students from campus to downtown and the Old City. It only ran on weekends, and only from August to May, but its evening hours of 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. made it a nice amenity for those taking in the city after dark. It ran within a block of three of downtown's most popular municipal garages, and provided a convenient connection with the Old City that didn't involve trudging up and down Summit Hill.

As small and walkable as our downtown is, we're still in the foothills of East Tennessee. In another setting, walking the less than a mile from the riverfront to the Old City would be a leisurely stroll. But making that trek can feel more like a hike. It's unlikely anyone out for a night on the town is going to start with ribs from Calhoun's and end up having cocktails on the patio of the Urban Bar without using a car. Just getting up the bluff to downtown is intimidating. And once you've made your way down to the Old City, you face another long incline just to get back as far as Market Square.

One of downtown's longstanding problems has been connecting its pieces. We have a nice waterfront, a lively and popular Square, and the colorful and entertaining Old City. But they seem almost worlds apart. With the redevelopment of downtown, we have replaced a lot of what used to be rows of empty storefronts with a variety of shopping and dining. And that, in turn, has encouraged a lot more pedestrian flow between certain areas. But there are still disconnects. And while the Market Square and State Street garages may fill up on some weekend nights, those closer to the river, like the Dwight Kessell garage, sit largely vacant.

As downtown continues to convert empty storefronts to businesses and upper floors to homes, terrain remains a barrier to tying it all together. Even as we spend money to expand existing parking facilities downtown and lay plans to build new ones, some of our largest lots are hardly used in the evenings due their isolation from the city's popular districts. Connecting some dots by making it easier to get around might make a lot of difference.

The strategic addition of one trolley could add a lot of connectivity. A single loop would go a long way toward making Volunteer Landing, Market Square, and the Old City seem as close to one another as they really are. Imagine parking at any lot or garage downtown, hopping a trolley to take a walk along the river, grabbing a ride to Market Square, maybe taking in a movie or show, and following it up with a stroll in the Old City before being picked up and dropped off wherever you began. A circuit running all day and into the night could inject a lot of synergy into downtown and help stitch together its pieces. All the development in the world isn't going to change the terrain of the center city. But filling in the missing links could change the entire landscape.