Deciphering Downtown Knoxville on Foot

A lot of our pedestrian signals just don't make any sense

On the 100 block of Gay Street, currently closed to vehicular traffic due to construction, there is a rare example of common sense. A fence stands between the sidewalk and the torn-up street. But in the middle of the block, a temporary walkway through the job site has been established to permit pedestrians to cross the street without having to walk completely around the construction to the intersection of either Jackson Avenue or Vine Avenue.

It makes sense, saves a lot of walking, and forms a valuable pedestrian connection between the heavily residential east side of the street and the restaurants and shops on the west side. Without it, just getting directly from one side of the street to the other would mean walking half a block in one direction, crossing the street around the barrier, and walking half a block back.

Recently I was crossing Gay Street from J's Mega Mart to the Downtown Grill & Brewery in the middle of the 400 block. Traffic on Gay was stacked up at the Union Avenue intersection, and I slipped between two cars that were stopped waiting for the light. As I walked between them, the one in the rear began to roll forward, closing the gap around my legs. When I emerged from between bumpers and crossed the center line, the driver of the car in the rear yelled "Use a crosswalk, asshole!" I was seated at a sidewalk table before the light changed and he could move on.

Jaywalking is defined by Merriam-Webster as "to cross a street carelessly or in an illegal manner so as to be endangered by traffic." The "jay" in jaywalking comes from a slang term used in the Midwest in the early 20th century. A derogatory expression used by city dwellers to refer to rural residents, it implied a lack of intelligence and a failure to grasp urban protocol. It was used the way some hardcore downtowners I know use the word "suburbanite" today.

These days in downtown, the roles seem to be reversed. Center-city residents and office workers routinely crisscross streets without regard for crosswalks or pedestrian signals. Most often it's the obvious visiting shoppers or families enjoying a day downtown who are more likely to cluster at intersections awaiting the walk signal. It's not unusual to see a city dweller brush past them and cross.

Spend much time on the sidewalks downtown, and you'll understand why. A lot of our pedestrian signals just don't make any sense. One of the best examples is on the west side of Gay Street at Union Avenue. Though it's a one-way street entering Gay, most of the time when the light is red for Union, the crossing signal for Union is also red. No one seems to know why. You can't turn onto Union from Gay. And traffic on the cross street is stopped. Why should pedestrians wait? Most don't.

Every so often I hear about a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle downtown. One such incident occurred some weeks back. But nobody was killed, and maybe that's why it didn't make the paper. Same goes for a resident being hit by a bus a few years ago. In both cases, the pedestrians were crossing in a crosswalk and at an intersection.

Listen to any urban planner or developer talking about plans for downtown Knoxville and you're likely to hear the term "pedestrian friendly." It emphasizes the primary importance of foot traffic to the urban setting. It all sounds good. But more often than not, it's just lip service. Until the city starts actively pursuing a coherent plan for pedestrian access and safety, it's every man for himself. City engineering seems oblivious to problems with crossing signals, and the Knoxville Police Department does little to enforce vehicular respect for crosswalks.

The bottom line is this: If you want to cross the street downtown, the safest and most efficient way, by far, is to look both ways and cross when it's clear of traffic. Walking half a block down and half a block back to get across the street is just silly when traffic's clear. And it's safer to do it mid-block than at an intersection. It's there where drivers roll through red lights turning blindly and unexpectedly onto crosswalks.

Meanwhile, back on the 100 block, though that temporary crossing acknowledges the importance of pedestrian traffic, there's no provision to provide a mid-block crosswalk at the same location in the final plan. When finished, crossing the street legally will mean walking either to the corner of Jackson or Vine—exactly what the current configuration alleviates. It's a valuable pedestrian connection today. But there's no room for that kind of common sense once auto traffic is allowed back on the block. You'll have to jaywalk. Might as well get used to it.