Giving Directions and Walking

Ed. Note: Michael Haynes is a dilettante and urban dweller writing commentary from the perspective of a downtown resident on news, events, and whatever shiny thing grabs his mind's eye. He will be offering up A Shot of Urban via these pages every other week.

Standing on the corner downtown in my pajamas, a cup of coffee in one hand and a puppy on a leash in the other, people have rightly figured me as someone local to the area. So I end up fielding a lot of requests for directions from passing drivers. With a center city that consists of basically a dozen streets running one way and a half-dozen running another, you'd think that giving directions wouldn't be a problem. And it wouldn't be if these folks were on foot. But driving directions? That's not so simple.

Market Square is only a couple of blocks from the spot favored by the puppy to relieve herself. But due to the number and configuration of one-way streets, driving directions from there to the Square involve navigating twice as many blocks via three turns. That will land you on the South end of the Square where parking is sparse. To take advantage of the Market Square Garage involves another three blocks with a short drive down Gay Street and a couple more turns thrown into the mix.

I've pointed out to a few people that they could just park in the garage directly behind where I'm standing and it's just a two-block walk to the Square. But I don't get many takers. Most struggle to memorize the directions to drive seven blocks, negotiate a half-dozen turns, and contend with two traffic lights.

The city's recent announcement of its plans to convert several of our key downtown streets from one- to two-way should alleviate a lot of this difficulty for drivers. And plans in the works to install accurate signage will likely cut down on my morning direction-giving sessions. With any luck, that will remove distractions, aid the puppy's concentration, and she can get on with taking care of the urgent business I'm out there in my pajamas trying to handle to begin with.

No matter how you get here, once downtown, everyone becomes a pedestrian to some extent. It's not really a drive-through environment. With its relatively small scale and its heart and centerpiece—our pedestrian-only Market Square—downtown Knoxville ought to be a great place to walk. But when you start strolling around, you begin to notice that we haven't taken some pretty basic steps to see to that.

The Square's a great example. It hosts tens of thousands of people on foot a year both as a retail and dining district as well as a venue for numerous events. Yet with all of the investment and improvements by the city to enhance this destination in recent years, there isn't one crosswalk leading onto it from either of the streets it fronts.

Just like folks get to know the characteristics of their drive to work—the pothole to avoid and the intersection that really needs a turn lane—so it is with walking the neighborhood of downtown. You experience the shortcomings of our sidewalks firsthand along routes like the north side of Union Avenue. It's a major pedestrian thoroughfare from Gay Street to Market Square. Yet it is so narrow and cluttered with signposts that there's barely enough space for two people to comfortably pass one another. Don't even try if you're both carrying umbrellas.

At a recent meeting to discuss the proposed changes to street directions, a member of the city's traffic engineering team noted that the majority of complaints to that office about downtown don't concern auto traffic but pedestrian issues.

After the initial confusion wears off, the changes to traffic flow downtown will definitely make things easier on drivers trying to find the Square. But those changes may have a different effect on pedestrians unless more is done. Crossing a two-way street on foot requires twice the attention of a one-way street to look both directions. Corners that now restrict one-way turns onto one-way streets will present more of a challenge to people on foot once they flow all ways, particularly those governed only by stop signs and/or lacking crosswalks.

As increasing numbers of folks move in and come to visit, our sidewalks are getting more use than they've seen in decades. While I think the suggested changes to street vehicular flow are great, I'm a little disappointed that the traffic studies conducted to examine the changes didn't take into account increased pedestrian numbers and how to mitigate the new challenges to them that the changes will create.

People come to downtown to live, to work, and to play. Very little of that happens in cars. Parking garages transform drivers into pedestrians. So while I'm all for making it easier to get to them, I think it's also worth putting a little more effort and infrastructure into making our streets a safe and inviting place for people to walk once they've been converted. m