Sidewalk Stories: Taking Back the City's Sidewalks for Pedestrians

As downtown continues its revival, the effect of playing host to more people has meant several things, not the least of which is more traffic. That can be broken down a couple of ways, with the greatest distinction being between vehicles and pedestrians. While the revitalization of many near-in neighborhoods has allowed a greater number of people to walk to downtown, the vast majority of commuters and visitors arrive by some form of vehicle, whether it be transit, bicycle, or, most often, automobile.

However you get here, your downtown experience is almost certainly going to eventually involve being a pedestrian on a sidewalk. I should say at the outset I include those who require wheelchairs or other forms of assistance and children in strollers when I refer to pedestrians. And isn't that what sidewalks are for? Pedestrians?

That would seem like a no-brainer. But actually, our sidewalks serve a good deal more than mere foot traffic. They host lively outdoor spaces for restaurants, accommodate waiting lines for theaters and movies, and serve as impromptu stages for street performers. They lend space to advertising placards for businesses and occasionally yield to retail space for sidewalk sales. They are distinct as public thoroughfares largely because they serve as a space for people to move at a slower, human pace. And despite the range of other activities, most pedestrians manage to navigate among it all and one another easily.

As most anyone who has driven in downtown will acknowledge, the speed of vehicles on the street is likewise generally slower than most of the city's roadways. Drivers fighting to get across the Gay Street bridge in the wake of the Henley Bridge construction might despise that, but that's the risk of ignoring detours. The densely packed grid of the center city, with its frequent intersections, crosswalks, and autos moving in and out of street parking tends to slow things down to the point that travel by automobile is likely no faster than travel by bicycle.

It's worth noting that bicycles have the same rights to the roadway as any other vehicle. Their popularity, particularly in and around downtown, is on the rise. Many workers regularly commute in and out of downtown, and I see an increasing number of visitors to the center city opting to pedal rather than drive.

Since the city placed its first bike racks in the Central Business Improvement District a few years back, the program has continually added racks to accommodate bicycles to the point that space formerly dedicated to automobile parking is being repurposed for bikes. (Don't worry, we're still building parking garages.) More drivers are acknowledging that the roadway is for use by all vehicles, not just motorized ones. Perhaps that's because more motorists are part-time bicyclists these days. And bicyclists are fully entitled to use the street. Period.

So let's return to the sidewalk for a moment. It is explicitly legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk in Knoxville. That said, I wish fewer chose that option downtown. Like I said, sidewalk traffic has its own pace. And bicycles, by nature, tend to travel quite a bit faster (which is one of their advantages). I don't know how many times I've seen frustrated cyclists trying to navigate through what they clearly see as obstacles, when those obstacles are the very traffic and activity that sidewalks are for. In the hierarchy of sidewalk culture, I have to rank bicyclists at the bottom, because they have another choice that's far more appropriate for vehicular traffic.

Of particular disappointment is when I see two (or more) abreast taking up a wide swath of sidewalk and notice they're in uniform. I can't imagine that Knoxville Police Department's bicycle patrols derive any advantage by choosing to ride the sidewalk. It would be nice to see them exercising the right to ride on the street. The first reason I've already mentioned: The sidewalk already hosts its own traffic and activities that aren't permitted on the street. The second—while some street cyclists (myself included) have had to put up with honking horns and encroachment by vehicles, I can't help but think that drivers might be a little less aggressive toward uniformed officers. It would be nice to see our patrols set an example and a pace, rather than reinforce the notion that bicycles need to stay out of the way of automobiles.

I've watched bike traffic increase over the past decade downtown. And if history is any indication, as the year warms up, I think it's likely that there will be more two-wheeled traffic than ever this year. At the same time, our growing pedestrian traffic, relegated to sidewalks only, is likewise on the rise. I want a bicycle-friendly downtown. But I'd like to see that culture finding its place on the street, rather than on the sidewalk.