As a proponent for alternative transportation, I eagerly anticipated my first bus trip from the Chilhowee Park neighborhood where I live to the spanking new Knoxville Station Transit Center. In the wake of our $29 million investment, images of a well-appointed urban terminal with new sights, sounds, and smells (good coffee) had me all fired up. And foremost, I wanted to answer the question whether Knoxville had achieved a milestone in sustainable, convenient public transportation.
I started out walking the two blocks from my home over to Magnolia Avenue and after a bit of wandering found a tiny KAT sign on a pole. There was no bench, so I stood waiting until the scheduled bus arrived, several minutes late. I sat in a cramped seat, but in just few minutes found myself Downtown at the new Knoxville Station Transit Center.
The transit center borders the Church Street viaduct and consists of a vast concrete expanse with tensioned awnings reminiscent of the tent structures covering the World's Fair park amphitheater. The modern, utilitarian terminal is not particularly welcoming in aspect, but is powered, comfortingly, with solar energy.
After getting off my bus, I walked to the terminal building and was confronted with heavy automatic doors that swung to the outside. These didn't open automatically for me, and with some effort I pulled one open and was nearly run over by a security guard. Had I just gone the wrong way into an exit? Nope. Instead of separate entrance and exit doors, I observed that all the doors are for both in and out traffic. Later, while waiting for my return bus, I would watch confused passenger after another trying to get inside the center
Entering the transit center, I expected a large lobby with a boastful $29 million sheen. Instead, I found a small vestibule leading to a long set of stairs to the lower level. If there was any signage pointing to the lobby, tickets, food, and restrooms, I didn't see it.
Arriving downstairs, there was still no evidence of a station lobby like one would expect in an urban transit center. The space was cut up in a jumble of rooms and corridors. I wandered around thinking I somehow missed the fancied lobby. I did find some soda machines, and opposite them, a customer service office.
I asked the customer service rep if I could buy a ticket there for my return trip. She said yes, and asked if I wanted a day pass. I said no, just a return ticket. This confused her, so I asked if I could get some change to pay the bus driver. She replied, no, they didn't have the coins needed to make change. I then asked where I could get some coffee, and she replied the cafe was still under construction. That's understandable, I suppose, given the need to open the transit center sooner rather later in order to eliminate bus traffic from the old Downtown bus center (which I already miss).
The old Downtown bus center was close to the library and Market Square. The new Transit Center is essentially a concrete island located above the North-South Downtown expressways and diagonally across from the Coliseum. It's also a five block walk to the library, mostly uphill.
On the way to the library, it occurred to me that I hadn't seen any out-of-town buses at the new transit center. Was it not possible to catch a Greyhound or Trailways bus to Oak Ridge, Nashville, or beyond? By the looks of the bus traffic, not at present.
After visiting the library and lingering at the Starbucks in the Hilton across the street, I walked the five blocks back to the new transit center. Approaching it from Downtown, one passes a point where the buses exit the platform, and further down, a sidewalk meanders to the lower level entrance. This pedestrian route is almost a city block beyond the platform. As I would discover in a few moments, I made the right decision not taking the obvious shortcut.
At the lower entrance, the doors were the same as described above: you can't just push a manual door open and go in because there are no manual doors. You either find a button nearby that opens an automatic door, or you tug mightily on it until it opens. Once inside, you then backtrack to the bus platform via a long flight of stairs.
Inside, a security guard asked me if I needed help, so I requested the bay number for the Magnolia bus. He told me to find the Magnolia pamphlet posted upstairs, note the route number, then match it up on the board showing the bay designations. I thanked him, went upstairs, and spotted 20 or so route pamphlets on a table along a wall. The pamphlets were oriented the wrong direction from foot traffic; either you squeezed in between the table and the adjacent wall to look them over, or you stood in the corridor and scanned the pamphlets upside down. Twisting my head around a bit, I finally succeeded in locating the correct pamphlet and matched the number to the bay.
Outside, the bays were covered by a nice awning structure, but only a few offered seating. My designated bay had three backless seats clustered around a light pole. These were uncomfortable, so I looked around and found a central rotunda with plenty of seating. I sat down but soon realized the rotunda walls all but obstructed the view of the buses. You could easily miss your bus from there.
I returned to the bus bay and overheard a security guard chastising a customer for wandering into the bus lane. After scolding him, she spotted a pedestrian coming in from Church Street via the bus exit. Off she went to make sure the hapless fellow knew he was not allowed in the bus lane. It dawned on me there was no direct, legitimate way for pedestrians to walk onto the bus platform from the Downtown side of the terminal, and that it wouldn't stop regular KAT customers from taking the bus lane shortcut despite the risks.
A Powell bus pulled into the next bay to my right. The bus came in lengthwise such that the rear of the bus stopped directly in front of my nose (just like my cat does when I'm in bed). I was enveloped in diesel aroma—the platform layout guarantees that waiting passengers will get the maximum exposure to bus fumes. The bus drivers don't bother turning off their engines while stopped.
I moved out of the diesel cloud, and after a few minutes the Magnolia bus finally pulled in. I was on my way home.
Now, a cautionary word about KAT buses for the uninitiated. They are mostly full-size behemoths that roar with amazing volume, and they rattle when traversing Knoxville's many road imperfection. The noise on board is considerable to the point that it's hard to carry on a conversation in a KAT bus.
Since my experience on the KAT today, I now consider whether the Knoxville Station Transit Center is truly problematic in its design or just needs some kinks worked out. I think the greater discomfort and inconvenience is rooted deep in the design, so much so that we should eventually turn the new transit center into a transportation museum. It's already a living fossil.
Solutions to the design problems noted will be construed as 20-20 hindsight, but I won't let that stop me from proposing some. The first mistake in planning was designing a transit center around full-size buses. A design around smaller buses would have required less concrete to support their weight, and the platform footprint would have been proportionally smaller. We could have then located it closer to central Downtown destinations.
KAT should have invested in Dodge Sprinter passenger vans, with their 25 mpg fuel economy, quiet running, and high resale value (or the newer Ford Transit Connect vans with similar features). With smaller passenger vans, an enormous amount of fuel would be saved when running routes during off-peak times. During peak times, two or more of the smaller buses would run back-to-back. The ride would be comfortable, quiet, and more conversational.
In short, our public transit mantra should be smaller is better. With that thought, I'll look forward to the day I can ride Downtown quietly and cleanly on public transportation. I also hope to shorten the 16-block walk I needed on my route getting to and from buses.