cover_story (2005-40)

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Knoxville may have more greenways than most Southern cities.

THE GUY, NOT THE TRAIL: Greenways pioneer Will Skelton.

ALL IN HER HEAD: Knoxville Greenways Coordinator Donna Young.

by Jack Neely

You’re in an anonymous Bi-Lo parking lot, like any other big grocery-store parking lot in America, a couple of acres of asphalt. But over to the side, there’s a blacktop path. You follow the path, and it gets quieter and quieter, and soon, like in a dream where everything’s the same but different, you’re in the woods beside a little creek, walking under an old masonry railroad trestle, and you cross a wooden bridge, and there are the ruins of an old mill.

There’s a clearing, and a park, with tennis courts and a playground and people barbecuing and playing rugby. Then you’re back in the woods, and the creek’s full of big turtles, and then you’re by a river. And there’s industry, and a giant football stadium, and a couple of railroad bridges, and some piers, and then you’re in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.

As of this summer, you can now go beyond that, past downtown and the marina to the east to the Ned McWherter boat launching park, make a left on new greenway along James White Parkway, and see the

Knoxville has more than 35 miles of greenway, most of which has been constructed in the last 15 years, during the Ashe and Haslam administrations. A couple of surprising and useful new trails have been completed just this past summer. Many more miles are in the works. But it may be that old leg, most of it built just  after the first energy crisis in the mid-1970s, that’s still the most surprising to people, and most useful, because it connects several residential areas to UT, and then downtown. Kelley Segars, senior transportation planner for the Transportation Planning Organization, of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, says Knoxville’s ahead of the curve on greenways, but she says that old part, enhanced by recent extensions and improvements, is the one thing she wishes more people knew about: The fact that you can walk or ride a bike all the way from suburban Bearden, a residential area that wasn’t even in city limits until the 1960s, to downtown and beyond, crossing only three streets the whole way.

Thanks to new work on Sutherland Avenue, within months that trail will stretch through Westwood to Bearden Elementary School, and back east to West High.

In terms of greenways, many agree that Knoxville may already be one of the best-served cities in the Southeast. In spite of some impediments to aid from federal programs designed to make Americans less oil-dependent, a few devoted greenway advocates and two recent mayors have worked together to make the most of what funding is available. Most people seem to like the improvements. The improvements are impressive, and to judge by their use, fairly popular. But even as gasoline prices rocket past $3 a gallon, it remains to be seen whether greenways can change Knoxvillians’ lives.

 

From his law office high on the 17th floor of Riverview Tower, Will Skelton can almost see the Will Skelton Greenway.

A distinguished and remarkably

Originally from the Kingsport area, Skelton saw his first greenways in California in the late ’60s, when he was serving as a Marine. He became an aficionado of these paths separated for non-motorized transportation. “When I travel, that’s one of the main things I do, see greenways.” He mentions some of his favorites: one in Boulder, Colo. (“the best greenway city,” he calls that smaller college town), and one in Anchorage, Alaska. “The last time I jogged it, I came upon a moose,” he says.

In the 1980s, he served as vice chair of the Governor’s Commission on Tennesseans Outdoors, established by Gov. Lamar Alexander under the auspices of President Reagan’s Commission on Americans Outdoors.

At the time, Knoxville just had one greenway, the Third Creek Bike Trail, established in the energy-conscious mid-1970s. It stretched from a parking lot behind UT housing on Sutherland to the dead end of Painter Road, off Concord Street near Tyson Park, less than two miles. As short as it was, it was useful to bicyclists and pedestrians in the Bearden area looking for an alternative to a narrow, noisy patch of Kingston Pike.

Skelton became an advocate of greenways. “They appeal to all age groups, old and young, male and female, all races. You can use them all year long, all day long. Sunrise to sunset, you’ll see somebody out. Name one other sport where you can do all that.”

About 15 years ago, he co-founded the Knox Greenways Coalition, a non-profit group formed to promote greenways. “After that, Mayor Ashe jumped on board,” Skelton says. “He was an instant convert.” Ashe appointed a Knoxville Greenways Commission and established a greenways office as part of the Parks and Recreation department.

The timing was propitious, Skelton says, because it was in 1991 that a bipartisan federal effort known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) came to be, to promote alternate forms of transportation. Refined as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998, it provides quadruply matching federal funds—an 80 to 20 ratio—for funds spent by the city on everything from greenways to subways.

The act has been interpreted liberally, and sometimes politically. Tennessee’s first ISTEA pot was $15 million dedicated entirely to Nashville’s extravagant Bicentennial Park, whose connection to alternative transportation is at best theoretical. Chattanooga, then in the thrall of its Sustainable City ideals, used ISTEA funding to construct miles of greenway to support its famous riverfront development.

Knoxville languished with relatively little help from it. Some states appoint a committee to govern TEA-21 funds, but in Tennessee the federal dollars are doled out at the discretion of the governor. Several greenway promoters in Knoxville believe that a flap between Mayor Victor Ashe and Gov. Don Sundquist led to four years of no funding at all. “We were cut off of federal funds by Gov. Sundquist,” says Skelton flatly. “He didn’t like Knoxville, didn’t like Mayor Ashe.”

“We haven’t, in fairness, gotten very much from Bredesen,” he adds, but is quick to say he doesn’t think it’s a deliberate political snub. The state is currently shepherding $12 million in TEA-21 funds for this year, some of which may—or may not—come to Knoxville. Municipalities statewide have submitted 120 applications for that money.

 

According to city sources, Chattanooga has received about $10 million more for greenways from federal gasoline-tax-based revenues than Knoxville has. That fact galls city Greenways Coordinator Donna Young. “Look at the interstate traffic that goes through Knoxville! A lot more gas-tax revenue comes from Knox County than from Hamilton County,” home of Chattanooga, she says.

The orange-haired dynamo of Knoxville’s greenway system has a window in the City County Building overlooking Volunteer Landing, a linchpin in the city’s longest connected network of greenways. Her small office is a nest of rolled maps and grant proposals. She doesn’t sit still for long, up with a green pencil tracing prospective routes on a big county map tacked to the wall.

A former architecture professor who taught landscape design at several different universities, she worked preparing for the Atlanta Olympics before coming to Knoxville in 1994; her first project here was Holston River Park. The city’s greenways coordinator seems bored with what’s already been done, and even with what is almost completed. She’s always charging ahead to what she wants the greenway system to be in 10 or 20 years. You get the impression she’s the sort of person who peeks ahead at the end of the novel long before she gets there.

To Young, you can’t talk about one greenway without talking about all of them. It’s all about connections. Like Mayor Bill Haslam, she sees them all connecting someday. “Victor was into the miles. Bill’s into the connections. I couldn’t ask for anyone with better focus” than Mayor Haslam, she says.

Mention Lakeshore Park, and she’ll talk about one of her fondest —and most complicated—projects, the yet unbuilt and unfunded Fourth Creek project through Bearden, which will connect to the Third Creek trail and the existing Weisgarber Greenway and eventually, between Lonas Road and I-40, to yet unbuilt South College on Middlebrook—miles away from Lakeshore. “I know I’m confusing when I talk,” she confesses. “I’ve got all this stuff in my head.”

(That fact seems a matter of some anxiety to her counterpart in Knox County government, Karen Nolt. “Nobody has gotten her to draw it on paper,” she says.)

Young may seem an unlikely promoter of vigorous outdoor activity. At 60, she suffers from adult-onset asthma; she speaks with a rasp and frequently loses her breath as she’s talking. She says she used to have a hard time getting from the parking garage to her office without stopping for breath. She says she’s much better now, thanks to celebrity allergist Dr. Bob Overholt, who thinks she may one day be cured. “I rewarded him with a greenway in front of his office,” she says. She may be kidding, but there’s a new greenway in front of Overholt’s Weisgarber Road office.

Young’s devotion to greenways is maternal. Her office is adorned with photographs of her daughter. She loses sleep over news stories of schoolkids being hit by cars walking home from school. “When people say, ‘We just can’t afford sidewalks,’ I ask, ‘What is the cost of saving a child? How do you measure that?’” She cites statistics of childhood obesity. She cites the surge in type-2 diabetes and reports that such children can look forward to their first amputation at 40. She thinks greenways can go a long way to solve some national health-care problems. “I think it’s a moral issue, really,” she says. “My goal is to get every kid walking to school.”

She also believes greenways can improve children’s sense of themselves, and their ability, as she says, to “wayfind.” Young, who grew up in Griffin, Ga., talks about walking around with her brother, sometimes going to Atlanta. “We were 12 years old, taking trains, buses, taxis, coming back, finding our own way.” She thinks kids today are missing out on that, and on learning basic courtesies and rules of the road that previous generations learned as children walking around their communities. “How do children learn to drive if they don’t even know how to walk?”

Somehow she gets things done, as she says, “piece by piece by piece by piece.” Each greenway project is a different combination of city, state, federal, and private cooperation and funding; blood, sweat, and tact. Young is the one who leverages it all, tips the scales when she needs to.

With one exception—one she doesn’t mention by name—she has obtained easements for greenways by donation. (Serendipitously for bicyclists and pedestrians, creekbeds tend to be the flattest parts of a hilly town, areas not considered valuable for construction because of periodic flooding.) When a budget for the proposed Fourth Creek greenway came in at $8 million, she whittled it down by half. She funded much of the Third Creek extension through overages from the Neyland Drive project.

“I think I should be considered cheap,” she says.

Skelton says that with fewer resources, Knoxville has had to be resourceful to build a superior greenway system. He cites “the generosity of Knoxvillians in donating easements for greenways, which has allowed us to use almost all  of our funds for actually building greenways. He emphasizes that they’ve also been conservative in quality, “building good and usable greenways, but not overspending on Cadillac-level greenways.”

Advocates have also been able to grease wheels with other powers that be. Young is especially excited about her new relationship with the current administration of TDOT, which was not always friendly to greenways. “This new TDOT administration is enlightened,” she says. “My colleagues in Georgia think our TDOT people are cutting-edge as far as planning is concerned.” The agency is now offering easements for greenways near and beneath interstates. “Now that we can get in the interstate right-of-way, this is a whole new ball game.”

On a table in her office are five proposals for new greenways: The most expensive is the Fourth Creek Greenway, at $4.33 million; the second most, the Knox Blount Greenway, which in combination with county and TDOT efforts, will one day connect Knoxville to Maryville-Alcoa’s well-known greenways. Others include the James White Greenway Extension and Baker Creek Greenway, a South Knoxville project that will link with the newly completely Will Skelton Greenway and the Volunteer Landing / Third Creek system; a Lower Second Creek Greenway, which will link Volunteer Landing with World’s Fair Park; and an Upper Second Creek / Old City Greenway.

Thanks to about $2.5 million obtained by Rep. Jimmy Duncan—$560,000 of it announced this week—Lower Second Creek project is probably a sure thing. As for the others, the city can’t build them all at once. They’re awaiting the mayor’s choice.

 

Knoxville’s approach to greenways has been different from that of other cities. Many urban greenways serve immediately useful purposes between obvious destinations. Some, like Chattanooga, have concentrated their greenways in one part of town, the downtown/riverfront area. Knoxville’s approach has been the equivalent of multiple parachute drops deep in unknown territory.

Skelton says the idea is to get individual neighborhoods used to the idea of greenways. “We decided, deliberately, to do a little section in each of several parts of town, so everyone driving by could see who’s using it, and see that it’s no problem.”

So there’s the Jean Teague Greenway, a couple of miles in the West Hills area. Mary Vestal Greenway is a small affair in South Knoxville. Sue Clancy Greenway accesses Adair Park in Fountain City. The First Creek Greenway, finished a couple of years ago, runs around the edge of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, connecting Broadway to Sixth Avenue. The Northwest Middle School Greenway connects to Victor Ashe Park, off Pleasant Ridge Road. Soon to be built will be the Ten Mile Creek Greenway, a short one along Peters Road and Parkside Drive. Few Knoxvillians, even among bicycling and jogging enthusiasts, have had a good look at all or even most of Knoxville’s greenways.

It’s a daring strategy, which will pay off only in the long run. The gamble will pay off only if funding and public interest in greenways holds out.

While the Third Creek trail may be potentially useful to commuters now, it will be a long time before most of the others are. Haslam wants to connect all the greenways, and Young claims it can and will be done, until most parts of the city are accessible to each other.

Some connections have been elusive. The West End Church of Christ, on East Walker Springs Lane in West Knoxville, has declined to give the city an easement to link the Jean Teague and Cavet Station Greenways. “Gallaher View and Walker Springs—if we had it, we would be connected,” says Young. Several other churches have participated in the greenway movement, but that fundamentalist church reportedly has concerns about the appearance of scantily clad joggers in their vicinity.

Some fear burglars; Nolt, who has had to deal with some suspicious property owners, notes that the two biggest fears she’s heard cited are of people who want to kidnap their children and people who want to steal their televisions; the fear is that they’ll use greenways to gain access to their property.

“People don’t ride down the trail on a bicycle, or jog, and rob people,” says Skelton. “People who do bad things are almost always automobile-based; they’re always in a car.” They have to make a getaway, after all.

 

Whether bike trails have the potential to represent a significant alternative to driving cars remains an open question.

Will Skelton admits he can count the devoted commuter bicyclists he knows on his hands. According to U.S. Census data cited by TDOT, hardly one in every 1,000 Tennesseans rides a bicycle to work, though that figure would certainly be higher in urban areas. Interestingly—though the census’ sampling methods aren’t necessarily reliable—commuter bicycling’s popularity has grown faster in Knoxville than in other Tennessee communities, increasing 46 percent during the 1990s.

Knoxville’s first greenway, the germ of what’s now the Third Creek Greenway, was chiefly a way for bicyclists and others to avoid the busiest part of narrow Kingston Pike.

Knoxville presents some impediments to bicycling as practical transportation. The summers are too humid, the hills to steep to assure a fresh appearance for arguing a court case, meeting a client, or even for asking if one wants fries with that.

Some do use the greenways to get to work, as has our athletic mayor, a frequent bicyclist.

Several employees of certain downtown restaurants, for example, and of Metro Pulse , bicycle to work, but most live so close they don’t even use greenways.

One bicyclist who has considerable experience but uses the greenway anyway is Richard Jantz, professor of anthropology at UT. He has been using the Third Creek trail for the 30 years since it opened. He still commutes daily from his home near West Town, in most weather. “My rule is, I’ll ride down to maybe 28 degrees,” he says. “I’ll not ride in a hard rain, but will ride in a light rain.” He never drives; if he can’t ride a bike, he’ll take the bus. “I am pretty hardcore,” he says. “I don’t know if there are too many others like me.”

But he doesn’t bike on main arteries. He sneaks through neighborhoods to get to the greenway. He believes himself to have logged more miles on that trail than any other cyclist dead or alive. “I’ve seen a couple of gray foxes down there, and I’ve had some good owl sightings. Once I saw a guy jogging nude. That was a long time ago.”

He thinks the biggest impediment to more Knoxvillians cycling to work is that not enough live near bike trails. “It’s a hassle to fight traffic, especially in Knoxville,” he says. “The traffic is heavier, the vehicles bigger than they used to be.”

The city’s long-term plans to connect all the trails in a meaningful way isn’t yet obvious to Jantz. “They all have parking lots associated with them,” he says. “It seems to me you have to drive to them.

Of the central Third Creek trail, he says, “It’s a wonderful thing, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough.”

When asked to name an acquaintance who rides to work on a regular basis, many in the city, county, and MPC name a UT faculty member. “College campuses are usually at the lead of the bicycling community,” says Kelley Segars. “But we find that less so here. A lot of students live pretty far away from campus. And the campus is cut off by geography. Most people drive alone.”

She says only 2.1 percent of UT staff, faculty, and student commuters ride bicycles to school. And she cites a rather astonishing estimate: UT commuters drive a total of 575,000 miles a day.

Can greenways ever make a real dent in mainstream Knoxville’s commuter culture, even if UT is slow to lead the way? Or are they—as is evident in the popularity of some greenway parking lots at certain times of the day—just another place to drive to?

The first comprehensive study, based on laser counters and surveys, of greenway usage, is in process, and may turn up some interesting results. In the meantime, bicyclists betray their destinations by what they’re wearing. Those who wear athletic gear, without a backpack to carry a change of clothes, might be assumed to be either recreational riders or those rare commuters who are privileged to have access to a locker and shower at work.

At the moment, recreational cyclists, joggers, and walkers appear to form the great majority of those using Knoxville’s greenways. Greenway advocates may have to content themselves with the idea that recreation, without relevance to oil dependence or air pollution, might still be deemed a reasonable federal and municipal priority.

To Young, the loops that don’t go anywhere will be practice for the real thing: walking for transportation. “I’m convinced that people want to walk but can’t. Older people need to walk for their hearts—and fat people need to walk to lose weight.”

If exercise increases productivity and has an ameliorating effect on health-care costs, maybe it won’t be subject to inevitable federal budget cuts.

 

As amended last month, the Will Skelton Greenway now starts in Island Home Park, in the quiet neighborhood of that name, near the Tennessee School for the Deaf. The rocky prow of Dickinson Island, home of Downtown Island Home Airport, appears through the trees. The trail skirts inland, and there are some houses; last week, men were still cleaning up this newest of greenways. When foot trails proliferate, you know you’re near Ijams Nature Center, the old part, and the new part, and the greenway charges right through Ijams’ woods, then down past Mead’s Quarry and a wet ditch called Toll Creek, and through a modest neighborhood, near an asphalt plant, and then you enter the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area.

There may not be many cities that have a wildlife-management area that’s a leisurely bike ride from the central business district, but Knoxville’s one. The tall dead stalks of the huge cornfield can be eerie on a foggy morning, and the posted warning to hunters not to shoot across the greenway may make non-hunters uneasy. You wonder if your white shirt might be mistaken for a deer’s rear end. Most of the time it’s quiet and beautiful.

At length through the trees you can see the old high train trestle and then Burkhart’s Wharf, the busiest cargo-loading dock in Knox County, at the very beginning of the 650-mile-long Tennessee River. And then the trail ends without warning at the top of a forested hilltop where you can oversee the mouth of the French Broad River like perhaps a Union general speculating on Mr. Longstreet’s next move. That’s huge Pickel Island, also a wildlife preserve, off to the right. You can marvel at the beauty of it, and at the fact that you were riding your bike down Gay Street half an hour ago.

It’s not a clean connection; Sevier and Island Home Avenue and the largely careless traffic that frequents these crumbling roads pose some problems for bicyclists, but much of it is anticipated to be cured by the city’s southside development, which will include connecting trails.

Also, the city has plans to connect it via a bike lane on the South Knoxville Bridge that carries James White Parkway; that one gesture will link it to the central Third Creek/Volunteer Landing trail.

The impressive new trail masks the complications of designing it. The trail has to veer away from the riverfront between the airport road and Ijams only because one property owner never consented to its passage across the fringe of his property. “It was so steep,” Young recalls. “I remember hanging onto an eight-foot-tall fence, trying to figure how I could do it. If we can put one there, we can put one anywhere.”

 

Behind all the discussion of bike trails is one awkward truth. Karen Nolt, the greenways coordinator for the county, says, “I learned that most bikers don’t like to use greenways.”

Though she may be overstating the case a little, there’s apparently some truth to that. Many serious bicyclists—those who wear Lycra and carry water bottles—don’t like to use bike trails. Some consider them a betrayal of an ideal that bicycles should be considered vehicles coequal with automobiles, and should share the road with them.

In many cities of the world, from Europe to Asia, workers commute by bicycle in business clothes at modest speeds hardly faster than a jog, without pedaling fast enough to break a sweat, typically without even wearing helmets. Low-speed cycling isn’t as common in America.

Many Knoxville cyclists have registered a strong preference for bike lanes alongside an automobile road over greenways because the curves, narrowness, and frequency of non-vehicular traffic—joggers, baby strollers, and leashed pets—makes speedy cycling difficult or impossible.

UT Psychology Professor Wesley Morgan, once a competitive cyclist and a former member of the Smoky Mountain Wheelmen, the vigorous Knoxville-based bicycling club, represented the group in the ‘70s on the committee that made a series of recommendations pleading for straight, wide bike lanes to facilitate practical and speedy bike transportation. He believes their recommendations were ignored.

“We were more interested in developing bikeways for commuting use rather than bike trails for recreational use,” he says. “More emphasis seems to have been placed on trails as of late. Unfortunately, the trails do not often meet the engineering standards that are suggested: too narrow, too steep, turns too sharp. You can’t ride them at 20 to 30 miles per hour like you can ride on the street. A good, but not exceptional, rider can probably ride 15 to 20 miles per hour all day long. The bike trails here are dangerous at those speeds especially when one may encounter walkers, runners, children on training wheels, rollerbladers, and drunks.”

Skelton explains that some of that frustration was deliberate. “I believe that effort was principally relating to bicycling, and did not really address the other major users, walkers and runners. Accordingly, their proposals were mainly straight and fast bike lanes and greenways for bicyclists. Those  are not as esthetically pleasing nor conducive to multiple users. You don’t want bikers going 30 m.p.h. when you’ve got walkers and runners, so the curves deliberately slow things down a bit. We obviously don’t have money nor easements to construct greenways for each user group, so the current greenways program is multi-use, and generally designed for walkers, runners, bicyclists and roller-bladers.”

According to a recent voluntary survey of Knoxville-area bicyclists on Kelley Segars’ e-mail list to which over 300 participants had replied, only 10 percent favored riding on greenways to riding on roads. (Worse, that preference officially qualifies them as “beginners” for the purpose of the survey, a designation echoed in TDOT literature.)

Jon Clark is an exception in a lot of ways. Co-owner of the Bike Zoo, a busy bicycle-sales company on Kingston Pike’s Western Plaza, Clark lives downtown and commutes west. He says most of the shop’s seven employees commute by bicycle every day.

He’s also a serious cyclist with a resume of competitive road racing who regularly uses the Third Creek greenway.

He doesn’t complain about the slow people as much as its weather-related conditions. “It doesn’t get much sun and can be slippery,” he says. “Sometimes there are downed trees. And the bridge design is poor—you should never have turns in a bridge.”

He’s referring to a relatively recent addition of a long zigzag wooden bridge that crosses a swampy area near Tyson Park. Though charming to look at, after a rain and especially after a creek flood, it can be slippery. Clark frequently hears from customers who complain about falling on it. This reporter has fallen on it.

Of the trail as a whole, “It’s kind of scenic, and it offers some protection from traffic, but it’s not a true alternative,” he says. “Most bicyclists want roadways that can accommodate them.” The parallel link of Kingston Pike is definitely not one. He takes it only when he thinks the bike trail is too slippery or littered with debris.

“On occasion I’ll ride straight down Cumberland Avenue, and if the traffic’s light, I’ll take that two-mile gauntlet from Neyland Drive to Western Plaza. I’ll hold my breath for a few minutes and pedal as hard as I can.

“As experienced as I am, I still feel intimidated by a few sections of urban Knoxville.”

He likes the newer greenways but notes that they lack connections. “It would be nice if every new roadway had to be built with a bike lane,” he says. “That’s a utopian fantasy. But key destinations need to be connected to be useful. A wide shoulder, striped separately with good signage would go a long way,” he says.

Segars says that while Knoxville may be ahead on greenways, the city’s probably behind in supplying bicycle lanes. Except on Magnolia Avenue—where they’re misunderstood and often ignored—they hardly exist in the city.

That’s what Nolt has in mind for Knox County. The county has built a couple of modest greenways around schools. But, she says, “Most bikers would prefer to used striped lanes on the road,” she says. “And that’s a lot cheaper.” She’s especially interested in improving alternate transportation between destinations around intimidating roads, like Clinton Highway, part of which is adjacent to work on the county’s Beaver Creek Watershed project. In that case, Nolt says, greenways can help clean creeks—by exposing them to passersby who would otherwise never see them. Several note that interest in cleaning up urban creeks increased with the addition of greenways.

She deflects the question of whether Knox County greenways  and bike lanes are ever likely to be used as a significant transportation option.

“What is different between transportation and recreation?” asks Nolt. “Of course it can be both. You can be riding to work and getting exercise at the same time.” Nolt has plotted three bikeways into rural areas of Knox County, one in the Kimberlin Heights area, one down Martin Mill Pike, and one around Carter High in East Knox County. (A stone artist, Mona Shiber-Dekay, is working on a large marker, probably to be placed in downtown Knoxville, which will indicate the routes of the trails.)

They’re considering some options rarely mentioned in the city—alternatives to the alternatives—like an equestrian trail. “We need an equestrian trail, and need it to be at least 10 miles long,” Nolt says. She has also had some success in establishing a “blueway”—a canoe route—along the Seven Islands area in the French Broad, with put-in and take-out points. Obviously, it’s cheaper than the asphalt and landscaping involved with a greenway, and its potential for practical transportation may be limited.

It sounds as if Knoxville and Knox County’s concepts of greenways are only occasionally compatible. Nolt and Young don’t work closely.

 

Part of a greenway’s appeal is that sometimes-startling connection between disparate but familiar places. To be in Tyson Park, then ride down a quiet lane and, shazam, you’re on Neyland Drive, headed toward the stadium. To be at the School for the Deaf and then suddenly be at Ijams. We tend to classify places by the automobile routes they’re on, often without realizing how close they are to each other. Greenways may be the best way to learn about a city’s geography.

There’s always something to dream about. A dream that’s now over 30 years old is a Knoxville-Smokies greenway, long advocated by groups like the Smoky Mountain Wheelmen. In other parts of the country, communities have gotten federal help in converting unused old railroad lines into greenways. One long-nurtured idea has been a rails-to-trails route along the course of the old Smoky Mountain Railroad to Sevierville. Much of it runs along Chapman Highway, to the west of that road. “It’s just obliterated, some of it under roads,” says Karen Nolt.  “And in Sevierville, they’re not even interested.” She hasn’t given up on it completely. “It’s a long shot, but it’s the only shot we have”—for rail-to-trail, anyway.

Another connection is already in the works.

“The greenway that will put Knoxville and the region on the map,” Skelton says, “is the Knox-Blount Greenway.” It would be a long-wished-for bicycle path from Knoxville to Maryville-Alcoa, which already has an admirable band of greenways, to the west of Alcoa Highway. TDOT is covering the addition of a bike lane to the Buck Karnes Bridge across the river; it’s out to bid. (Donna Young’s not crazy about the appearance of it: “It looks like a jail,” she says. “I guess they’re afraid someone would jump.”) The rest of the 30-mile greenway would be built either by TDOT or in segments by (respectively beginning at the Alcoa Highway bridge): Knoxville, TDOT, Knox County, TDOT again, and Alcoa, on a course that flirts with the riverbank.

Many details have yet to be determined, but Skelton expects the trail to be completed in the next 10 years. Maybe, by then, bicycle and pedestrian transportation will be a significant reality in Knox County. The price of gasoline in 2015 is anybody’s guess.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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