Kelley Segars is the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization’s (TPO) Bicycle Program Coordinator. It’s a position she invented. So she’s typically introduced at official functions as “the bike lady.” If you ride a bicycle here or have witnessed the confusion a bicyclist can cause at a downtown intersection, perhaps you can appreciate the challenges that come with being the bike lady in a car and truck town.
“The Southeast definitely has some cultural barriers to bicycling and walking,” she says. “It’s a stereotype that if you see someone on a bicycle, it’s because they don’t have money for a car or lost their license. I think that’s fading in Knoxville, but it’s a hurdle. And college towns are generally where you find the most bicyclists. Knoxville, as much as it is a football town, doesn’t seem to be a college town. There seems to be a gap between UT and Knoxville. I’m not sure why, other than the challenge of topography, which I admit is there. But San Francisco and Seattle are hilly, too, and they have huge bicycling numbers. I do hear people say ‘Oh, it’s too hot to bike,’ or ‘it’s too cold to bike’ but, again, other places are even hotter or colder. So it’s just a cultural thing to use those excuses.”
Segars grew up in South Carolina, but spent time as a professional planner in some of the country’s urban bicycling wonderlands, like Missoula, Mont., Madison, Wis., Davis, Calif., etc. She was hired as a planner here in 2001, just as another planner who was involved in the TPO’s loose-knit bicycle advisory committee went on maternity leave. Unlike her predecessor, Segars is a bicycle commuter. So she brought to the office the concerns of a cyclist, as well as some professional insights into how city streets can be safely shared by different kinds of traffic.
“They were working on a new bike plan,” Segars recalls. “The previous one had been adopted in ’95. So I took that over and greatly expanded things and just kept adding things. I finally asked, ‘Can I call this a bicycle program?’ My boss said sure. Now we have this extensive program with all kinds of events and grants. But we’ve been building it in little bits.”
She refers to events such as the annual neighborhood rides and holiday bicycle parade, and last week’s Ride Your Bike to Work Day, and grants like the ones that fund the swanky bike racks you now see all over town.
The boss to whom Segars refers is Jeff Welch, director of the TPO. Welch has been here for over 25 years. During a telephone conversation he counts the bicyclists he can see from his downtown window.
“I can see three right now,” he says. “That would have been difficult to imagine 10 years ago. Here comes another one.
“I think Kelley’s been successful mostly because of her perseverance and her ability to get people from every group to come to the table. And of course it helps that she actually commutes by bicycle and knows what she’s talking about.”
There are professional networks and online references and listservs to help non-cyclists with municipal responsibilities comprehend bicycle travel. But there’s no substitute for experience, or the adrenalin that comes from a close call with a belligerent motorist. (Or worse. Segars has been hit twice by cars in Knoxville, both times while she was on her bike, stopped at a stop sign.)
“I don’t mean to sound self-important,” says Segars. “But just having someone whose job it is on a daily basis—not their volunteer job or something they’re squeezing into their free time—but someone who is actually paid to work on these issues. Having someone who really understands the issues is important, too.”
Surely you’ve noticed the increased number of bicycles on Knoxville streets. Segars says that’s the best tool for getting motorists accustomed to accommodating cyclists. But increased numbers also bring additional challenges.
“People need to realize that bicycles are vehicles under Tennessee and federal law,” says Segars. “They have the same rights and responsibilities. So you have to follow the rules of the road but that also means that yes, bicycles belong on the road.”
Asked if there are particular points to drive home, she has a short list.
“It’s legal to ride on the sidewalk but it’s a lot more dangerous than people realize,” she says. “Every driveway you come to is a potential conflict point; motorists turn in and pull out and are not expecting bicyclists on the sidewalk. When you’re on the road, please stop at the red lights. The law is you must stop at the stop signs and stop at the red lights. Officially I have to say that. I would say that I’m less worried when I see a bicyclist run a red light when there’s nobody else around at all than when there are motorists around. Because I’m thinking, ‘What kind of message are you sending?’ It’s not that I’m some stickler for the law and worried about people’s safety, though that’s one thing. A motorist who sees a cyclist break the law thinks if cyclists don’t have to follow the rules of the road they don’t belong on the road and I don’t have to pay attention to them. And they’re going to take that out on—maybe—me the next time. That’s my concern.”
Segars says she sees a budding bike culture in Knoxville. She says that’s crucial if Knoxville is to become more of a bike town. And she says there are things the city can also do.
“The city would need to show serious commitment to bicycling as a form of transportation,” says Segars, “not just a recreational thing. This has happened to some extent. They sponsor the annual Neighborhood Bike Ride and Tour de Lights; send an Engineer to each bicycle advisory committee meeting, and have been responsive about some small improvement projects. But there hasn’t been any significant funding toward projects, other than greenways. Greenways are certainly good, as long as they connect, but they can’t go everywhere so on-street projects need to happen also.
“The city needs to have a bicycle coordinator, at least part-time, in addition to my position. I am a regional planner and can’t spend all my time on one jurisdiction.”
A big part of Segars’ job—and success—has been the dissemination of useful information. For instance, if you go to her office’s website (knoxtrans.org/plans/bikeprog.htm) this week, you can check out route alternatives for bike commuters who usually make use of the 100 block of Gay Street. That site is also a good way to get information to Segars’ office—though she says there are still other channels that remain important to remember.
“I guess another thing I would add is that people are always telling me, ‘I think bike lanes are a wonderful thing and I want more bike lanes,’” she says. “I say that’s great, but you need to tell your elected officials. You need to tell your elected officials that this is an important issue to you and you want more money spent on this.”