In addition to the traffic snarls and general mayhem that have resulted since the closure of the Henley Bridge for repairs, it has been good for a few laughs.
Take last month, for example, when the News Sentinel ran a piece featuring South Knoxville business owners generally wringing their hands over the failure of the detours put in place and the impact of the construction on their businesses. One owner was quoted as saying, “People are going to use Gay Street if that’s what they are used to doing.... I think they should stop cars from parking on both sides of Gay Street.” I’m not sure how turning Gay into a four-lane street would change things for South Knoxvillians, given that traffic using Gay funnels to one lane at the Gay Street bridge. Anyone who’s ever watched cars jockeying their way into a single lane at the river would understand that it doesn’t matter how many lanes are open along the length of Gay, there’s still only one crossing the river. All opening up the street would do is remove parking and give drivers false hope. A bottleneck is a bottleneck. As for people doing what they’re used to doing, well, they’re used to parking on Gay Street.
The layout and markings of Gay make for their own comedy. One of the funniest moments was watching a school bus—a “short bus” for the Knox County Head Start program—angrily honking at a parked car. The bus driver had crossed the river into downtown and, erroneously thinking that the lane the bus had come into off the bridge was still a traffic lane two blocks later, found herself behind a car parked in the commercial parking zone in front of the First Tennessee building. Convinced that someone had simply stopped for no reason, the driver of the bus laid on the horn. Of course, she was probably looking at the striping on the street, and not at the parking designation posted on a sign some eight feet from the curb.
While opening the breadth of the street up to traffic is a shortsighted idea, one of the longstanding problems with Gay Street is a lack of any coherent strategy for how the right lanes are used. Entering downtown from the Gay Street bridge, the first two blocks have two northbound traffic lanes. But as the driver of the school bus learned, the right lane then turns into a mishmash of commercial zones, bus stops, passenger drop-off and loading zones, short stretches of two-lane traffic, and no-parking zones, nearly all marked only by signage. The opposite side is similar. The lines on the street itself for the most part are clearly that of a four-lane highway. I guess it’s no wonder some folks think it should be used that way.
The importance of short-term, on-street parking to retail businesses, banks, and customers is well established. Picking up and dropping off things is a regular activity along Gay whether it be at banks, dry cleaners, or the cinema. But there’s very little rhyme or reason to how half of downtown’s premier thoroughfare is used. The 400 block alone has zones for 10-minute parking, 15-minute parking, and half-hour parking, none of which is delineated by painted parking spaces as throughout much of downtown. You’ll find that sort of delineated parking along Central in the Old City or any number of side streets. But for whatever reason, no one has gotten around to making that kind of commitment to the street that has anchored downtown’s renaissance. It’s not unusual to see a stretch that could accommodate five cars holding only four because of generous gaps between them. But that may be changing. According to Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator, “We are currently undertaking a comprehensive look at signage and parking in the downtown area through traffic engineering.” He says that he’s requested a map of the various signs, meters, and rates for review and hopes to develop a strategy for Gay Street that makes sense. Let’s hope so. Because keeping it marked the same as Kingston Pike doesn’t.
I’ve actually seen Gay with all lanes wide open, as suggested by our South Knoxville neighbors, on rare occasions. There’s a short window a few times a year between the time cars are towed for parades or festivals and the time the street is actually closed off for the celebration. Cars start to pass one another and the speed of traffic picks up considerably. It stops resembling a downtown street, and starts looking like a highway. That sort of thing doesn’t particularly complement an area that is largely pedestrian in nature, but it does move cars through downtown faster—until they get to that one-lane bridge to cross the river.