Is Knoxville Really the "Worst City" for Public Transportation?

Recent national reports making Knoxville sound transit-unfriendly don't tell the whole story

A Brookings Institution study released earlier this month rated Knoxville No. 95 of 100 metropolitan areas in terms of access to public transit. Then Time topped it with a feature ostensibly based on the Brookings study that somehow advanced Knoxville to the very bottom. Under the heading "Worst Cities," Time called Knoxville No. 1, showing a picture of a familiar skyline with the Sunsphere prominent, and citing a few statistics, like, "Percent of working-age residents near a transit stop: 28 percent."

It was strange timing. Knoxville Area Transit opened its multi-million-dollar transit center last August. At the same time it announced a revamped and generally improved bus system.

Some of the static is part of the melancholy of life in a mid-sized city. Knoxville's transit options may be better than some of our traditional peers who were spared the bad press by virtue of the fact they weren't quite big enough to be considered. Lexington, Ky. and Winston-Salem, N.C., for example, are both larger than Knoxville as cities, but their metro areas are much smaller. When there are many metropolitan areas below the top 100 in size, being at the bottom of any study's arbitrary top 100 can seem pretty meaningless. It's comparable to saying, "Of the largest, you're sure one of the smallest."

More relevant, though, is the methodology of the study, which—despite Time's headline—concentrated not on cities but on metropolitan areas. And that could indicate major long-term problems.

KAT is the only public transit system in the metropolitan area. That, says Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT director of marketing and development, is the main reason "Knoxville"—shorthand for five counties—ranked low.

"It's a look at the top 100 metropolitan areas, and how well those metropolitan areas connected people, home to job," says Woodiel-Brill, who rides a bus to work most days. "In our case, it's a five-county region."

Among those five county governments, and the several sizeable municipalities within them—Maryville, Alcoa, Oak Ridge, Loudon, Lenoir City, Maynardville, Clinton—none prioritize public transit enough to sustain a bus system.

The Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area contains some 700,000 people. For all of them there's only one entity that subsidizes routine public transportation, and that's the city of Knoxville—home of only a quarter of the MSA's population. Knoxville, the city, is the chief funding source of KAT. "Yes, KAT does a terrible job of connecting people to jobs in Union County," Woodiel-Brill admits. "But that's not our job."

In fact, Knox County doesn't pitch in much, either—and if County Commission goes along with the Burchett administration's plan to delete free rides for the elderly, it will be even less this year than last. Areas beyond city limits are unfunded and little served.

Dr. Chris Cherry, assistant professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee and known for his studies in transportation, has examined the situation. "The urban area of Knoxville expands beyond city limits, yet it is institutionally very difficult to share resources to serve those communities," he says. "Most other metropolitan regions are served by a regional transit authority. We are moving in the right direction here, with the state passing legislation [SB 1471 and HB 1263] that removes some barriers to regional transit, like the ability to raise revenue across jurisdictions." The legislation, passed almost two years ago, provides a legal framework for establishing and funding regional transit systems.

Meanwhile, Woodiel-Brill says Knoxville, the city, has about as good public transit as you'll find in other cities its size. KAT hasn't done a peer-comparison study recently, and her information is mostly anecdotal, based on spot-checks of comparable cities. "We're pretty much in line with other cities our size, in terms of frequency, fares, how late we run," she says.

With Cherry's help, we had a look at Federal Transit Administration figures from a detailed 2008 study. In terms of criteria like mileage covered by bus routes and actual passenger miles, Knoxville's far ahead of some peer-group cities, like Winston-Salem, N.C., Greenville, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., and Chattanooga.

There's always room for improvement. Woodiel-Brill keeps a big version of a KAT route map on her wall. She points to large areas they haven't figured out how to efficiently serve with a regular bus route: the northwestern stretch of Western Avenue, and large swaths of South Knoxville. Heavily residential Northshore Drive west of Bearden once had some service, but was dropped due to low ridership. She says she'd like to see a Knoxville-to-Maryville route, or one to Oak Ridge. A few years ago, KAT participated in a federal project that enabled an ORNL initiative to establish bus service between downtown Knoxville, and also Farragut, to the Y-12 plant. Funding ran out as gas prices came down; what little demand there was for it fell off.

Cherry, who also uses KAT to get to work, adds some specific criticism of Knoxville's system. "KAT has little influence on the development of transit-supportive infrastructure. There are many bus stops that are nothing more than a sign tacked to a telephone pole in a ditch," he says. "Many of our busiest bus stops are not connected to sidewalks and are connected to the neighborhood by rabbit trails through the bushes." He says the city and county need a "human-oriented land-use policy that has some teeth."

The Brookings study's metropolitan emphasis is at least understandable. The Time regurgitation of it is puzzling. "I have no idea what they based that on," she says, adding that she has inquired about the unsigned writer's assumptions (as have we), so far without response. "It seemed completely random."

Defending KAT doesn't mitigate the problem that for the overwhelming majority of residents of the five-county metropolitan area, public transit doesn't exist at all. While many might choose to drive, regardless of fluctuating gasoline prices, facts suggest at least half a million Knoxville-area residents are wholly dependent on automobiles, and, of course, cheap gasoline.

"The Southeast in general is extremely car-centric," Woodiel-Brill says. "That always comes through. We have a lot of sprawl, and we drive a lot." Some of sprawl's expensive problems seem intractable, except perhaps through establishing park-and-ride options, but maybe being Southern isn't a terminal condition. She observes that Raleigh-Durham's metropolitan area showed better than Knoxville's in large part because it includes six separate fixed-route transit systems, compared to the Knoxville MSA's one.

Cherry says Knoxville needs to take the lead in starting a regional transportation initiative. "We're dealing with all their commute traffic, and it is in our best interest to get them on board." East Tennessee's a transit puzzle, a heavily populated but still semi-rural area, a lot of people living far apart from each other. The region's problems result from its strengths. With lots of pretty views and no deserts or oceans impinging on us, and little large-scale farming like that of the Deep South or the Midwest, the whole area is habitable, appealing to hundreds of thousands of people who drive cars.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that a major spike in world oil prices would hurt Knoxville's MSA economically worse than the rest of the nation. And whether Knoxville proper has efficient public transit or not, the city would certainly feel the pain.