East Tennessee vs. Earth: Transportation

How our increasing reliance on automobiles is making Knoxville flunk air-quality rankings

Ah, another Earth Day. Time for feel-good features on the local news about greenways or compost or community gardens. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Legislature can't even bring itself to vote on a bill against mountaintop-removal mining, the U.S. Senate is dragging its heels on carbon-emissions cap-and-trade legislation, and East Tennesseans are driving our gas-guzzling cars and stoking our coal-fired power plants more enthusiastically than ever. So forgive us for passing on the usual green-colored glasses. This year, we decided to look at some of the things we're still doing to despoil our little patch of planet, and what we should be doing about them: Transportation, Power Production, Energy Consumption, and Growth and Development.

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The Problem:

Visible air pollution has subsided since the days when coal-burning furnaces made Knoxville infamous for soot, but ground-level ozone, invisible but damaging to lungs, remains a major problem here—one that's at least sometimes worse than it is in the rest of the country. Usually it's worst here in hot weather, but last week—much earlier than usual—Knoxville was tagged with two high-ozone days, accompanied with warnings not to spend too much time outside. It's a creepy thing to hear in April: that outdoor exercise might be harmful to our health.

Knoxvillians, long accustomed to compliments about our region's natural beauty, were taken aback a few years ago when Knoxville began appearing on some national lists as one of America's most air-polluted cities, based on days per year with rates exceeding standards of low-lying ozone.

Some local observers question the methodology, and one of them is Lynne Liddington, Director of Knox County's Department of Air Quality Management, which is responsible for taking some measurements of ozone pollution. She prefers to point at an American Lung Association study from 2008 that puts Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham in the worst 25 in terms of ozone pollution, but not Knoxville. She says the pollution levels in several California cities dwarf ours. We don't show well, she says, because we sometimes have more days of non-attainment, even when the specific instances of non-attainment are often slight. But the same organization makes Knoxville look plenty bad. Of the six Tennessee counties the ALA cites as "failing" in terms of unhealthy ozone levels, four—Knox, Blount, Sevier, and Loudon—are in the Knoxville area.

Worst Offender:

Reports vary about how much driving automobiles contributes to overall air pollution, depending on which toxins or greenhouse gases a study chooses to emphasize, but in all estimates, it's huge—generally ranging upwards of one third of all ozone pollution. On a household basis, driving a car does account for most of any given family's damage—much more than electricity or natural gas.

Americans burn a lot more gasoline than anybody else on the Earth. On a per capita basis, East Tennesseans burn more gasoline than most Americans.

According to a recent Brookings Institution study of the 100 top metropolitan areas in America, Knoxville ranks as the 13th most car-dependent city in the most car-dependent nation in the world. Knoxvillians drive an average of 6,783 miles each year, per capita, on principal arterial roads alone. The average Knoxvillian drives more than 800 miles a year more than the average resident of Los Angeles or Atlanta.

Suburbanization is the most obvious culprit. The return of the middle class to downtown and center-city neighborhoods has been a big newsmaker in the last few years, heralded as a positive step, and it may be true that for the first time in decades it's now possible to live a fairly full, various, and even luxurious life in Knoxville without getting into a car more than once every week or two. Hundreds of people now boast they live like that. But new urbanism is tiny compared to the old story, suburbanization, which seems little slowed, as services like major hospitals and high schools keep opening in locations that seemed remote and rural 20 years ago.

What We're Doing About It:

In 1982, Knoxville threw a World's Fair, officially known as the Knoxville International Energy Exposition. It presented one urgent-sounding charge, to find sustainable options to burning fossil fuels, especially petroleum, which was already proving to have negative political, economic, and environmental costs to the nation. The idea was that Americans don't have to be forced to do the right thing. Show them options, and they'll choose to do the right thing. The Energy Exposition recorded over 11 million visits. In the 28 years since, billions have been put into constructing commuter-friendly greenways and bike lanes, and improving bus transportation.

The result? Well, the result is we drive gasoline-burning cars about twice as much as we did in 1982. In Knox County between 1990 and 2005, drivers increased their annual mileage by 68 percent. The amount of driving we do increased four times faster than population growth.

To be most efficient, public transportation requires higher densities of population. When low-density patterns dominate residential development, good public-transportation options become much less feasible. Thanks to suburbanization, Knoxville supports only one-fourth as many people per square mile as it did 100 years ago—when, in fact, the city was served by a model electric streetcar system.

Today, of the approximately one million people who live in the Knoxville-Sevierville-LaFollette Combined Statistical Area—spread very thinly, for the most part—only about 1/10th, those Knoxvillians who live within safe walking distance of a Knox Area Transit bus stop, have access to any form of public transportation. If it's not to be compared to the service in many bigger cities, KAT is still better than most locals realize, operating about 17 hours a day and generally dependable. But even within that minority who have access to it, only certain small demographic slivers ever use it: college professors (who get a steep cut in fares), racial minorities, transplanted northeastern urbanites, foreigners, the disabled.

"We've got buses going around with a couple of people in them," says Liddington. "It's very frustrating. We're reaping what we sow, in many areas."

Public funding follows demand, calculated based on ridership. If more people rode the bus, service would be more frequent. A few years after KAT's Night Rider initiative, late-night bus service was curtailed, mainly for lack of interest. The Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization's SmartTrips initiative (knoxsmarttrips.org) may help, even if its main impact is encouraging sympathizers, but the fact remains that many outlying suburban neighborhoods are practically accessible only by automobile. And in one way the region itself is as cut off as its citizens. For 115 years, Knoxville and many other East Tennessee communities had regular passenger-train service. Today, East Tennessee is one of America's more populous regions not served by the nation's only passenger railroad, Amtrak.

The City of Knoxville has done much in recent years to improve non-motor-vehicle access in new developments. The more-powerful Tennessee Department of Transportation may be helping, with some caveats. They're now building bike lanes and funding greenways. "They are better, I will admit it," says Liddington. But she'd like to see TDOT improve the environmental friendliness of its policies and contracts. And she says TDOT still has an "if you build it, they will come," ethic, building to suit maximum projections, favoring volume and speed, sometimes enabling worst-case scenarios. "All I see is more traffic," she says.

What We Should Be Doing:

Long accepted as routine in much of the nation, auto-emissions inspections don't exist in the Knoxville area, where drivers can get around town billowing oil smoke. "You've seen them. You're gasping behind them," says Liddington. "We need to get them off the road."

Resistance to it may seem cultural, but even within red-state Tennessee, Knoxville is by far the largest city that does not require emissions inspections. Liddington's not sure there's will at the local level to get vehicle-emissions standards passed (earlier this month, a letter published in the News Sentinel decried safety and emissions inspections as a "police-state" tactic), but she still thinks chances of such a change are "excellent." She explains: "I think it's gonna be mandated by the EPA."

Cars in poor repair and gas-guzzling SUVs get some deserved grief, but the sheer amount of driving East Tennesseans do is the bigger problem.

We can also stop subsidizing sprawl. Every time we pay to build a school—or highway, or water main—because a plurality of people want to live in fields that were cow pastures 30 years ago, taxpayers are footing the bill for more pollution.

A study of the half century of serious concern about air pollution and driving habits will show one thing clearly. American drivers respond to only one motivating factor, and that's the price of gas. Increasing gas taxes is a tough sell, but the market may have the same effect someday.

If there's any other way, those charged with minimizing air pollution haven't found it yet. Perhaps they'll keep trying.