What Knoxville Needs

We take readers' suggestions for civic improvement directly to the civic experts

What does Knoxville really need? Everybody's got an opinion, as we've discovered each week in our What Knoxville Needs column. While some of the ideas are a bit silly (a menacing face for the Sunsphere?), others are actually quite reasonable—in fact, downright smart. So, as we begin a new year, we decided to take some of these suggestions and present them directly to the civic leaders who might actually do something about them. And then we asked these decision-makers: How about it? Here are their answers.

"Knoxville needs to expand on pedestrian spaces. Market Square has been a testament to the pedestrian/commerce connection that has expanded beyond its borders and into the greater downtown area. I think that the Old City should follow suit by closing the streets to traffic and retooling the intersection for a pedestrian-only district."

—Damion Huntoon, musician, barista, and man about town

Rick Emmett, City of Knoxville's Downtown Coordinator:

In the last few months we have completed a design charette with folks in the Old City and downtown and have a conceptual design which will make the streets in the area much more pedestrian friendly. We hope to have some money allocated soon for a more detailed design. Occasionally closing one of the streets for events is something I think the Historic Old City Association is interested in, but I have heard little sentiment to permanently making it a pedestrian-only area.


"The first thing Knoxville need is more bike lanes. Old North Knoxville is getting quite a few, but riding on Broadway or in or around the university campus, near where I work, is terrifying."

—Bryanna Shelton, Pellissippi college student and community volunteer

Kelley Segars, Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization's Principal Transportation Planner/Bicycle Plan:

1) There is a bicycle accommodation policy so that new road projects have to include bike lanes (for example, Hall of Fame Drive and Lovell Road recently widened sections) when the projects use federal or state transportation dollars. Most large road projects do use this source of funding.

2) When roads are resurfaced, which happens every 10 to 20 years depending on how much traffic the road gets, the Transportation Planning Organization's Bicycle Program, in conjunction with the city or county managing the road, looks for opportunities to reduce the width of travel lanes to add bike lanes, or to even reduce the number of travel lanes. (For example, Central Street got a "road diet" that added bike lanes.)

3) The City of Knoxville is planning to hire a consultant in 2013 to develop a Bicycle Facilities Plan that will result in a prioritized, phased list of projects to improve/develop a bike network for the city. So there is a lot going on.

That being said, the example of Broadway—I just don't see Broadway ever getting bike lanes. It won't be widened even for motorized vehicles. But because of our street grid system in the center city, bicyclists have many choices for getting around that area that don't involve using Broadway. This map [at knoxtrans.org] shows our recommended route, but any of those local roads work just fine.

Bike lanes will never be able to be added to every road, so there are always going to be some shared roads. That is why another big focus of the Knoxville Regional Bicycle Program is education—of motorists and bicyclists. Every high school drivers' education class in Knox County, Maryville, and Alcoa are given a presentation on sharing the road with bicyclists, for instance. And a new advocacy organization is forming, Bike Walk Knoxville, to address the issue of educating motorists on bicyclists' right to be on the roads, and how to share the roads with us.


"Knoxville needs sidewalks on every main or through street that connects to a residential area or school. For example, Buffat Mill Road, Springhill Road, and Washington Pike. This would cut down on the need for school buses, parents having to wait in pickup lines, and a paved area at KAT stops."

—Ellie Gardner, retired teacher and volunteer at Spring Hill Elementary School

Jim Hagerman, City of Knoxville's Director of Engineering:

Having sidewalks on every main or through street that connects to a residential area or school is an ideal for most communities. The City of Knoxville recognizes the need for sidewalks and maintains a prioritized list of locations where a sidewalk has been requested. That list currently includes 112 projects totaling about 47 miles.

But a new sidewalk is expensive. Once you factor in slope, drainage, utilities, and the purchase of right-of-way, it averages about $350 per linear foot. That means the cost for a quarter-mile of sidewalk is a little more than $462,000.

During 2012, we had the funding to build about a half-mile of strategically located sidewalk, and there is a similar amount in the pipeline for 2013. We continue to strive to put available funding to its best use and explore new funding opportunities.


"Real estate developers take note: Knoxvillians need neighborhoods with sidewalks. Sounds ridiculously obvious, but sidewalks encourage walking and build better, healthier communities. If you go through old neighborhoods—e.g., Fort Sanders, Fourth and Gill, Old North Knoxville—you'll find sidewalks. But if you live in a suburban community built in the 1960s onward, you're probably out of luck."

—Mary C. Weaver, a fat-loss and fitness coach for women

Ellen Zavisca, Senior Transportation Planner For MPC And TPO/Pedestrian And Greenway Planning, Safe Routes to School:

Are more sidewalks in Knoxville possible? Definitely. We're already making some positive steps in that direction. The city's trying to find more funding, and neighborhoods continue to push hard for sidewalks with new development.

Neighborhoods would get a hand in this if there were a requirement that all new developments be walkable and bikeable. This needs to include public investments, because right now we're building schools in Knox County without sidewalks. Elected officials and other decision-makers need to keep hearing from the public that active transportation is a priority—that it's good for our health and safety and for jobs and our quality of life. Walkability isn't a luxury; it ought to be available for everyone.

The first step is to get it on the city's radar, by making a specific sidewalk request. 311 is the easiest way to do that. Once a request is on the city's list, there's not much that can be done besides pushing for more funding, since the list of requested projects is a long one.

One encouraging note is that the city appears open to using more of the federal transportation funds that the TPO allocates for sidewalks and other active transportation projects. If they go forward with that, it will help them whittle down their sidewalk list faster.

Another thing to consider is that on some streets, especially local ones, effective traffic calming can be a lower-cost substitute for sidewalks. So if you find out that your sidewalk request is No. 30 on the list, ask yourself whether slowing down traffic would make it reasonably safe to walk in the street, and if so organize to ask the city for that.


"I want one building dedicated to the arts in Knoxville, with multi-level studio space, cheaper than the Emporium and handicapped accessible. An arts training co-op for displaced women would be nice as well."

—Candance Reaves, free spirit living in the country with critters and a nice man

Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Knoxville Arts and Culture Alliance:

It's hard to image a space cheaper or more central and accessible than the Emporium Center. (Our studios rent for $7 to $8/square foot per year.) Any person or organization can have unlimited use of our dance/rehearsal studios for $75/month.

I do agree that there is greater need for studio space than the Emporium can accommodate, so I'm all about finding more studio spaces for our artists. The other real space need we have identified in our comprehensive strategic planning process, which will be published on Feb. 15, 2013, is an affordable performance space appropriate for theater (with backstage, wing, and fly space), seating from 150 to 350 people. Now, that's a demonstrated need. There are so many opportunities for arts training. Knox Arts & Fine Crafts Center is a City of Knoxville operation and is probably the place I would start. It's on Broadway not too far from the VMC.


"I feel Knoxville needs strong panhandling laws like Nashville. We always want downtown, the Old City, and Market Square to be viewed in a positive light, but that is hard to do when residents, guests, and visitors are solicited for money or food multiple times while shopping, dining, or volunteering. If no laws can be made in Knox County to address this problem, maybe a no-panhandling zone can easily be created for areas that have heavy pedestrian foot traffic, such as Cumberland Avenue, downtown, the Old City, and Market Square."

—Kelly S. Absher, K.S. Absher Event Planning

Charles Swanson, City of Knoxville's Law Director:

The issue of panhandling is always a difficult topic. Because the courts have found panhandling to be an activity which is afforded some protection under the First Amendment, there are limitations to the extent to which it may be totally eliminated. Some reasonable regulation is permitted, and we have attempted to do so by enactment of the city's ordinance that prohibits aggressive solicitation, which may be found at Knoxville City Code Sections 16-447 through 16-451. These provisions go about as far as we can reasonably go in terms of having reasonable restrictions on panhandling in place that do not go beyond the boundary so as to impermissibly interfere with freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

There is always the issue of enforcement and whether the citizens are prepared to pay the expense associated with devoting the time of law enforcement officials in dealing with this issue in a comprehensive way. There clearly are areas of concern in the public safety arena that must be accorded a higher priority, but I have to say that I believe our police department does a great job in dealing with panhandling issues within the constraints provided by the law and by budgetary limitations. If anything, Knoxville's language prohibiting aggressive solicitation is slightly more comprehensive than that of Nashville's prohibiting aggressive panhandling, in that it includes more locations where this type of solicitation is prohibited.

Rick Emmett, Downtown Coordinator:

The city enacted a pretty tough panhandling ordinance just a few years ago. We have recently formed a committee, with the assistance of folks at the CBID, to better understand what is working and to better educate folks on what the ordinance actually says. Enforcement is really the issue, but KPD cannot provide enforcement without someone calling in violations. First Amendment issues come into play when trying to designate "No Panhandling" zones, but we continually monitor what other cities are doing for improvement to our ordinance.


"Knoxville needs more/better riverfront access. Volunteer Landing is nice, but it's very limited and pretty cut off from the rest of the city."

—Dianne Miller, single-dwelling Knoxville landlord and former resident now living in Stephensville, Md.


"I love Knoxville as is, but it could use a waterfront concert area that everyone could enjoy."

—Bonnie McDiarmid, Hold 'Em fan with a lingering Northern accent

Rick Emmett, Downtown Coordinator:

We recently completed a project on Hill Avenue that greatly enhanced a small parking area with access to a little-known elevator to assist in getting folks to the waterfront and marina. Obviously our topography is very challenging, and with Neyland Drive being constructed in the way it was, opportunities are greatly diminished. That being said, we are in very preliminary stages of looking at the S. Central Street corridor to see if we have any links to the waterfront. We would certainly like to have more events along the water as some other cities have been able to do, but we really have a pretty narrow strip of ground to work with there without closing Neyland Drive, which has become a major thoroughfare. Certainly Boomsday is very successful on the waterfront, so large events are possible.


"Knoxville could really use a light rail downtown. It would make the Old City and Gay Street more accessible and help with urban revitalization, and it could also help people who live in that area get to work without having to drive. We have one in Houston. It stops by the Transit Center where a lot of the city bus lines meet, so it is really useful for people getting to work and whatnot—especially poor college students like myself. There are about 12 stops, including ones by the biggest downtown landmarks and the Museum District."

—Sarah Craig, lifelong Knoxville resident now attending Rice University in Houston

David Clarke, Director of the Center for Transportation Research, University of Tennessee, Knoxville:

Like many cities across the country, Knoxville once had an extensive public transportation network that included both streetcars and electric trolley buses. Their routes provided circulation within the downtown and extended in all directions to connect outlying suburbs with the center city. Sadly, competition from automobiles reduced ridership, and, in the face of escalating costs to maintain the tracks and electric distribution system, all of these routes were either abandoned or converted to bus operation by 1947. The present-day KAT system operates buses over portions of the old streetcar routes, including the rubber-tired downtown trolleys powered by internal combustion engines. Portions of the old streetcar track remain buried under pavement; some is visible in the block of Clinch Avenue between Gay and Market streets.

Unfortunately, Knoxville is unlikely to have a new light rail system in the near future. The vehicles, tracks, power infrastructure, and support facilities are extremely costly. Most jurisdictions rely on federal funding to cover a large portion of the startup costs for new systems. However, given its present size, Knoxville is not likely to qualify for such grants to build a system from scratch. Downtown ridership levels need to be much higher.

Reuse of existing rail corridors can greatly lower the cost of implementing light rail. So can the use of diesel powered railcars—at least initially—to postpone the cost of electrification. This approach was recently taken in Austin, Texas. Under such a scenario, the freight rail line through downtown Knoxville to Alcoa might be a good candidate for Knoxville's first light rail line, should it no longer be needed for freight operations. The route could serve the Old City, World's Fair Park/UT, various south Knoxville neighborhoods, and link downtown with Maryville/Alcoa and McGhee Tyson Airport. An extension to north Knoxville is presently possible following old railbeds no longer in use. Detailed studies of ridership, environmental issues, and expenses would be needed to justify such a project, however, and it is moot until the current owner no longer needs the line for freight service.


"Knoxville needs real KAT buses that really look like cats, like in Totoro."

—Hazel Epperson-Scott, age 3

Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT's Director of Marketing and Development:

How fabulous would that be? I was so glad to read Hazel's suggestion in the Metro Pulse, as I was unfamiliar with the cat bus in Totoro prior to seeing it in the Pulse. A Totoro cat bus would certainly be a fun addition to our fleet, but it might not look exactly like the cat in Totoro. We find that people under the age of 6 tend to really enjoy riding the bus, even though they don't look exactly like cats now. However, I'm sure that a bus that might resemble a cat would do even more to draw a younger audience to our buses. While I can't guarantee a budget for such improvements, perhaps Hazel would consult with us as to her suggestions to create a Totoro cat bus.


"What Knoxville needs is a more family-friendly mass transit system. It would save on auto-related costs and reduce traffic congestion and the number of accidents. Most people I know are afraid to ride public transportation in Knoxville, and I think it comes from the low number of people who frequent the buses. It would help to have an initiative to encourage everyone to ride instead of driving. More frequent stops in West Knoxville would also help. Right now, if I were to ride the bus to work, I would be afraid I might miss the last morning or evening stop."

—Stephanie Edwards, freelance wedding photographer

Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT:

First, the good news: Since Knoxville Station opened, more and more people are using KAT. In fact, ridership on KAT buses has been climbing every month for the last 25 months! Every day I see new faces come through the station, often with bikes and children, in addition to briefcases, smart phones, and shopping bags. More and more people are discovering the transit alternative, and it is very encouraging to see.

However, fear of the unknown is always the biggest barrier to people discovering transit: How does the farebox work? Has the bus already been by? Will the driver let me off where I need to get off? How often buses run and how late are also barriers.

But now for the great news: KAT will soon be unveiling a new proposal for increased services. These services include 15-minute service on main corridors like Kingston Pike during peak hours, more frequent service later in the evenings on main routes, and other service improvements. In addition, KAT is proposing new information technologies that allow passengers to track buses in real time on a smart phone or computer and receive text messages on route-specific information. Plans for website upgrades include fun videos on how to ride, load a bike, and use a farebox.

The plans for the service improvements are currently being finalized, and KAT will hold public meetings in February of next year. If approved by our board, these service improvements (and technology improvements) are scheduled to go live in June of next year. We would encourage people to check our website (katbus.com), like us on Facebook, or sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to keep informed of our progress on these exciting changes.