Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If you build it, will they come?

Some comments on B's busy spots post got me to thinking the other day. Let me preface this by saying I'm not disagreeing with any of the comments that were made, I just like to be difficult sometimes.

Pianoman mentioned that Knoxville didn't do the best job with its urban planning a few decades back, leading to a number of wonderful buildings being torn down (I quite agree and am not here to argue that point) and an influx of ugly parking garages and poor transportation options.

We obviously can't go back in time to fix that, but I wonder what could be done in Knoxville now that isn't already being done or considered?

I can't tell you how many times while sitting in traffic on Kingston Pike I've cursed the city of Knoxville and prayed for a subway system to magically tunnel its way through the city. Obviously that's out of the picture.

What would it take to get Knoxvillians (I mean the greater community, not just the smaller group of progressive-minded individuals) to rely less on their cars and more on public transit or their own two feet? A better KAT system? A downtown streetcar? A commuter train? More sidewalks? Overhead moving walkways? Hovercrafts?

How many of those options are actually feasible for this city?

In my humble opinion and to its credit, I think Knoxville tries to promote better transit options. Consider this KnoxSmartTrips website and the greenway system. I appreciate the free nights and weekends parking downtown because it allows me to park and leave my car without fear of towing while I hoof it around Market Square and Gay Street.

But even if the city found money to spend on a fabulously improved transit system, would enough people take advantage of it to make it worth it?

Just some thoughts I've had. Discuss amongst yourselves.

/// ck update:

an interesting video from Pianoman's blog, analyzing what makes a good downtown (using Ann Arbor):


Wax Sophocletus said...

In this regard, Knoxville is similar to most other American cities. Citizens here value the sense of self-determination that cars bestow.

Mass transit becomes a more desirable option only when cars cause acute inconvenience (fuel costs rise, parking is not available, commute times increase) or there are other immediately tangible drawbacks (the links between hurricanes and carbon emissions are too abstract for many).

Of course, were mass transit to somehow become trendy, you might see use increase. But you'd need to enlist Madison Avenue.

American culture is built around the expression of the individual spirit. I think the larger question is how that expression can be further harnessed for the work of the common good.

Wax Sophocletus said...

MG, you'll likely spot the split infinitive in the 3rd paragraph above. Apologies.

The Modern Gal said...

Split infinitive forgiven because of thoughtful comment, Wax.

B said...

My first quick response about a trolley system: I used to live in Memphis and never rode the trolleys, BUT I also didn't live downtown. I always thought of the trolleys as more of a touristy thing, and I never got on them because I didn't know where I'd end up. A big enemy of public transport, I think, is people's ignorance of how it works. Not that it would ever happen, but could you imagine the chaos of Knoxville natives trying to board a subway. Funny.

Pianoman said...

I believe Knoxville could do much to improve, such as providing better pedestrian linkages between downtown and adjacent residential areas. I live in North Knoxville. If I wanted to walk to downtown, it would be difficult because sidewalks are shoddy at best.

Wax is correct that Knoxville should not be singled out as the only city who did this. It was the norm back then to tear down buildings and build new massive buildings in their places.

I have always thought that the intersection of North Central and Broadway would be a prime area for a little urban renewal project. That intersection and the surrounding blocks would make a great little area for shops and cafes -- similar to Virginia-Highlands in Atlanta.

I invite you to visit my personal blog, which is about city planning and urban design ( This is an area about which I am incredibly passionate.

Anonymous said...

Trolley, Tram, Subway, whatever...I'd use it if they built it! I just don't know if the current infrastructure Knoxville has could support much more. It would mean a lot of hassel, but it might help w/ the smog problem in the summer and the current traffic situation for instance on Chapman Highway and other backed up streets. Also, bike lanes would be nice too.

fixie fiend said...

One obvious but major difficulty to maneuvering Knoxville on foot is how far apart everything is spaced due to parking lots. I'm speaking primarily of areas outside downtown.

For example, I was recently at the Firehouse Subs on Kingston Pike near West Towne mall and wanted to go to Borders after my meal. Rather than get in my car and crawl through 5 lights, I just set out on foot. Although I made good time, I noticed that I walked a fairly long way just to essentially cross Kinston Pk and go by a Texas Roadhouse. While the need to park your car somewhere exists, parking lot sizes will remain large and walking will be inefficient for going from place to place.

Another great example that we love to hate: Turkey Creek. Stores as close together as possible, but do you see people park in one place and do all their shopping? Not usually.

Like Pianoman, I live in North Knoxville. I agree with him that the North Central and Broadway area would be perfect for urban renewal, especially if it connected to the already revitalized Old City/Downtown. The only thing in the way is the area under the interstate behind the Regas.

The Modern Gal said...

B: You're right. The Memphis trolley is mostly a tourist draw, but it has spurred some redevelopment along the Main Street Mall, so there's an upside.

Pianoman: You're right about Central @ Broadway. I love that intersection so much.

Trip: Precisely why I asked some of these questions.

Fixie: You are after my own heart. I live by the mall. It kills me how difficult it is for me to walk two blocks to the mall or across Kingston to Tomo -- and how much of a chance I'm taking with my life when I do.

Pianoman said...

That intersection (N. Central/Broadway) has so much potential as a great little public space. If I had my way, this is what I'd do with that intersection:

1. Get rid of the industrial-type businesses there.
2. Renovate the buildings to make them conducive for small shops and cafes/coffee shops, etc, on the street level and apartments on the upper floors.
3. Widen the sidewalks and provide space for outdoor sidewalk seating, landscaping, and street lamps.
4. Narrow the road to one lane each way and provide metered, on-street parallel parking where possible.
5. Improve the intersection by raising it to sidewalk level and providing bulb-outs and well-marked cross walks on each street with pedestrian-leading walk signals.
6. Improve the connection from there down N. Central to the Old City so people feel like walking it.
7. Provide bike racks.

Do this and it's almost guaranteed to be a hot spot. I'm a firm believer in the "build it and they will come" philosophy for certain things and this is one of them.

Anonymous said...

My husband is 48 years old, and he barely remembers trips to Knoxville when he was a little boy. His father would park the family car at the Kmart on Kingston Pike -- just east of the lot on which West Town Mall now stands -- and the whole clan would climb on a bus to downtown Knoxville, where they did most of their shopping.

Now none of those people would ride a bus to downtown Knoxville, mostly because they don't want to share a ride with strangers. It's not the mass transit, y'all -- it's the masses.

How would I fix Knoxville? Good heavens, I don't know. Isn't there someone smarter than me to get this job done?

stan said...

coming in a bit late to all of this, i think Wax Sophocletus' comment described the problem perfectly. people will not use mass transit unless it is more practical than the alternative.

i don't believe i took the bus once while i lived in knoxville (so take what i say with a grain of salt). but since moving to st. louis, i've used public transit frequently. we have a combination of bus and light rail. aside from recent cutbacks in service due to budget issues, the whole experience has been relatively easy. without any knowledge of existing routes, i was able to easily find which bus or train to take on stl's transit website. i imagine KAT has something similar in knoxville.

all that to say, it has more to do with willingness than accessibility of public transit. most of my fellow riders simply don't have a car.

so, sorry knoxville, but unless you get a massive influx of people around the downtown region or gas prices spike again, you probably won't get the ridership to justify expanding mass transit.

Amelia said...

I would love to use public transportation for work every day, but KAT doesn't provide service to the outskirts of the city...and you have to live on the outskirts to afford rent or a house payment these days...nor do they provide service 24/7 like bigger markets out there...and my schedule is not your typical 9-5 shift, like many Knoxvillians. It's frustrating but that's the consequence of living in a medium market area.

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