Downtown Streets to be Paved – Is That Really Necessary?

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Anyone who drives downtown streets – whether downtown worker, resident or simply visitor knows that the caption must be be facetious, right? Certainly any of us, as is often the case for me, who try to drive into or out of downtown with a coffee cup balanced in our lap has experienced the near impossibility of avoiding spills due to cracks, crevices, uneven pavement, patches and potholes in the road. And bless those poor souls I see every day, driving downtown while texting. It must be so tempting to take that driving hand to help steady the cell phone. So, what do I mean by the question in the lead?

First, here are the facts according to a press release sent out earlier this week:

“Starting this week and continuing through the end of fall, more than 6 miles of downtown City streets will be repaved.

“The $600,000 combined investment by the City of Knoxville and Knoxville Utilities Board in new asphalt is being coordinated to coincide with KUB’s near completion of its Downtown Century II Utilities Upgrade project. KUB has replaced and upgraded utility infrastructure from the Tennessee River north to Jackson Avenue – some of it in service since the 1800s – about six months ahead of schedule.

“The coordination maximizes efficiency, both in terms of stewardship of taxpayer dollars and time,” said City Engineering Director Jim Hagerman. “It made sense to finish the underground utility work and then do the resurfacing work. This way, we’ve avoided the waste of repaving a street, then tearing it up for utility work, then repaving it again.

“We appreciate KUB finishing these major upgrades ahead of schedule. Once we’re finished with the repaving, downtown streets will be in excellent shape and will remain that way for at least another decade.”

“Most of downtown will be resurfaced, including portions or all of these streets:

South Central Street; Church Avenue;  Clinch Avenue;  Commerce Avenue;  Cumberland Avenue;  Front Avenue;  South Gay Street;  Henley Street;  Hill Avenue;  Locust Street;  Main Street;  Maplehurst Court;  Poplar Street;  State Street;  Summit Hill Drive;  Summer Place;  Union Avenue; Walnut Street.”

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Several parts of the press release jumped out at me a bit: I didn’t realize, for example, there would be six miles of downtown streets, though a little mental math makes that seem more logical. Also, I didn’t realize the KUB work was ahead of schedule. It seems to have been underway since approximately the end of the World’s Fair. When we no longer have to find different routes into and out of downtown with each passing hour and shifting of equipment on downtown streets, what will we do for entertainment?

Last week I spoke to a local group and I got a question that threw me a bit. I’m used to being asked about downtown history and, while I’ve learned a little, I usually defer to Jack Neely when I get those. I’m pretty comfortable talking about current downtown happenings – it’s my focus every day. But this question wasn’t either of those. After a presentation about the evolution of my blog and of downtown, a gentleman asked me what I see in the future. I don’t consider myself a prophet or futurist, so I was taken back a bit.

But it did remind me of an article I read recently in Fortune magazine. In “Who Will Build the Next Great Car Company?” (online title) by Erin Griffith, the author discusses the increasing intersection between Silicon Valley and Detroit as we race toward driverless cars. Scott Lindstrom, manager of driver-assist technologies at Ford Motor Co. referenced 2012 when, “the idea of self-driving cars looked, to Ford’s leadership, like a frivolous Silicon Valley moonshot. Just four years later the company is set, by the end of this year, “to have the largest fleet of autonomous test vehicles of any automaker.”

“Thanks to cheap sensors, powerful machine-learning technology, and a kick in the butt from the likes of Google googl and Tesla Motors tsla , driverless vehicles are becoming a sooner-than-you-think reality. General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Fiat-Chrysler, BMW, and just about every other auto company are wading—some cautiously and some with big, headline-grabbing moves—into territory that executives in Detroit and elsewhere not long ago considered a science-fiction fantasy.

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

She states, “Everything changed in March, when GM spent $1 billion on a tiny self-driving startup called Cruise Automation.” Tech companies, car companies and companies like Uber and Lyft are positioning themselves for the anticipated market. “In May, Toyota struck a partnership with Uber, Volkswagen invested $300 million in ride-hailing company Gett, Apple poured $1 billion into China’s Didi Chuxing, and Google partnered with Fiat Chrysler to outfit 100 Pacifica minivans with self-driving technology. All in the span of one month.”

It raises questions like, “Will we even need to own private cars anymore? Automakers, technology companies, and ambitious startups all agree that this transformation isn’t just headlines and hype, but inevitable. Every person I interviewed for this article deliberately pointed out that, no, really—this is happening. Even regulators are onboard. “We’ve got a clock ticking,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Reuters in April. “This technology is coming. Ready or not, it’s coming.”

Safety, of course, comes front and center to most of us older drivers, but the article states, “Car accidents cause more than 1 million deaths and 15 million injuries globally each year. Over 90% of them are caused by human error.” Further, “Beyond saving lives, consider the money saved (traffic accidents cause $500 billion in economic damage worldwide each year), the benefits to cities (parking lots become green spaces), the increases in productivity (commuters can work in transit; truckers can sleep without pulling over), and improvements in accessibility.”

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

The article goes on to suggest that car companies may change their entire business model to include driverless cars that are sold as fleets or operated by the companies themselves. The companies have taken to calling themselves, “mobility companies,” and are preparing for the time when the majority of drivers no longer feel a need to own a car. And it may be the tech companies that buy the car companies – Uber is now worth more than Ford and GM, for example. “Google’s self-driving pod-cars don’t even have a steering wheel or pedals.”

Other cogent points from the article:

“Many people assume Zoox, Google, and Uber (which revealed its own driverless test car in May) will eventually launch their own urban fleets of on-demand autonomous vehicles. Basically robo-taxis. For Uber, reducing or eliminating its army of more than 1 million contract drivers would slash the unprofitable startup’s costs. Uber currently pays about 75% of its income to drivers. Eliminating that outlay would likely make up for the new expense of buying, maintaining, and storing a fleet of driverless cars.

“At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November . . . Lyft president and co-founder John Zimmer deliver(ed) an ultimatum to the automotive industry: “You can fight [the end of car ownership], and that will probably not turn out well. Or you can acknowledge that this is happening. This is real, serious, and going to change your world.” GM responded to that ultimatum by investing $500 million in Lyft – the same night the speech was given. GM later spent $1 billion to acquire, “Cruise, a 2½-year-old startup building a software platform for autonomous vehicles.

“Many experts don’t expect that the world will adopt Level 4 autonomy—the ability to summon a car that goes from point A to point B without human interference—for 25 years, or a full generational change. But partial autonomy arrived much sooner than anyone expected. Google already has demonstrated “A to B” technology that works. By 2021, one of Mobileye’s automotive clients (Aviram won’t say which) will have it too. Five years may seem like forever to the hoodie-wearing tech crowd, but “in our industry,” Aviram says, “2021 is like tomorrow.”

“Next year GM will launch a semiautonomous Super Cruise feature that allows for hands-free driving in its Cadillac CT6 at the same time that it develops “straight to Level 4” technology within its subsidiary Cruise. Ford is also trying to strike a balance between evolution, with its vehicle lineup’s semiautonomous features, and revolution, with its test fleet of driverless cars. Ford executives insist it is not totally contradictory to protect the company’s existing business while also building technology that will make it obsolete.”

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

Paving and Road Construction, Knoxville, October 2016

So, back to that question at the top of the article. Of course, paving the roads and maintaining our system of large highways near and around downtown is necessary. Of course, we need parking lots, parking garages, auto-dealerships, gas stations and auto-repair shops all around town. But the day may be coming – and coming sooner than any of us imagined – when that kind of massive infrastructure and devotion to the automobile will become a relic of a past era. Massive parking garages could become strange artifacts in a few short years and valuable urban property may be re-purposed to people, rather than cars.

So, we need to do this paving and it will make all our lives better. We have to maintain what we have built for the automobile. But, in ten years when that pavement wears out, we are likely to be living in a rapidly changing transportation environment. And when the next conversation turns to building additional parking garages, we might do well to consider whether the auto-centric model of building cities will make sense in the future.

In the meantime, I’ll be pleased to have a steadier cup of coffee, and I’ll be glad the people texting will more easily be able to handle their phones with one hand.


  1. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: MONORAIL! MONORAIL!! MONORAIL!!!

  2. It’s about time. I have never seen roads as bad as ours in a downtown area. It is so bad I sold my sports car because it was pretty much could not be safely driven in downtown. Although I understand the desire not to repeat the paving until after the utility work is competed, it’s ridiculous when personal vehicle choices are dictated by the failure to maintain a good, safe road system. As for the development of self-driving vehicles, I wonder if this money would not be better spent on developing driverless mass transport, rather than individual vehicles. Or, perhaps this is the best compromise between our desire for private transportation and the trend toward access based consumption rather than ownership?

  3. Whatever amount of technology and automation arises to get people from point A to point B will not get all their stuff there. We are now spoiled with getting anything we want anytime we want (as long as we have the dollars to pay for it) from internet shopping and USPS/UPS/Fedex delivery. I know the drones are going to take care of that, right? But how is Sysco getting the food to all the restaurants on Market Square, and how is the food getting to them from wherever in the world it’s from? Automated trucks, too, but they’re going to drive on something, right? There won’t be drones delivering pallets of green coffee bags, will there? And how do the farmers bring their goods from the hundreds of small farms in our area into the heart of the city so we have delicious and good foods to eat? And many of them pull trailers. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but moving people around is a significant yet tiny part of the issue. Not needing to accommodate everyone’s personal vehicles would have a tremendous impact on the city, though. That would be pretty nice.

  4. This made me think of the proposed downtown mobility plan. Is that still under consideration? Converting State to two way traffic was part of it, but it seems too narrow now with the bulb outs near the Cal Johnson building. Central behind Marble Lofts/1st Pres seems like an even candidate for two way.

  5. Can we skip driverless cars and go right to teleportation, please?

  6. Hope Waddle says:

    I know it is needed………but heck, I hate the thought of this going on for another 6 months…..I work on Market Square and it has been awful getting to the garage and out again while the sewer upgrade has been going on.

    I am going to cry now……..

  7. My alignment welcomes the new pavement, hopefully they will finally fix that dip adjacent to the L&N station on Western, which ironically had nothing to do with KUB’s project.

  8. s.m. dupree says:

    Us locals have bitched (with good reason) for years about a specific element of the infrastructure downtown. Internet. It sounds like Downtown is getting a smokin’ hot broadband upgrade. It is sorely needed. As Jim Hagerman notes, it would be stupid to do that upgrade and half-ass the rest of the job. It is good to see some logic and reason leading the way.

    • I do know that both AT&T and Comcast are bringing their gigabit products to Knoxville in the very near future. Comcast already has infrastructure that has no problems supporting 75 & 150mbps in and around downtown, so it’ll likely be less work for Comcast (which just has to upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1) vs AT&T who seems to only offer 12-18mbit via their lackluster Uverse product. AT&T is notorious for rolling it out in only the wealthiest neighborhoods where they feel like running new fiber, not citywide like Comcast and other ISP’s do so I’d almost count on Comcast bringing DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit to downtown more quickly than AT&T (though I’ve seen AT&T trucks running fiber underground recently).

      • Gigabit Internet is available today on Gay Street for buildings connected to the fiber network. Yes it is too small of a number of buildings, but it is growing. And the U-verse name originally applied only to the new high speed network, then the marketing people got involved and they used the name on EVERYTHING no matter the speed. So “U-verse” can be anything from 1.5Mbps to 1Gbps.

        • Gigabit under AT&T in Knoxville currently isn’t part of their “GigaPower” product. It’s their “Fiber Ready” initiative and geared towards businesses at considerably higher costs than what they’re offering consumers under the GigaPower name. Apparently they’re also getting rid of the Uverse branding and calling all of their offerings “AT&T Fiber” now. The office where I work now has 150mbps Comcast but AT&T can only offer 18mbps at the same place. Comcast does offer a 2gbps Multi-Gig service that’s not available in apartment buildings or to businesses or in any area where there’s not a nearby fiber pair, so it’s useless to most of us in downtown. Hopefully Comcast and AT&T can get the ball rolling on their gigabit offerings soon (note that AT&T’s offering will be symmetrical gigabit while Comcast DOCSIS 3.1 will be gigabit downstream but only 35mbps upstream).

          • Arthur Carmichael says:

            Did I miss something somewhere? I thought KUB was not putting in new client conduit with the utility upgrade except on the 700 block of Gay Street. Is KUB putting in new client conduit all over Downtown? And, if so, how many clients will this conduit be able to carry? From what I understand, most of Downtown currently has the capacity for 4 clients; which is mostly taken by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and I can’t remember the other fiber provider, all 4 of which are used for dedicated fiber lines, you know, for businesses that have need for, and can pay, the thousands of dollars per month that these connections cost. That’s why service for consumers and businesses that aren’t running their own bank of servers is unavailable, outside of dial-up speed, in much of Downtown. If KUB is installing new client conduit while they’re doing all of this construction Downtown, then great, but it’s my understanding that they are not.

          • Well, I’ve seen AT&T running new fiber in the 600-700 block (Emory Place area) so there’s that, but my point was that AT&T and Comcast are supposedly going to be offering gigabit speeds over EXISTING infrastructure. However, I would in fact be surprised if AT&T does offer GigaPower in the downtown business district since it’ll take away from their actual fiber customers. But I live on Jackson and can get up to 150mbps and work on Broadway where I can also get the same speed from Comcast. Does Comcast not offer ANY high speed services in the downtown blocks of Gay St? Or do they offer it but can’t deliver it? That’s what has me confused as I’ve never seen Comcast limit speeds available in a small pocket of a city for no obvious reason (aside from when they were transitioning from DOCSIS 2.0 to 3.0 and not all of Knoxville was done).

          • AT&T is offering speeds of 100Mbps through 1Gbps under the Gigapower name currently. Use the AT&T website and check availability at 531 S Gay St (The Holston) where installs just started this week. So (some) residential customers are able to get it today in addition to business customers.

            But yes, names are in transition as part of the AT&T purchase of DirecTV. Eventually you will just see things like “AT&T Internet” and “AT&T Entertainment”. U-verse and DirecTV will eventually both fade away.

            As I said, only a handful of buildings like the Holston and West Jackson Row (and Marble Alley I think) have it available today outside of commercial customers. But each building that is added makes it easier to do the next. The Farragut building is being wired for fiber now and the Burwell should follow soon after.

          • Arthur Carmichael says:

            Comcast isn’t available, outside of dedicated fiber lines, on a surprising number of blocks in the CBID.

        • Comcast does not provide ANY service to certain blocks downtown. Sometimes it is an entire block. Sometimes it is one side of the street. Comcast says it is lack of available conduit and/or their desire to NOT dig up all of Gay street to get it done.

          As far as using existing infrastructure to provide gigabit speeds, that may be possible for Comcast using the coax downtown, but for AT&T much of the phone lines are literally over 100 years old. And have 100 years worth of damage and repairs. The cables just cannot reliably support higher speeds. So that leaves AT&T unable to fully utilize the existing copper and having to deploy fiber.

          And then go back to Comcast’s concern about available conduit and digging up streets — it is the same for AT&T. Sure if they take out the copper they could put fiber in its place. But you can’t do that overnight so it is a building by building, block by block effort of expansion.

          I wish it was moving quicker myself, I just want it to be clear that the Internet situation downtown IS in fact improving.

          • Paige Turner says:

            Hi David

            I live in Marble Alley and AT&T gigapower is available here. I personally do not have it so can not attest to its speeds. I don’t want to pay the additional cost for it, as I am not 100% pleased with Uverse.

          • Thanks for the insight. I wasn’t sure what the deal with Comcast only providing service in some areas of downtown Knoxville was. AT&T, I kinda understood because The Product Formerly Known as Uverse is distance sensitive and it’s not like AT&T can just plop down a VRAD in the middle of a densely built downtown area. They’re not exactly small nor are they trivial to install (along with needing available fiber nearby to run to it for backhaul purposes). It does kinda suck that they couldn’t manage to get new conduit installed with them doing all the utility construction but I guess them’s the breaks.

  9. Mark Hill says:

    As one who lives right at that point where Alcoa Highway has become Armageddon (some would argue it has been just that for decades), I can’t help but wonder that when this huge, destructive and seemingly absolutely necessary project is completed sometime in the late 2020s, all those billions will have been spent for nothing, since by then we will all be cruising around six inches apart in relatively tiny driverless pods we don’t even own.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I think you’ve got a pretty good grasp of the situation.

      • Not so sure of that. The infrastructure will still need to be there for those self-driving vehicles. People will still need to travel–even more so–when this becomes a reality and the infrastructure will still be taxed. Perhaps there will be an initial lag in full utilization of infrastructure, but with population growth it is likely the infrastructure will continue to be needed and will also need to be repaired. Parking garages, however, are going to fall by the wayside.

        • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

          It will be interesting to see how it sorts out. The vehicles will be smaller, can drive and park within inches of each other and there will need to be far fewer of them per person.

    • C McQueen says:

      I’ll agree with this. One might also question the relevance of the newly installed “high tech” $1.2 million meter initiative downtown…

  10. Downtown Worker says:

    Worth mentioning Local Motors as well. They developed an autonomous electric powered bus named Olli. One of their headquarters is right down the road toward Oak Ridge and most people don’t even know about it.

    • Is there an alternate link to the full article, without having to subscribe to the WSJ? I’ve tried several Google hits, but no dice, not surprisingly.

  11. MMMMM! That’s what they said about the walking stick sword.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Yeah, I’ve still got my horse. 🙂 The analogy used in the article is that “peak horse” was in 1920 and some feel we have reached “peak car.” Who knows?

  12. Arthur Carmichael says:

    Okay, I’ll play Devil’s advocate: Walk around Downtown weekdays around 7AM when the school bus comes through and you’ll get a good idea of how many little kids live Downtown. Kids are impulsive; their brains nowhere near full maturity, and easily distracted so, sometimes, acting without thinking leads them, at a second’s notice, to run out into a street. The presence of children is the main reason many neighborhoods ask for traffic calming devices. Downtown’s maze of bumpy, patched and repatched streets keeps drivers alert and driving slow. Smooth, easy-to-navigate streets may lead to higher speed and lowered awareness by people driving around Downtown. I’m not sure that’s a net positive.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Good point. Even with the bumps there are places where people drive too fast – with cell phones in hand.

  13. You can have my Miata when you pry it from my cold dead hands….with the top down, of course!. Also enjoyed the deserved snark implied in your “texting” comments.

    • Lyft just yesterday opened a Nashville office and now employs some 500 people, there….per the Tennessean.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I don’t believe anyone is coming for your Miata. There were people who clung to their buggies for a long time, too. 🙂

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