Getting Cars Off the Street and a Couple of National Shout-Outs for Knoxville

Cyclists on Gay Street, Knoxville, April 2015

Today we’ll look at some of the issues we talk about or reference often on this city and I’ll share some of the good reading I’ve done recently on each of the topics. We’ll end with a couple of feel-good shout-outs to Knoxville from a national conservation group for good work being done in our city which may have flown under the local radar for many of us.

First, let’s look at cars and what’s happening in a couple of Canadian cities. We’ll start with Montreal where an expanding number of streets are becoming restricted from car traffic. Streets Blog USA reports that plans are underway to add three more street segments – usually added a block or a few at a time – to their car-free zones. Five segments were added each of the last two years and funding to alter the streetscape for the new projects has been set at $ 1.7 million.

The approach is interesting. A segment is identified for a year-long as a trial period, after which the segment returns to normal traffic, becomes seasonally pedestrian or becomes pedestrian on a permanent basis. They’ve now gone up to 45 car-free segments totaling about seven kilometers. Montreal, with a population of over 1.6 million may not be analogous to Knoxville in some respects, still I can think of some segments I’d like to try locally, how about you?

Next up on the travel list in articles which have caught my eye is Vancouver, Canada. Still much larger than Knoxville, it’s a good deal closer at just over 600,000 than Montreal. I’m including an excellent video about transportation in the city. In the 1960s the city rejected the plan to build a freeway there leaving them, according to the video, as the only major north American city without a freeway inside the city.

That move jump-started their journey toward sustainable transportation. Their goal was to have 50% sustainable trips in the city by 2020 and they have already met the goal. Protected bike lanes have produced entire new demographics to the ranks of cyclists and 130 thousand bike trips are made each day, with 10% of the population commuting to work via bikes. A main thoroughfare allows only transit, taxis and pedestrians.

According to the video, a major shift occurred when the mayor and council shifted from emphasizing recreational and sports cycling to a focus on cycling as a major transportation mode. They’ve recently deployed a major bike-sharing system with 600 bikes and plan to expand that to 1500. They also have, according to the video, “the world’s longest light rail system” and one of the most advanced ride-share systems. It’s interesting what a different course a city takes once it makes a basic decision like limiting large highways in its city limits.

A couple of nice acknowledgements that have come Knoxville’s way in recent months caught my attention. The first regards energy and, I’ll admit, while I knew we’d made some strides in this arena – and our air quality improvements reflect it – I really didn’t know we were in line for national recognition. The U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. recently recognized three cities as having “plans of promise,” that “blaze a path for for sustainable planning and green building.” The three cities were New York City, Oakland, California and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Knoxville Area Transportation Center

Knoxville, in particular, was singled out for an emphasis on “green homes,” with a focus on making subsidized housing and other city construction more energy efficient. They mentioned, specifically, work done at Lonsdale Homes and the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2020. Lonsdale Homes, the article noted, “are the first affordable LEEDv4 homes in the world.” It’s the focus on cutting-edge energy improvements in housing for those who could not afford it themselves which seems to have caught the organization’s attention.

247 Wall Street ranked the 25 cities adding the most jobs last year and Knoxville ranked 16th. While our labor force increased by 16,700 the twelve month period ending in October, the city added 18,000 jobs to out-pace the additions and drive our unemployment rate down to 4.7%, which is below the national average. The focus for us really needs to be on adding quality jobs paying a living wage, however, as the article notes the next anticipated increase in jobs was to be 250 new positions at a Comcast call center.


  1. It’s noteworthy that Vancouver and Montreal are two of the most pleasant cities in North America. Portland is another city that has made great strides toward taming traffic downtown, adding low cost public transit options, and making the city walkable and bike-able. With all the parking on both streets running parallel to Gay, we could easily close Gay from Sevier Avenue to the Mast General Store. What a difference this would make in the quality of the downtown experience at so small a cost in the loss of a few parking spaces.

  2. Josh Shaffer says:

    I think it’s so important to see examples like Vancouver or even Copenhagen where pedestrians and bikes are part of the transportation equation. These are the top examples the world has to offer and the car is still present. I think that proves the point that it’s not an argument for or against driving all together but an argument for giving people choices in their daily commute.

  3. Trena Paulus says:

    They should’ve kept 40 closed through downtown and just rerouted traffic on 640. It would be great if they closed Cumberland to traffic as well.

  4. Cool blog showing Knoxville over the years.

    • Wow, really provides a lot of shocking realization of how gutting the 200 block forever changed downtown!

      Thanks for the link!

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Yep. It’s a good one.

      • I just wish John would resume posting to his blog. I believe family commitments were his reason for not doing this. It was perhaps the first online info source which got me so interested in your city, leading to my many visits.

  5. If these topics interest you, please stay tuned for details coming soon, about the East Tennessee Community Design Center HealthyHappySmart Planning Symposium!

  6. Another city for our elected officials to visit is Denver, if for no other reason than to experience their 16th Street Mall. I haven’t been there in several years, but this was one of the highlights of the week for me after conference sessions.

    • Well, I’ve been to the 16th St. Mall on two visits to Denver. It’s definitely like a stretched-out Market Square with lanes on both sides for free shuttle buses. But it’s definitely not family-friendly like Market Square. There are a fair amount of “travelers” hanging out and it doesn’t have the sense of community (people congregating to chat with one another in a friendly manner; kids running about and playing) like MS. Though legal pot’s been a jackpot for Colorado, for better or worse, there are “travelers” who congregate on the 16th St. Mall who seem to believe pot grows on trees, and you smell that skunk weed in quite a few locations. Not really a warm-and-fuzzy atmosphere like MS. The Pearl St. Mall in Boulder is much more to my liking.

  7. The average pay for a Tennessee Comcast call center employee is $14 per hour. While not tremendous, it’s really not that bad. Not sure why badmouthing a job that pays decent for people with no prior skills and no education beyond high school seems like the right thing to do, but ok.

  8. Pedestrian blocks like Market Square would be a great addition to neighborhoods around the city. The square is clearly a success as a supportive environment for small businesses. When something works that well, it deserves to be replicated in other spots, and Montreal’s trial program looks like a smart way to go forward.

  9. I like the idea of pedestrian- only segments. More walking would be an added health bonus! Also, the bike lanes painted green are a great visual signal.

  10. The father of our German foreign exchange student came to visit at the end of her stay (June) and the first thing he said when he saw Gay Street was, “This would be a really nice area if you banned cars.”

    • Pedestrianizing Gay Street (or at least part of it) would be a great replication of Market Square. It could truly transform the entire character of downtown Knoxville.

  11. I hope our city transportation planners will go visit Vancouver. It really is an amazing city — one to watch and emulate not only for sustainable transportation but for many other innovative ideas. I would love to see Knoxville adopt such a bold and progressive stance on transportation. Having grown up in Canada, we can learn a lot from Vancouver as well as Toronto on city development. Their parks, green spaces, greenways and waterfronts as amazing. (Not to mention their restaurants if you take a trip!)

  12. I think high traffic streets in the city are a problem, but I’m not sure about pedestrianizing low traffic streets, especially if the traffic just gets diverted to other streets. Jeff Speck’s last book advises at most a go slow approach on pedestrianization and I recall Jane Jacobs was an advocate for city streets, she just opposed expressways that rip out the urban fabric. It would interesting if downtown could recover the street segments that it has lost over the years. An article on downtown’s lost streets and the virtues of small blocks would be great to see when you have time!

  13. Bonny Pendleton says:

    I think we have our forward-thinking mayor to thank for being one of the driving forces behind Knoxville achieving some of these goals. After years (too many) of city government which failed lead Knoxville in any progressive way, we are fortunate to have Madeline Rogero heading our city’s government. Unfortunately she won’t have 16 years in office, but she has certainly given us a great start.

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