Getting Around the City: New Plans for Downtown

Proposed Changes for Downtown Streets, Knoxville, August 2014

Proposed Changes for Downtown Streets, Knoxville, August 2014

Like many concepts in any kind of bureaucracy, the name of this project is probably more complicated than it needs to be, but the “Downtown Circulation and Mobility Plan” is really just about finding the best way to get around the city. Here is the stated goal of the project, taken from the City of Knoxville’s website:

“The plan will develop multimodal improvement strategies that will prioritize certain corridors within the CBID and assess the following:

  • The Gay St corridor will be assessed to determine: the preferred combination of on-street parking versus auxiliary turn lanes, ways to enhance traffic signs and pavement markings that direct motorists, and preferred approach to improving signalization along the corridor.
  • Determine a preferred combination of one-way and two-way streets for both north-south and east-west movements in downtown.
  • Movement of vehicles through downtown and/or to selected destinations downtown
  • Transit service within and through downtown
  • Bicycle access through downtown and/or to selected destinations downtown
  • Adequate on-street parking at or near land uses that rely on on-street parking.
  • Pedestrian connectivity within the CBID and also pedestrian connectivity with residential areas adjacent to downtown

The project limits for this plan are W Depot Ave to the north, TN River to the south, Hall of Fame to the east, and 11th St to the west. Plan is expected to be complete by September 2014.”

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

I attended a meeting to discuss the plans a couple of weeks ago, along with a dozen or fewer concerned citizens (probably the same number who will read this article) and I’ve been sitting on it since then, trying to sort out my feelings about it. I’ll share several thoughts with you and let you think about it, as well. Perhaps you can help me see a broader picture that I’m missing. You can find PDFs of the proposal here. What I’d hoped to link for you was a place to leave comments for the city, but I couldn’t find one. Greg noted below that comments should be directed to Jon Livengood at jlivengood@cityofknoxville.org.

I’ll take the points in the order they are listed above. There are a few changes proposed to Gay Street. If I’m reading the diagram correctly, the biggest proposed change would be to convert a couple of spots to turn only lanes. Sidewalk width would be increased at Union and Gay and, perhaps, at some other locations, though that was mentioned at the meeting and doesn’t appear to be on the drawing.

Proposed Changes for Downtown Streets, Knoxville, August 2014

Proposed Changes for Downtown Streets, Knoxville, August 2014

The issue of one-way streets downtown is highlighted as a problem. If I understand correctly, the concern is that people unfamiliar with downtown are confused when they drive here by the many one-way streets. According to the graphic on the plan, over half of the roadway segments (48 of 80) downtown are one way. This is true in many cities, of course, and as I understand it those changes were made a half-century ago in order to more efficiently move automobiles through the  city. Now we want to reverse course in order to move automobiles more efficiently through the city. Interesting, right?

What wasn’t anticipated a half-century ago was that cars without opposing traffic tend to go faster and that merchants along those roads have their passing traffic cut in half, perhaps hurting their business. So, the move has been to reverse course. My primary concern here is that as a pedestrian, I feel very safe crossing our tiny side streets with one direction of traffic. Two directions doubles a pedestrian’s risk. Add multiple new possible turn directions and it’s worse.

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

But look closely at the one way streets that are being made two-way. State Street makes perfect sense, as Marble Alley will put additional strain on that road and a two-way street will ease some of that strain. Clinch will be made two-way from State to Walnut. I understand State to Gay, but the narrow remaining portion west of Gay seems unnecessary and I can’t see how it helps any traffic flow that I know of. It’s currently a pretty sedate street. Parking and trees will also be lost on that stretch.

Two blocks of Locust and Walnut are slated to be changed from one-way to two-way, between Union and Church. I don’t have any problem with that, but I don’t understand why it stopped there. The remainder of those streets will continue to be one-way. In fact, looking at the broader picture, if there are 48 one-way segments downtown and we feel that is a problem, why are we only changing nine of them? Clinch is the only street that will become two-way all the way through.

Equally confounding to me is the idea that Union between Locust and Walnut, which is current two-way will be altered to a one-way street in direct opposition to what’s being done every where else. Why? Many of the streets becoming two-way have no retail presence facing them, so none will be helped. Union Avenue is one of our best stretches of retail outside the immediate Market Square area and we plan to make it one-way?

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

Meeting on the Downtown Mobility Plan, Knoxville, August 2014

Also, nothing at all changes south of Church or north of Summit Hill – including Summit Hill, which I consider to be one of the biggest problem streets in the city. The scope of the project as laid out above is from Depot to the River and from Hall of Fame to Eleventh Street. This proposal doesn’t come anywhere near those outer boundaries. When I asked about Summit Hill at the meeting I was told that it wasn’t included in their area of focus, which confuses me still when I see the above description.

There will be a net loss, though small, of on-street parking spaces, which seems to run counter to the bullet point on that topic. While I don’t feel as strongly about that, it is my understanding that on-street parking is considered a good thing for pedestrians because it separates them from the moving vehicles on the street. That idea didn’t appear to be on the radar when this plan was developed.

And that brings up my biggest concern: While two bullet points of the seven address pedestrian and bicycle access and connectivity, I didn’t find anything in the plan that seemed directed toward those groups. It appears to me to be a plan for cars and really only a plan that addresses a small percentage of the one-way streets and a tiny sliver of the area laid out in the directive which are supposed to be a problem for drivers.

I know that we are an automobile culture. I know the automobile will be given great consideration. But hasn’t it been already? We have a super-sized Henley Street and Summit Hill Avenue downtown. We have an Interstate, James White Parkway and Hall of Fame Drive commanding large swaths of downtown real estate to serve the automobile. We have multiple parking garages and we’re building another to store all those automobiles. I’m just looking for some thinking directed at pedestrians and cyclists.

I know a very large percentage of people downtown chose to drive in, and in some cases, that’s their only choice. The percentage of people who are downtown at any given moment who got here in a car is probably 90% or more. But once they are here, guess what? 100% of them become pedestrians – people walking the streets who need to be a focus as much as the automobiles that got them here.

Finally, what are our connectivity issues downtown? They are at the fringes. How do we connect Fort Sanders and downtown proper? How do we connect new development north of the tracks with downtown proper? How do we cross the barrier presented by James White Parkway and Hall of Fame, so that moving from downtown toward the east doesn’t feel like entering another world? And most importantly to me: how do we connect downtown to the river in simple, visible and appealing way? These are all issues that fall within the area outlined by the original charge, yet none of them are mentioned by the proposal.

Comments

  1. Bob Davis says:

    Why encourage more cars downtown? Too much waste of space. Rather more satellite parking garages that the current trolleys can access. Maybe a rail route from Ijams on the south side to Central Avenue and a block east to get within two blocks walk of the brewery.

  2. We’ll there has to be a good balance if you don’t make it easily accessible to motorist as well as foot traffic than you will discourage people from visiting who have to drive to get downtown. Which I am guessing is a large percentage of the folks there. Right now I really don’t see an issue for walking and getting around on foot. There are sidewalks, cross walk signals, hardly any really high traffic streets, what’s the issue? And I defiantly do see an issue with vehicle traffic those one-way streets are a pain and discouraging. I think downtown has bigger fish to fry currently such as all these empty surface parking lots on what you would think would be prime property.

  3. People are taking this whole walk ability thing way to far. I’ve spent a lot of time walking downtown and never had a problem. I can’t imagine how these folks would survive in a place like DC or NY. I would definitely be praying for their lives.

    • Chris Eaker says:

      Jay, I don’t think it’s so much about walkability — downtown Knoxville is fairly walkable, as most downtowns are — but more about wishing the City would give preference to walkers over cars. The more they do to make it easier for cars, the harder it is for walkers and cyclists. Other cities have made the decision that they will no longer give preference to cars and their downtowns have thrived because of the increased pedestrian activity. Take Main Street in Greenville, SC, for example. By making not very inviting for a car just passing through — too slow and too many pedestrian crossings — they really made it great for people on foot. Knoxville could do something very similar on Gay Street or Union Avenue, but they are still looking at “improvements” through the lens of “what makes it easier for a car to drive through?”

  4. Just John says:

    Urban Guy, thank you for attending the meeting and reporting the flaws in the City’s proposals. I wrote a message to the City (in this case, Jon Livengood at jlivengood@cityofknoxville.org) with my concerns, and I encourage everyone to do the same–for the same concerns, or your own. I included my words, below–feel free to copy-paste if you don’t have time to write your own.

    ———
    Hello Mr. Livengood:

    I want to thank the City and your personnel for including resident input as you develop a plan to re-orient downtown traffic flows. It’s difficult to re-imagine an existing system, and I applaud you for the effort.

    I have some comments:

    The goal of the plan is to improve mobility–but that must include ALL travelers, including pedestrians and bicycle users. The plan as it was revealed at the recent meeting falls short in several important ways, and actually worsens the downtown experience for pedestrians. I beg you: please do not allow this to stand.

    In short: The plan’s remodeling of Clinch Avenue destroys the pedestrian experience; the plan fails to address the south-bound left turn at Union Avenue, and actually makes that site worse; it fails to address pedestrian crossings, despite a ready and beautiful example at the 100 Block; it fails to address the difficulties imposed by Summit Hill, Neyland Avenue, James White Parkway, and Henley Steeet; and it does nothing to foster connectivity between downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods.

    1. The proposed remodeling of Clinch Avenue is unacceptable to pedestrians–for several reasons.

    To convert Clinch Avenue to two-way flow requires widening the roadway, which in turn requires the removal of the beautiful trees lining the blocks west of Gay Street. The presence of street trees is a GOOD thing: trees soften the hard edges of urban streets; they introduce motion and visual interest; and they cool the walks beneath them. In short, they welcome pedestrians, and for that very reason the City just finished paying millions of dollars to introduce them to the 100 Block of Gay Street.

    To widen Clinch Avenue between State Street and Gay Street requires stripping the on-street parking–removing a pedestrian safety feature and actively countering other City plans to increase parking downtown. It removes the only place that tour buses can park when they play the Tennessee Theater. It also requires–if the images provided at the meeting are accurate–removing the southern sidewalk. This makes no sense at all: it strands the Tennessee theater offices without access; and it even further discourages pedestrian use.

    To widen Clinch Avenue west of Gay Street also requires similar damage–again, if the images are accurate. The plan removes the sidewalk on the south side of the Holston Building–again, destroying the. Walkability of the street. This is completely counter to the states goals of the plan.

    2. The plan inexplicably fails to address stacking of traffic at the worst intersection along Gay Street–the left turn for southbound traffic at Union Avenue.

    The sketch keeps a single travel land southbound, and actually worsens the situation by widening the sidewalk too far northward by Regions Bank. Now, I applaud widening of sidewalks–and I’ll address that again below–but in this particular site there is no need for so much of it. I also applaud on-street parking, since it helps both pedestrians and drivers enjoy their city, but again by extending parking along the west side of the block all the way to the sidewalk bulb-out, the plan ignores a ready solution.

    The pedestrian bulb-out assisting the crossing of Gay Street south of Union Avenue should be shortened so that it doesn’t extend northward beyond the opposing sidewalk on the eastern side at the Hackney building. The parking lane on the western side of the street should be shortened by one-third, with it ending at a tree-planted sidewalk bump-out (like the ones the City paid so much to install at the 100 Block) across from the Downtown Grill or thereabout. This will create the space to paint a dedicated left turn lane there, with only a slight chicane for the travel lane.

    3. The plan fails to assist pedestrian crossings at most Gay Street intersections–and at the single site it does include wider sidewalks, this WORSENS the flow (see the second point) !

    As I said in that discussion, pedestrian intersection bulb-outs are wonderful things–they slow the passing traffic without obstructing it; they narrow the pedestrian crossing distance by about half; and they provide space to beautify the street with planted trees, street furniture, and sites of pedestrian respite.

    Many people say that the new 100 Block of South Gay Street is the most beautiful block downtown–and I agree with them. The tamed traffic, the on-street parking, and the street trees accomplish that. At each Gay Street intersection in the geographic scope of the plan, where it is possible, the City should recognize the benefits of bulb-outs, and install them. Of course, this cannot be accomplished at every single site–obviously, I spent two paragraphs discussing why it’s a BAD IDEA at the west side of Union-Gay.

    Bulb-outs shouldn’t be confined to corners, either. A bulb-out at mid-block within each street-parking area would help as well–by physically interrupting the lane, each bulb-out would reinforce the idea that “this lane is not for traveling;” and, as always, each would provide a site for planting, street furniture, or respite. Again, simply look at the 100 Block for guidance.

    4. It fails to address the problem-streets bordering and confining downtown.

    Summit Hill should be straightened at its western and eastern downtown curves, re-installed into the city grid there. This provides opportunities for green spaces and for improvement of the Treble Clef park. The middle straight segment should be narrowed to one travel lane in each direction, as traffic ADT numbers clearly do not support its current size; and the outer lanes should receive the same treatment as Gay Street–parking and bulb-outs.

    Henley Street, Neyland Avenue, and James White Parkway are monstrosities that require taming. Each in truth merits its own long discussion, but a short-answer solution is this: reinvent these in-city highways as multiway boulevards, and welcome pedestrians and storefronts back to the streets there.

    5. It fails to address inter-district connectivity–the most important kind of ‘mobility’ if the City’s aim is to make downtown more accessible.

    A re-imagining of the border streets–Henley Street, Summit Hill, James White Parkway, and Neyland Avenue–would go a long way toward achieving that goal, though even more could be done. The City simply MUST RECONCEIVE the giant interchange at Henley Street and the interstates. This junction is almost as large as the whole downtown district ! The specifics would require a long thought and discussion, but IT CAN BE ACHIEVED–and it would help link downtown, Fort Sanders, World’s Fair, and the northern-downtown neighborhoods.

    I request that the City and the consultancy consider these requests when you go back to the drawing-board.

    Thank you.

  5. Jim Williams says:

    Allan…your summary is right on target…not sure what problem this study is really trying to address. I may be a bit prejudiced since I live at the corner of Gay and Clinch, but I think that section is one of the prettiest streets in downtown Knox. Eliminating the trees is one thing that will not go over well, but also eliminating the parking islands would have traffic buzzing down Clinch about 5′ from the Holston building as the sidewalks are very narrow…a very pedestrian-unfriendly approach to all that walk that route daily, as well as on game days to use the trolleys.

  6. Chris Eaker says:

    I don’t see how this would be any less confusing than what we currently have. Some of the changes, like converting Union to one-way in front of the Daylight Building, don’t make any sense. I know the engineers who did this plan must have completed a traffic study, but the recommendations seem counter to what seems common sense.

    The City is wasting a huge opportunity here to make substantial changes with the traffic flow downtown, a la the ideas presented by Just John over the last several posts. They are just tweaking something that needs an overhaul.

  7. I’m still lobbying for a downtown chairlift network.

  8. You make great points Urban Guy. Personally, I like the one way streets. I know I feel safer crossing them and they are easy for biking too. I’m not sure what that gains making Union Ave one way in front of the Daylight Building. Is it to keep traffic from circling to Locust St garage? Will it funnel traffic easier to the new garage under construction? I wonder if they’re going to be adding street parking with meters there since sometimes people park along the curb creating a one way street anyway. I do agree about State Street becoming two ways, it is so wide in that portion that people are always going the wrong way trying to get from Union Ave to the State Street Garage, or going the wrong way out of the Promenade Garage, drivers seem very confused on that street.

  9. Art Wagner says:

    Your final topic of car transportation vs. other modes continues to be one that is way too easy to ignore because of the physical and psychological issues involved. Knoxville, like many other cities, has had 50+ years of unfettered devotion to the needs of automobile users, and that has altered the landscape. In fact, the issue has even devolved into a political argument, with conservative voices equating private automobiles with personal freedom, and public transportation equated with either socialism or a perk for “the takers.” This was easier when Knoxville had neither the amount or density of population to make public transportation feel essential. However, as the population density of Downtown/UT grows before our eyes, and with it the traffic, those regressive and strident voices of the automobile (and socio-political) status quo have to be overcome by the reality of future transportation needs. Otherwise, Downtown’s miraculous revitalization will slow, discouraged by the cliche that it is so crowded, no one goes there any more.

  10. Well said. It seems like there is not an issue with people’s ability to get around, but an issue with people knowing how to get around. Knoxville is one of the easier cities to get in, out and around. Even when compared to similar cities like Ashville and Richmond. Most people know 1 or 2 routes to their downtown destination and will take those routes no matter what, even if there are several other routes that would route them around traffic. This just comes with a familiarity with driving downtown. For those that are new to downtown driving, the city could do a better job with signage to avoid confusion. There are lots of places where the one-way streets are just not marked that clearly.

  11. Leticia Flores says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Alan. Being a new downtown dweller, these issues resonate much more for me and my spouse. We both commute from downtown to UT, so walking and biking to work are now (theoretically) more attractive and practical for us than getting in our car to drive. We join hundreds of UT students living downtown who might already do this or want to do this. Having a regular, reliable trolley system, bike trails and easier walking trails will cut down on downtown motor traffic significantly. It will also put more humans out on the street versus cars, buying more food and stuff from stores, checking out books from the great library, and getting to know their neighbors. Extending the footprint of trails and trolleys will also allow our 4th and Gill/Old North friends and our friends across the bridges to the south to walk and/or bike (and spend their money) downtown with us. I’m curious how all of the plans you mention relate to the big construction project down Cumberland avenue?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      I’m not sure there was an coordination or consideration at all of the connection to Cumberland. I would love to see major investment made in finding ways to connect Ft. Sanders and UT to downtown. A person can get between them, but improvements to those linkages seem to be very slow coming.

  12. Good summary of the issues. A much better job than the paid consultants did.

    After the meeting I asked where to direct comments, and was told to direct them to Jon Livengood whose email is on the page you linked to: http://www.cityofknoxville.org/downtownmobility/

    Making Clinch two-way really annoys me because I live on it. As you said, the change will eliminate street trees and curbside parking (making the street less pedestrian friendly). The Farragut Building entrance is on Clinch, and making the street two-way will eliminate their loading zone. Good luck finding a buyer for that building If that happens.

    A two-way Clinch isn’t a very useful new cross-town route. Cars exiting I-40 at Henley can’t get over to turn left at Clinch (there aren’t even any left turn lanes at the intersection). The only cars helped by the change are the ones coming from Fort Sanders, and there are very few of those. So the plan caters to mythical traffic at the expense of real pedestrians, and at the same time makes it more difficult to redevelop the Farragut.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Thanks for remembering the contact information. I’ll add it above. Somehow I thought I understood there would be a format on the page for input.

    • Greg you are so right. I live at the YWCA. My room over looks Clinch. The traffic is heavy pedestrian with folks from the Fort and Hotels and or parking. The Vol Trolley and Hospital Kat buses are full going by. A rare car or two will come by if at all. The trees make this street more of an offshoot of Krutch Park and off set the big open parking lots across from the Y. With trees gone you will make it a desolate, no charater heat zone.

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