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

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.