A Little Trolley Talk

Vol Line Trolley, Knoxville, September 2014
Vol Line Trolley, Knoxville, September 2014

I mentioned the trolley when I wrote about the opening of Publix, but I’ve never really talked much about them, so I wanted to give them a little more space. Of course, for those of you reading this who have never been to downtown Knoxville, we don’t actually have proper electric trolleys, rather we have hybrid/propane powered (since 2003) buses painted to look like trolleys. Most importantly, perhaps, they are free for anyone to ride. I couldn’t find the beginning date for this version of trolleys in the city, but I first rode one, along with my grandmother and Urban Daughter, sometime in the late 1980s.

As I said in the previous article, the Vol Line, which is the one that goes to campus, and now to Publix, is the first really useful line to me and caused me to start paying more attention to trolleys. I’ve ridden that line three times now, and Urban Girl and I also rode the other lines: the Downtown and Gay Street Lines.

Trolley Stops are well labeled: Urban Girl and a slightly nervous Jiminy Cricket Wait for the Trolley on Locust Street, Knoxville, August 2014
Trolley Stops are well labeled: Urban Girl and a slightly nervous Jiminy Cricket Wait for their first ride on the Trolley on Locust Street, Knoxville, August 2014
Trolley Fun, Knoxville, August 2014
Trolley Fun, Knoxville, August 2014

Unreliability was discussed a bit in the comments of the previous article after I noted that I waited about thirty minutes to catch the Vol Line to Publix. One reader mentioned this as a problem for going to Publix from the 100 block, as two trolley lines are involved and if each wait is longer than the ten minute interlude promised by KAT, then the trolley commute becomes much less appealing than simply getting in a car. Bill Lyons commented that the longer waits on the Vol Line were most likely caused by the construction on Cumberland. I’ve not had that long a wait since, though it tends to stretch a bit past ten minutes.

Ridership is another concern that I think some people have. Since the trolley is free and air-conditioned, it does attract homeless riders and others who seem marginally housed. I’ve also ridden with other downtown residents, students, university employees, families and tourists. I’ve ridden with white, black, Asian, Hispanic and Arabic riders. In other words, for me, it’s about as interesting a cross-section of people as you’ll likely find anywhere in Knoxville, and I like that.

Vol Line Trolley to Publix, Knoxville, August 2014 Vol Line Trolley to Publix, Knoxville, August 2014

It’s presented some interesting opportunities, as well. Urban Girl commented on the bad smell on one ride, which was the result of the apparently homeless person who sat in front of us. After distracting her until they got off the trolley, we were able to talk about the fact that some people don’t have a home and access to staying clean as readily as she. It was a chance to explain that she is a fortunate person and that the world has many who are not so blessed.  Of course, we also talked about being a bit more discreet when she has such a question. That was very valuable.

On another ride I met a couple from Hawaii. They were puzzling over a map and, obviously, in need of some direction, so I offered to help. They needed to get to the Market Square Garage, so I helped them navigate there after we got off the trolley. I learned that their daughter attends school in Williamsburg, Kentucky. I asked how that came to be, coming from Hawaii, and they said she is a wrestler and that’s where she got a scholarship. She was in class for the day, so they came to Knoxville to pass the time.

Some Trolley Stops are prettier than others - In front of the UT Conference Center, Knoxville, August 2014
Some Trolley Stops are prettier than others – In front of the UT Conference Center, Knoxville, August 2014

These are the kinds of urban experiences that, as many of you already know, I value greatly. The conversation with Urban Girl and with the couple from Hawaii would likely not have happened if I lived in a suburb. I’ve also had interesting conversations with several homeless people that likely would not have happened had I not taken public transportation.

I’ll say a word or two about routes and usage (you can see the full route map, here), though I’m not ready to wade in too deeply with my limited experience. Perhaps some of you would like to do so. First, as I said in the previous article, I really appreciate the fact that the Vol Route goes to Publix. That was a very practical decision that changes, to some degree, the transportation equation downtown. I’d like to see more of that.

Trolley Routes for the three Lines, Knoxville, September 2014
Trolley Routes for the three Lines, Knoxville, September 2014

Also, it seems that if the Vol Line is going to be the lifeline to Publix, the line should be extended to the 100 block of Gay Street. I realize that would be difficult, and would likely require more trolleys, but that’s where the majority of downtown’s population resides, so it only makes sense.

Kristen mentioned a Happy Holler line in a comment, and that seems like an excellent idea though, as Michael Haynes noted, the charter for the trolleys limits their range, so, that would have to be addressed – but I think it should be. The Gay Street Line could be extended through the end of the street at Broadway and out Central to the heart of Happy Holler. Maybe the new route wouldn’t be necessary all hours, but it would be nice for Relix, Time Warp Tea Room, Central Flats and Taps, Hops and Hollers, Bar Marley and others if there was an evening route bringing downtown residents to their businesses.

Vol Line Trolley to Publix, Knoxville, August 2014
Vol Line Trolley to Publix, Knoxville, August 2014

I also wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to have the Vol Line run a slightly different, and later route through the Old City, the heart of downtown and UT campus. I’m just thinking that the hundreds of students who spend time in the bars of the Old City and downtown, could use a lift. I know that after hearing a show in the Old City that runs until 1:00 AM or after, I’d grab a trolley uptown rather than walking up the hill at that hour.

Finally, I’d love to see a program that promotes what I saw one family doing: parking at the coliseum and riding the trolley downtown. In the future we have to train people that traveling downtown on public transportation can be easier than driving in and surely we don’t plan to continue building parking garages in our limited center city space. That garage, for starters, is virtually empty, virtually every day, so why not promote it in conjunction with the trolley?

In the meantime, the more people who ride the trolleys, the more attention they will be given. And the more people who can, perhaps, influence the routes to be functional parts of our transportation system. I’m sure KAT would be happy to hear from you.

I’m going to end with a completely unrelated PSA for a few events that I didn’t note earlier in my weekly planner:

  • The Cutest Dog Contest will happen at John Black Studios and CityFid-o, both located on lovely Union Avenue. For $25 you get a digital photographic file of your pet and are automatically entered to have your dog featured on the 2015 calendar being produced by CityFid-o. The proceeds go to Young Williams and the Humane Society. The event runs from 11-5 both Saturday and Sunday.
  • City People will host an event on Monday. It starts with a happy hour from 5:15 to 6:15 at Ruth Chris. Following that, the group will move next door to Outdoor Knoxville where Carol Evans, director of Legacy Parks, will discuss, “Doing What Comes Naturally,” focusing on outdoor recreation opportunities in the city. An RSVP is requested at citypeople.knox@gmail.com.

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