Over three years have passed since I first took up the topic of Henley Street. The problem, as I see it, and I know some disagree, is that it is an unnecessary barrier between downtown and Ft. Sanders/UT. It’s far too wide and the traffic far to fast to encourage pedestrian crossing. We have one pedestrian bridge in the middle but, depending on your route and destination, it may be well out of the way. I first wrote about a proposal to fix the street by George Scott in January of 2011. That same month, Jack Neely wrote a piece for Metro Pulse simply titled, “Fix Henley Street,” in which he noted that every consultant ever utilized by the city suggested as much and that it would not be that expensive for the benefits provided. I wrote about it, again, in April and it all culminated with a City Council Workshop in May to consider the issue, and I included an interview with Dr. Lyons as to the city’s perspective at the time. Basically there was no interest on the part of the city to address it or acknowledge it as an issue.
In the space below, Just John makes his return to discuss it and to propose a very different solution to that suggested before.
Here’s Just John:
The Fort Sanders neighborhood and the conventional ‘downtown’ district are not well linked. They are physically separated by Henley Street and by the World’s Fair Park. The complex series of interchanges along Western Avenue, the interstates, and Summit Hill there contribute to the difficulty of bridging these two otherwise complementary areas. A reconfiguration of the streetscapes there would not only simplify the complexity, but would also create space for additional ‘place-making’ to draw people to the area.
Henley Street has been large since at least 1935 (as you can see in this historical aerial map from http://www.kgis.org), so it has a long history of ‘arterial’ traffic use. Henley Street is indeed a busy thoroughfare, with almost 50,000 daily trips, so it cannot be reduced below two lanes in each direction, with additional turn lanes – a wide right of way, difficult to cross quickly. As Knoxville’s downtown returns to vitality, though, the street blocks pedestrian travel, and the expansion of downtown energy, westward. How can these two competing needs find happy co-existence ?
We can find a solution to this modern need by looking to the past. An old street form, long dis-used in the U.S., is having its own renaissance in the consciousness of urban planners and of some DOTs: the multiway boulevard. This type of street is a hybrid form combining fast transiting traffic and local access within one right-of-way and it is an ideal fix for Henley Street.
The multi-way boulevard form of thoroughfare existed for a century before World War Two, and worked well, but like Theseus in the bed of Procrustes, it simply didn’t ‘fit’ new rules for road design developed after the war. Post-WW2 traffic engineering placed (and for the most part, still places) very strong emphasis on strict hierarchical functional classification, based on access and flow. Local routes were to have good access to adjacent property but low flow; collectors increased flow but reduced access to the land nearby; and finally arterials were to have good flow but very limited access to local land-uses. There was simply no room for a hybrid form, even one that already existed!
The multi-way boulevard hybrid contains high-speed arterial style traffic flow, combined with slower local travel, physically separated in the same right of way. Fast-moving through traffic flows in two to three central lanes for each direction. This part of the roadway is flanked by planted medians, which provide separation from one low-speed local access lane on each side, where there is street parking, sidewalk activity, and the relative safety of a local street. A local-lane driver experiences planted medians on the left and parking on the right, which serves to slow that driver, calm the local-access part of the street, and provide refuge for street-crossing pedestrians.
Right of way can be a problem in some places, as multiway boulevards are wider than typical streets, but Henley Street already has a right-of-way up to 140 feet wide, which is easily large enough. I think that conversion to a better form could be accomplished relatively quickly for that reason, and at far less expense than previous ideas of tunneled or overflying double-decker roadways. A multiway boulevard is by design more complex than a straightforward road, but contrary to some initial reactions, research has shown that safety is not adversely impacted.
A multiway boulevard intentionally includes local traffic needs. Not an impediment to through-traffic, a multi-way boulevard can carry heavy traffic loads without difficulty. One recent, and American, example: an elevated highway in San Francisco collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, and the residents voted to re-build it, not as a freeway, but as an at-grade multiway boulevard. The new Octavia Boulevard currently handles 55,000-60,000 daily trips, in two lanes in each direction, yet since the local access is restored, the fabric of the neighborhood is restored around it. (For comparison, TDOT predicts a maximum of 53,000 ADT for Henley Street at 2022.)
Although Henley Street carries many travelers, it also has many traffic lights, so it is already not a ‘quick way’ to anywhere. And the beauty of the multiway boulevard form is that the faster central traffic can carry the same 35 MPH limit as the current street. Indeed, if the turning in- and out-flow traffic that currently slows things down is restricted to the access lanes one can easily imagine it would actually improve flow.
As I mentioned, this ‘type’ of thoroughfare is relatively unfamiliar to American residents and planners. However, importantly, the City’s consultant group is well aware of the form: Kimley-Horn and Associates led the consortium (including the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress of New Urbanism) to create a great document on the subject titled “Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: a Context-Sensitive Approach” (2010), and has planned and developed several boulevards of this exact type in recent years.
TDOT approval has been cited as an obstacle to previous plans, however this conversion would not require a new highway designation, addition of a new highway, conversion of another road to a highway, or creation of a business route, each of which sank a previous attempt. Importantly, the multi-way boulevard type is now in fact an ITE-recommended practice. Further, the Tennessee DOT is actually a member of a “Context-Sensitive Design” group, which emphasizes placing the right road in the right place, in the local context, and in my own personal conversations with the local TDOT office they emphasize that they are willing to work with local agencies for local needs.
How about giving it a try? In my next installment I’ll discuss how to handle the complex interchanges at the head of Henley Street.
Useful Links–Multiway Boulevards and Context-Sensitive Solutions: