Improving the City’s Road Network and Transit, Pt. 1

Modern Bus

Today’s column is brought to you, once more, by Just John. When last we tuned in, he suggested removing major portions of Interstates and highways slicing through the downtown area in order to re-build neighborhoods. He pointed out that the I-40/I 275/Henley Street/Western Avenue exchange takes up almost as much space as downtown proper.

One suggested replacement for this interchange is pictured below. Here’s Just John to explain what you are seeing and take you through connecting it up with a transportation plan:

Reclaimed Space from Interchange Removal
Reclaimed Space from Interchange Removal

We’ve gotten rid of the in-town interstates. The removal of the ‘through-traffic’ will reduce by about half or more (typically) the travel needs of the area–but that still leaves 50,000 trips daily, and we can’t simply abandon them to the current surface network as it currently stands: atrophied and disconnected as it became in the interstate era.

But we know from earlier installments that a multiway boulevard can easily in one at-grade thoroughfare carry that many people. We can either thusly upgrade our city streets for better connectivity–Western on the west, Broadway and Central in the midlines, and Magnolia on the east–or we can “start fresh” and create new broad ways in the spaces we created when we relieved the City of its inner interstates.

Either way, we’ve retained (actually improved) the traffic capacity of the network, and simultaneously improved the at-grade network connectivity of our inner neighborhoods.

It is those improved thoroughfares that are drawn in large green bands in the introductory sketch.


Note the large confluence of roads in the center.  The square thus created is quite centrally positioned, and the square and the surrounding blocks would make an ideal site for a grand Civic District.  In the sketch it doesn’t look very large—but remember that of course the streets are much smaller than drawn, and the scale is such that the blue area is about 5 acres.

The ULI in their October 10 discussion recommended moving the City/County administrative offices and other government offices from their current sites in prime riverside downtown property; and they also recommend removing the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum from their current locations.  One person also mentioned, in passing, the idea that the Smokies baseball team’s location contract expires in 7 years, and perhaps the City of Knoxville could re-acquire their location loyalties.

Imagine that this new beautiful central square, bounded by accessible and inviting boulevards, contains relocated City/County governance offices, the School District offices (currently in the large Andrew Johnson hotel building downtown) and a new Coliseum or Smokies Stadium.  Imagine, further, the added possibilities for central retail, residential, and other uses.


So, having completed tearing out the interstates and re-creating an integrated webwork of streets in their place, in order to expand this network beyond these radial spines, traversing-circumferential roadways now must be created.  These streets will carry the local and near-local traffic that the interstates carried, so they should be configured as multiway boulevards (for high-traffic) or complete walkable streets.

The eastern part is not very difficult. Carry the boulevard we created in the Eastern I-40 section northwest along the remnant of HOFA there, northward on Broadway to Bluff Street, and from there along Woodland to the interchange.

The western part continues from the interchange along Oldham Street, through the Western Heights housing development, south two blocks along Toms Street, then skirts Knoxville College land to continue along Ridgebrook Lane through a small housing development there. From there it meets and follows Proctor Street, which completes the traverse by intersecting Middlebrook Boulevard at its Alcoa interchange.

In the end, the large I-40/I-275/Western/Henley interchange would be essentially completely removed. The area would still hold a confluence of several of the network boulevards and major streets: Magnolia; Fifth; North Broadway; Western; the new I-275 boulevard; and contributions from Dale, Blackstock, and the local streets of South Deaderick.   This region has about half as much acreage as downtown itself does, and much of it is fallow or occupied by low-intensity industry.   This opens up an entire district for development, or for park space, or both. Recall that Western and Broadway were re-configured earlier into a grand arc, and imagine the great views that mid-rise or high-rise residential development here could have.

That was the first round. After the city core grows more, we will be unsatisfied with the geographic reach of that first tier of interstate removal and neighborhood reclamation.  Not a problem:  a second tier of interstate segments can be taken down, and a second traversing-circumferential network boulevard can be laid down. The course of this second traversing boulevard is also fairly well defined, though it has more gaps that would require de-novo construction and a few uses of eminent domain: starting at Middlebrook, the road will be created from Liberty Street, Texas Street west of I-275 and Heiskell Avenue east of it, then Central Street, Oglewood, Washington Pike, and down to Cherry Street to re-acquaint with the interstate.

The third tier is of course the current I-640. SPUI or diamond interchanges would be necessary at Rutledge, Millertown, and Washington Pikes.


Current Road Network
Current Road Network
Improved Street Network
Improved Street Network


Top above, a Google Map of the current road network, interstate highways and all, followed by a Google Maps based sketch of an improved at-grade street network to facilitate in-city travel and economic exchange.  First-round changes are solid dark green; second-round continuations are dashed dark green; and third-round changes are dashed light green



The intersections of major streets in a well-connected network – especially those with complete and shared transportation options – can support greater density of development.  People concentrated at these sites, because of the transportation options there, will want retail, residential, transport, jobs.  These sites can therefore offer development opportunities to meet these needs.



The broader downtown including the Fort Sanders, UT, World’s Fair Park, and the developing areas at the CBID’s periphery, as well as the CBID itself – are unique in Knoxville. It is, as Mayor Rogero recently noted, ‘everyone’s neighborhood,’ a local hub of business, education, sport, and residential living. The broader downtown is the only area in Knoxville that puts residences, businesses, and cultural activities close enough together to allow rapid movement from one to another without an automobile.

Owning even a basic used car is an annual expense of over 6000 dollars which represents a huge part of disposable income for those struggling at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. If a low-income person otherwise has no means to access a job, though, it is a necessity. Nothing will help more to improve residents’ lives – particularly those for whom a car is not a luxury or a toy but rather a costly necessity – than the ability to manage daily life without a car.

With this set of exercises, we have improved downtown neighborhoods and thoroughfares, and created an integrated webwork of major streets. Now that a clear hierarchy of streets and boulevards exists, no neighborhood home or neighborhood center is more than a half-mile or so from a major radial or circumferential boulevard.  This is a clear template upon which to lay some transit upgrades.

Simply by placing a good safe, enclosed and respectable transit station at each intersection of two major radial/circumferential roads, a rapid-bus system would have a ready network. If the major roadways include dedicated transit lane(s) this could be even more effective. Local-stop buses could have dedicated service routes within each ‘district’ outlined by the boulevard network, and would not have to stray out of the way on long circuitous routes.

The provision of public transportation has a long history, some of it unpleasant. As recently as this year, the Tennessee legislature tried to outlaw bus rapid transit in Nashville (they failed).  That history colors our perceptions even today. In most places, the only people who ride the bus are those who have no other option.  There are ways to correct that perception, and we must work at these.


Streetcars, a significant part of our transportation history, were great advances in mobility when they were introduced in the 1880s and 1890s – because the alternative was horse, or wagon, or feet. Streetcar service in recent years has been re-implemented in several cities, most famously Portland, Oregon, but unlike in their first life, streetcars do not now offer the same improvements in mobility compared to the modern alternatives of bus, rail, or private car travel. Studies of the economic impacts of streetcar construction are mixed (once other factors, such as Portland’s large associated TIF program, are excluded) for this reason.  What a streetcar line does offer, though, is a ‘pedestrian accelerator’ (in Jeff Speck’s words), a system to improve local flow, and this does help the area.

Our broader downtown has 30,000 students, tens of thousands of residents (including Fort Sanders), thousands of hospital workers and business people, and many shopping and cultural activities; and it is readily possible to link these together.  An actual streetcar would require in-ground tracks and above-ground electrical systems, and so would be costly.  A bus line, though, would add basically zero new infrastructure or operating cost, one the buses themselves were purchased.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the requirements of a modern transportation system, how that applies to our situation and specifically what we might do to get there.





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