I recently published a couple of pieces about transportation, written by Just John. The first focused a bit more on the network of roads which could establish more of a city grid. The second focused on what makes for a successful, modern transportation system. In a perfect world, Knoxville wouldn’t be so spread out, we wouldn’t all insist on having our cars at our side at all times and we’d have a subway, train or some other mass transit.
The reality is quite different: we are spread all over the central valley and we have buses. So, the question becomes – for the shorter term – how can we improve what we’ve got? How can we encourage more people to consider leaving their cars at home? Dawn Distler, Director of Transit for the City of Knoxville, contacted me and offered to have a conversation about just that.
She met me in the lobby of the John J. Duncan, Jr. Knoxville Station – the Knoxville Transit Center. It’s an impressive building, well lighted, roomy and award winning. It’s capture of space over the James White Parkway and its LEED certification make it one of the best recent examples of applying sound urban design to a building in our city. We wound through a hallway, up a flight of stairs and into her corner office. She has a good view of the Knoxville Coliseum and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
She’s been on the job for six months as Transportation Director, says she loves what she’s doing and the people involved with KAT. She’s from North East Ohio, but has spent the last nine-and-a-half years in Nashville working with their transportation department. She started as an operation manager and worked up to the general manager position.
Coinciding with her hiring, the city made her position a part of city government. The city had always supported KAT. It was considered a city service, of course, but management was provided by a contractor. Mayor Rogero wanted it to be more integrated with city government, feeling that the separation hindered integration of transit with other relevant departments and decisions. This has allowed for Ms. Distler to be in more city meetings that impact or are impacted by transportation issues. She’s part of the process in engineering, public services, sustainability and more.
She’s worked with employees of KAT to help them understand their importance to the city’s development. She wants buses to be more appealing and she understands they need to be more frequent. “It’s never going to be faster than your car, but we have to pay attention to the whole package. The experience matters.” She wants riders to be greeted with a smile and she wants the buses to be clean and appealing.
She wants potential riders to consider that the extra minutes they may spend commuting on the bus, they gain some benefits like being able to text, read or otherwise make their time useful while they commute as opposed to simply focusing on the road and traffic. There’s no worry about parking at the destination which, in turn, means that increased ridership on mass transit reduces the need for parking spaces. Even part-time ridership – a day or two a week – can save hundreds of dollars in car costs.
I asked her how we change the mindset we tend to have of thinking car-first for our transportation. She said she is working with the city to change notices for major events from encouraging people to “park here,” to “ride here.” She points out that sixty people on a bus removes thirty cars – if everyone rides double – which, of course, we don’t tend to do in this city.
She’s got some ideas regarding shifting our normal patterns, wanting to see the corridor routes to downtown – Kingston Pike, Broadway and Magnolia utilized more. She’s a fan of park and ride wherein commuters drive a short distance from their homes to a pick up point – like a mall or Walmart parking lot and then ride into the city. She noted that everyone wins because the parking lots are typically empty away from the stores and those returning commuters will be likely to become customers when they pick up their cars.
The current cost to ride the bus is $1.50 to the rider. The real cost is closer to $7, which the city subsidizes. The budget is $10 Million dollars, but it will need to be larger for any significant upgrades to happen. It’s an expensive business that will never be self sustaining. She wants to improve service to, from and around downtown. She’d like waits to be no longer than ten to twenty minutes. They run until 11:15 PM on week nights and until 10:15 on weekends. She’d like people to consider riding the bus into the city for an evening, noting that having had drinks then isn’t an issue, but acknowledged that the buses will need to run later for that to happen.
She’s looking at the entire operation, including routes. One interesting area she’s exploring is to look with Visit Knoxville at visitor patterns: Where do they stay and where do they go while they are here? Do bus routes exist to get them back and forth? Another idea she’s explored is capturing new Marble Alley residents as riders – maybe by giving them bus passes initially to get them started using buses. Another idea: Rather than building a parking lot with new construction, employers could – much more cheaply offer bus passes to employees.
She’s also been out riding buses with her leadership staff. At least once a month a member of the team has to find a restaurant for their meeting that is on a bus line. They ride to the meeting and experience the bus system first hand.
She’s open to express buses, but I noted to her that the logical path for an express bus – and I’d love to see one that took the interstate from West Town Mall to downtown in the mornings and back in the afternoons, via the interstate – would raise what I think is a class perception issue in Knoxville. I think we see buses as transportation for poor people. She pointed out that in large cities everyone uses public transportation despite social class and she hopes the same can be true in Knoxville. She noted that in Nashville the Music City Star route carries 900 people a day from the suburbs into downtown and back again.
Similar to an express system or to make it effective, she’s open to HOV lanes and she noted that some cities even let buses ride on shoulders. Her point was that, “when people are stuck in traffic and see a bus zipping by them, they be more likely to ride.” She’d like to see downtown events that close streets offer direct service via bus, meaning that riders not only do not have to worry about parking, but they get dropped off closer than they could have driven.
Regarding the trolley system, she feels it is due a make-over and they are looking at the routes. She noted that ridership on the Vol Line is up 21% since the route was altered to include University Commons.
An advertising campaign along the lines of “you could have ridden” here played in venues such as the downtown Regal Cinema before movies and touting bus ridership as an alternative is a possibility to shift public perception. She wants people to see it as fun and effective. They even have people on staff who will help you plan a route and even use it with you, if that will help. I’d love to see some downtown businesses get behind doing this as a group for their employees.
They are exploring apps that show locations of buses and may host a contest to program it via open source with Knoxville’s specific needs in mind. That has been done in Oregon and Louisville with some success. I suggested the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center would be a logical place to host such a contest. Even Google maps needs to be utilized, she pointed out – the “bus info” for Knoxville currently says, “info unavailable.”
Asked for a takeaway message she said, “Riding the bus is fun, it’s good for the economy, the environment and for the riders. People who ride buses tend to be healthier than other commuters.” She said for our bus system to improve and expand, demand needs to be felt. People need to be vocal and they, most importantly, need to ride. She said if you have questions, concerns or suggestions you are welcome to use email or the contact form found on the webpage under the “contact” tab. You may leave a comment on the Facebook page. You can also call 311 to express concerns.