Guest Post: Alex Pawlowski looks at Automobiles in Knoxville

First Photo


I always find a jewel when I attend Pecha Kucha. Often there is one and often there are several presenters who are doing something cool and related to our topics on Inside of Knoxville. We’ve talked at length, and often, about automobiles and the impact they have on our region’s air quality, infrastructure and urban design. Alex Pawlowski had some interesting information related to the topic and I invited him to share it here.

Alex has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Virgina, with a focus on Material Science. While there he developed, “a quantitative model on carpooling in the Charlottesville area and the effect on the environment, from a business” perspective. He interned with VDOT for two years in Transportation Planning and Land Development. He later served as Energy and Evironmental Intern with Toyota. He is currently a Graduate Research Fellow with ORNL while pursuing his PhD at UTK in Energy Science and Engineering.

Here’ Alex’s take on the topic, edited from his presentation at the most recent Pecha Kucha:

As a newcomer to a region, one looks around at the morphology of the area and the community within it. I hope to share with you the greater context of automotive transportation as a small subset of the larger mobility picture by looking at an area, many of us know well, Knoxville.

Second Photo

The diagram above is a representation of current houses built before 1940 in the greater Knoxville area. At that time, Tyson airport before its move to its current location was in “West Knoxville”, today’s Bearden. While a dense urban area of industry and housing characterized a town at the mouth of the great Tennessee River.

1970's Sprawl

Slide forward thirty years, and evidence of sprawl appears directly along the highway that split Knoxville – I-40. It is this sprawl that came to define a piece of Knox County and Knoxville’s relationship with the automobile as its dominant means of travel over defined public transit networks.

Second Distribution Slide

Look closely at this photo, what do you see? The colors represent ethnicities in the Knoxville area. Highways through Knoxville effectively separate groups from one another. And how these groups are able to move is impacted by their surrounding infrastructure among other factors.


So, let’s take a look at how Knox County gets to work. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of us drive alone to and from work. A small share of us actually carpools, with as many of us that work at home as walk or take the bus, despite a large bus network that carries over 3 million passengers a year throughout Knox County.

Efficient Commuting

What this results in is not only congestion during peak times along our roadways, but using our energy less efficiently. Cars and Trucks currently require more energy per passenger – mile than even airlines and commuter rail. To match them, we need to raise occupancy to over 2 people or raise average fuel economy to the mid 30s.

Second Downtown Image

So looking at the infrastructure we have, what will we continue to do tomorrow? While it will take time to expand our greenways or find a way for more people to ride the KAT, driving will continue to dominate our area. We have to think about how we can do so with less energy and better care for the environment.

But this isn’t just Knoxville’s challenge, this is emblematic of the United States’s larger challenge: Americans love the independence forwarded by cars. The United States falls near the bottom of the world in fuel efficiency. With larger vehicles and greater sprawl than many nations, our fuel efficiency suffers.

But to get to where we want to be, we have to have a coordination among engineers, consumers, and policy leaders alike. Our combined fuel economy is mandated to near 50 mpg in just a decade. In a scenario where we keep the power constant our average octane will have to change, eventually to where our lowest grade nears current premium grade fuel before reducing vehicle weight to keep pace with the targets.

One factor that hurts manufacturers is when fuel prices drop, the demand for hybrid vehicles also tends to drop in favor of conventional and larger vehicles. However, battery technology continues to drop in price and as fuel prices return to $4, electric vehicle begin to be favored, even when accounting for their higher initial cost.

For at least the foreseeable future, cars will dominate our patterns of mobility, despite denser development in our urban cores. Cars will be mostly gasoline-fueled. It will take some creativity and research in how to utilize fuel ever more so carefully and use lighter materials to meet targets while delivering a vehicle consumer will want to buy.

This concludes Alex’ piece. He pointed out a couple of final thoughts to consider: First, he noted that Jack Neely wrote about the issue for Metro Pulse after Knoxville was ranked near the bottom nationally in public transit systems. It’s important that we continue to grapple with these problems even though Knoxville does have some unique issues to overcome. Alex noted that a head-to-head comparison to Chattanooga doesn’t make us look any better: Knoxville public transit moves 3.6 million riders annually compared to just over 5 million a year in the smaller city of Chattanooga. Additionally, Chattanooga has electric buses and a city bike share program.

And, tellingly, the Neely article from four years ago pointed out that one of our problems is we haven’t developed the supportive infrastructure to make bus stops appealing, noting that they are often a sign hung on a pole over a ditch with a rabbit trail heading toward them. That sentiment was echoed in comments made here when I wrote about public transit last summer maybe that’s a place to start.

I’ll give Alex the final word:

As Knoxville looks to define itself in the next 10-15 years, there undoubtedly will be questions about where to spend tax revenue in continuing to mold Knoxville’s identity. With a large push back to downtown begun with its revitalization a decade or so ago and continued along with new businesses coming to downtown and old city, how Knoxville will move is vital to the area’s success. KAT needs help in establishing ridership. Bus rapid transit systems could be the step in the right direction. We are just one of a few areas that have a National Lab with little to no public transit access to/from the lab, many of which such trips could easily be replaced with a rapid transit bus system between Knoxville, Farragut, and the lab with more conventional bus routes (or park and ride lots) servicing these hubs.
On the biking front, the Legacy Parks Foundation has taken a great step in pushing along the greenways / trails expansion throughout Knoxville and the surrounding counties. As their goal of establishing Knoxville as an urban wilderness draws nearer with large efforts in building trails in South Knoxville that connect across existing bike lanes over the Tennessee, the bike’s opportunity as a commute option also grows. The next step is more bike parking at local stores. As Downtown and Old City fill in, opportunities for greater bike access abound as well as more opportunities for area drivers to grow comfortable sharing the road with bikers.

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