Time To Pay Attention to the Details, Knoxville (Or How An Aging Cyclist Could Have Met His Death)

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

We pride ourselves on our walkable downtown. We spread the gospel far and wide that we are all about cycling and the active lifestyle that implies. We’re taking care of pedestrians and spending more money than ever on cycling safety. So, we’re all that, right? Maybe not. See, the devil is in the details and if we’re going to promote ourselves in that manner, we really need to attend to those little – and not so little details.

For pedestrians, one of the details to which we must attend is how we handle construction and its impact on pedestrians. Are we happy to have development and construction? Of course, we are. It’s a good thing. Our long moribund downtown has come back to life and is getting better at every turn. But while we construct our future, we have to also attend to our now: We have more people walking our streets than at any time in recent history. We need to keep them safe.

On a recent trip to New York City I witnessed massive amounts of construction – sometimes seemingly on every block – but I never hit a point where I needed to backtrack a block out of my way to continue forward. I never felt compelled to step into the street because of construction. Maybe I got lucky and missed the real construction knots that would have been different.

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

Here we struggle with the issue. We all have our favorite construction projects to grumble about, I suspect. For me, one of the worst was during the construction at the I Love Juice Bar at 2 Market Square on the corner of the square and Union Avenue. The entire sidewalk was blocked for months, parking was prohibited, but construction vehicles parked there all day. A pedestrian approaching that corner and wanting to visit Coffee and Chocolate had three options, two of which were legal and the other of which the vast majority chose.

Legal options included turning around and walking through Market Square, down Wall to Gay, down Gay to Union and up Union to the shop. Sound crazy? The other legal option was to walk back to the middle of the square and cross on the legal crosswalk to the other side of Union, walk down Union (past Coffee and Chocolate elusively smiling from the other side of the street) to Gay, cross there and come back up Union. Of course, most everyone coming from both directions into the mess, walked between the parked construction vehicles, waded into traffic and either got hit or kept going on their way.

We now have a closed sidewalk on the other side of Union at the Conley Building. You see several pictures here. Not only is the sidewalk closed, but so is the single lane on the road. Traffic is routed to the parking spaces while pedestrians use the other side of the street. On the Gay Street side of the building there is a pedestrian tunnel at this time. Pedestrian tunnels seem to be an exception here, while they are common elsewhere. There’s also one, at the moment, on the far side of the Holston as the residents have work done on their building.

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

Construction at the Conley Building, Union and Gay, Knoxville, January 2018

The current project that seems most egregious, to me, is the Tombras Building. I love the building, love the company, delighted they are coming and hope to have an article about it soon. However . . . that mess outside the building is just beyond words. You can see the fencing and the placement of the sign on the sidewalk. If you do what the sign tells you in that placement, you are jaywalking across the street and may get killed.

The legal option if you leave Rick Terry Jeweler and want to walk around the corner to the Elliot is to turn around and walk the length of the block to the corner of Clinch and Gay (at Clancy’s). Cross to the west side of the street and walk back down the block on the other side. You’ll then need to cross Church, cross Gay, walk down another block to State, cross Church again and come back up the hill to the Elliot.

Do we do that? No. We walk around the chain link fence, risking our lives to avoid the long, legal walk around.

I talked to Rick Emmett, downtown coordinator, who agreed there are problems with some of what has happened around downtown construction projects. He pointed out that answers aren’t always simple. Materials have to come and go from the building. Materials have to be staged from some place. It’s hard to do that for a major project and have people passing through the site.

Construction on the Tombras Building, Corner of Gay and Church, Knoxville, January 2018

Construction on the Tombras Building, Corner of Gay and Church, Knoxville, January 2018

The construction tunnels can also bring problems of their own. The city would have to develop specifications for the tunnels. Some of you will remember when the tunnel in front of the JC Penney Building collapsed in a wind storm and only fortunately did it not hurt someone. And is the interior lighted at night? If so, is the wiring inspected?

Emmett also noted that a problem developed with some of our homeless friends taking up residence in the tunnels. He did add that the fees charged for blocking the sidewalk and taking portions of the street have increased in order to give the contractors an incentive to move as quickly as possible out of the street and off the sidewalk.

So, it’s difficult. It can’t always be perfect. But if we expect residents and tourists to experience the walkable city we talk about, we must do better.

And then there was my bike ride from hell in which this aging cyclist could have died . . .

I rode my bike south down Gay needing to travel from downtown to Alliance Brewing. I knew the Gay Street Bridge was closed to cars, but reasoned that surely it would be open to cyclists and pedestrians. It’s a major route for both and work wasn’t being done on the actual bridge, just on the other side. Obviously, there would be accommodations for us, right?

No there was not. That baby was hermetically sealed. So what to do? I could turn left on Hill and work my way a mile or so out of the way to risk riding across the bridge with cars driving high speeds, or I could turn right on Hill and cross the Henley Bridge. I turned right.

I knew this meant I would have to go up a large hill and would have to walk my bike, but as I approached Locust, I realized there was work ahead on Hill Avenue and I would have to turn left or right on Walnut. Left meant down to Neyland and no route to south Knoxville, so I turned right. Which meant I walked my bike because it is impossible to climb.

Construction on the Tombras Building, Corner of Gay and Church, Knoxville, January 2018

Construction on the Tombras Building, Corner of Gay and Church, Knoxville, January 2018

Once at the top, I needed to go west, but Main is one-way going east, so I couldn’t legally get in the street, leaving me to ride a block on the sidewalk generating nasty looks as I wove between the pedestrians. Once I got to Locust, I rode back to Hill, having circumvented the construction, but when I reached Henley, I faced deadly options: Cross Henley illegally in order to reach the south-bound bike lane, turn left on the sidewalk across the bridge or turn left into the wrong direction of the bike lane.

I rode the sidewalk, but at the far side of the bridge, it was blocked by the beginning of the Riverwalk at the Bridges construction. I was forced into the wrong way bike lane and then had to hopscotch my way through various construction cones, barricades and fences across Blount. Construction reduced it to narrow lanes, so I traveled the sidewalk, once again.

Work on the Holston Building, Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, January 2018

Work on the Holston Building, Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, January 2018

At the other end of Blount, back at the south end of the Gay Street Bridge which I could have reached much more safely and in a fraction of the time if it had been open, I discovered that Council Place was closed. This meant that the southern loop of the street had been converted to two-way traffic and the bike lane had been eliminated to allow the traffic flow. I had to climb the hill on the sidewalk.

I survived the ordeal, but it was seriously dangerous. It left me a bit disappointed at how well we had thought through automobile traffic flow in each of these sections, but what of cyclists? When we hand out our snazzy new bikes to tourists starting later this week, is this the kind of experience we want them to enjoy?

One place Knoxville might look is to Nashville, which passed a set of Bicycle and Pedestrian Work Zone Safety Regulations a year-and-a-half ago. It’s at least a serious attempt to deal with a good, but difficult problem. So many people in our city government are committed to promoting a pedestrian and cycling lifestyle in the city, I’m sure we can find some solutions that avoid the situations noted above. It’s all in the details, but the details are critical.


  1. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-bike-payouts-20180203-htmlstory.html

    well, the link doesn’t seem to work. but it is a la times article about payouts to bikers injured riding on city streets. maybe you can fix the link and repost it. I recall an article recently about the railroad crossing on Neyland. I don’t find the condition of the street as a problem. It cars and other bike riders I find dangerous.

  2. I was at a youth in the media conference in Nashville and I heard a presentation by Demetria Kalodimos (a former Nashville news anchor for the die-hard East TN’s or out of staters on here) and her topic was about railroad crossings and the law in TN. Now, granted this was around the early 2000’s, so the law could have changed since, but what Kalodimos told us was crazy to hear at the time; the state of Tennessee does not build a drop down gate at railroad crossings unless a train has collided with a vehicle or if the local govt petitions for it. Furthermore, in most cases, the state will only build a gate once multiple accidents have occurred, usually involving a death or serious injury. The whole presentation was generated from an investigation Kalodimos made with her news team about a recent bus accident involving a train that had killed multiple children. The bus driver was distracted and did not see the train at a crossing on a rural backroad and by the time they did it was too late. The local government had been requesting a gate here for years and now children had died because it hadn’t been done.
    I guess the point I was trying to make is this: Our government, especially in the South, is historically more reactive than proactive when it comes to health, safety and welfare of its citizens. It takes someone dying or someone suing the city for the public at large to wake up and start asking the proper questions and for the government to take notice that their even is an issue. The opioid epidemic is another great example of a serious problem long overlooked until it has become an embarrassment that must be fixed.
    Sorry if this comes off as petty. I think Knoxville, for the most part, does a really great job. These problems are also sometimes an issue of “who’s responsible for what?” between the city, county, and state, often crippling the action out of the confusion of jurisdiction.
    Example: Henley Bridge is technically a state highway so who is responsible for the crosswalks at South Knox? The city can request it, but do they have any power to enforce this issue with the state?

  3. I cycle or walk across the Henley/Blount Ave intersection many times each week. The most exposed and dangerous crossing I have ever experienced, I am amazed that there has not been blood on the street.
    We have had some scary close ones! I have been shocked at the total lack of human concern by those who could address the problem.

  4. The Modern Gal says

    Glad you’re OK. I’m a regular cyclist, and my favorite routes are in South Knoxville and beyond. The Gay St. Bridge closure has all but eliminated those routes for me. I tried James White Parkway once. The traffic wasn’t bad, but I nearly wiped out several times on debris, divots in the road, potholes and other road imperfections. And it’s promoted as a bike-friendly route. Henley, as you’ve mentioned, is a pain to get to and the traffic is dangerous. I’m pleased with some of the bike infrastructure improvements the city has made, but I do still feel like cycling is an after-thought. Just one more place where other cities of our size and vibe tend to outpace us.

  5. I’m glad you made it across Henley safely!
    One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Nashville was to rent a bike at one of the stations and have my friends join me on an “Architectural Tour” of downtown with many stops at different bars and buildings along the way, making a day out of it. I can tell you from my own experience that Nashville had to work hard to become more pedestrian and bike centered in its construction and planning. I think actually having bike rental stations around the city will allow a higher number of everyday people to experience the city and traffic from the perspective of the cyclist. Only once you have been scared shitless a few times because of a design flaw that always seemed normal from a car will you begin to pay a little more attention to those things everywhere else you go and be more willing to push for design changes that otherwise would seem superfluous. I must also add, that in Nashville they had to fight for better cycling infrastructure and protections after they had many many accidents involving tourists that rented bikes and were involved with car accidents or either drove on the sidewalk out of fear of the cars on roads, sometimes harming a pedestrian walking. I personally had my back wheel clipped by a car on Front Street with my friend riding behind me and I wound up flipping the bike onto the sidewalk. I was surprisingly unharmed but promptly decided the tour was done for the evening and walked to the nearest bike station.

    Adopting a law like Nashville would be a smart step forward. I also hope the Recode Knox efforts will pay off in in a similar way for future pedestrian uses around the city. I can’t tell you how many people complain still to this day about how Cumberland Avenue was reduced down for cars and how dumb that was…my first response is that Cumberland had it’s roads reduced to make the sidewalks more safe for the large volumes of pedestrians for game day, the regions cash cow. As a side note, even there on Cumberland it is very dangerous at the construction for the apartments (TENN) around 18th street for students to walk past. A pedestrians option at this location is to either walk in the landscape box, the road, or walk back to the last pedestrian crosswalk.

  6. I’m pretty tolerant of temporary (if often lengthy) inconveniences caused by construction downtown, but the Tombras one is terrible. They’re blocking a lane of Gay St. just to provide a full-time fenced-in parking space for that skylift & a pickup truck.

  7. Peter Scheffler says

    Excellent article! At the very least, we need good information on all these details of construction projects on an app or website so that people can plan their walking and cycling through downtown and so that drivers know to look out for walkers and cyclists in those areas.

  8. Karen Sundback says

    Thank you for addressing this important issue. There really has to be a way that we can have construction AND safe, convenient walking routes. It may require a little creativity and out of the box thinking, but this is not an impossible problem to solve. We have developers who can figure out how to implement and pay for expensive and complicated projects. The cost and effort to accommodate pedestrians would be minimal compared to their entire project. I would like to believe that most developers would be willing to voluntarily do this if they understood the importance of maintaining the walkability of downtown. Isn’t that one of the reasons that they are willing to invest here?

    There are many possible solutions to this problem. For example, if the sidewalk in front of a building really needs to be closed, then install a temporary, protected walkway into the street to go around the work area. I’m sure there could be other cost effective solutions. Suppose a group of interested folks got together to ‘imagine’ how we can have a both a walkable downtown and the construction that we want. This is a solvable problem. Who can step up to do this?

  9. It really is sad that we advertise ourselves as a city for bikers, but can’t be bothered to add bike lanes, even when they are initially promised. Case in point: the Cumberland Avenue disaster. Sharrows do absolutely nothing. The only full length bike lanes I think I’ve seen are near Farragut and nobody uses them. The biker/driver/pedestrian tension would be all but gone if we could find a way to implement bike lanes.

  10. I think the issue is two-fold. 1) I think most contractors are not used to working downtown, especially with the space constraints. I have seen construction workers and vehicles do all sorts of crazy and dangerous things in the middle of streets and sidewalks. 2) I do not think the city of Knoxville is used to having this much construction going on. I think they have done a suspect job of planning, overseeing and managing all these projects. Maybe they are overwhelmed or lack the institutional knowledge to handle it, but Knoxville is by far the worst I have seen at managing construction.
    Job sites begin to spread out over time and are often left totally unsecured. Materials and construction equipment are just left out and take up additional space. There were several times this past year, with multiple construction projects going on, that one contractor would decide they need to block traffic, which would cause a whole ripple effect for people trying to navigate. Almost zero dust control being implemented, another thing that other cities would not allow. I think in general the city of Knoxville is just experiencing some novice growing pains and needs to evolve fast in order to keep up with what is ultimately a good thing, growth.

  11. Good point about New York getting this right. Construction is perpetual in the city but they don’t allow sidewalks to be blocked. Those scaffolding tunnels seem like a simple thing to mandate.

    And closing the Gay Street Bridge to pedestrians and bikes during the utility’s work is plain dumb. The city must be afraid that people would get used to it being a pedestrian bridge and demand that it stay that way.

  12. Great article…. Construction is a double edge sword downtown – we love it and we hate it!

  13. Thank you for addressing this ignored danger. I daily walk to/from South Knoxville along the Henley Street bridge and Gay Street bridge, and fear for my life. Pedestrian access has not even been granted an afterthought. There is absolutely no consideration given to bikers or walkers, forcing us literally into traffic lanes. We take our lives in our hands as there is not even pedestrian walk lights in the construction areas, so crossing to “the other side” is not possible. I’ve raised this to 311 but to no avail.
    Same for months along Gay street downtown. I am in favor of new development, but not at the sacrifice of pedestrian safety. Even the clossing of roadways and sidewalks in order to provide construction laydown areas has gotten way out of hand. These issues should be addressed well ahead of issuing construction permits.

    • Thanks for making these important observations, Alan. The Tombras Building fencing is a huge hazard that I’ve walked around many times in the street, like you did. And I agree with Noel as well. The Henley Street/Blount Avenue intersection is a serious danger to any biker or pedestrian. There is no way to cross safely. The city (and maybe TDOT) is responsible. Will someone have to be killed or seriously injured before they do something about this accident waiting to happen?

  14. David Piper says

    In LA contractors making sidewalk cuts are required to stamp their back-patch so if there is a problem with subsidence or lippage the city, and everyone else, will know who did the shoddy work.

  15. Jerry Caldwell says

    Quality standards for street paving and street cuts and repairs and job acceptance inspections need improvement too. After PACE 10, many streets were necessarily repaved. Even with streets whose surface was milled, when the job was completed, storm drains were left recessed, abruptly, as much as two or three inches below surface of the street. Bikers riding near the curb must veer away from the storm drain pits, increasing the probability the biker and overtaking cars will attempt to occupy the same space at the same time.

    Within a year of Washington Avenue and Winona being repaved, those roads and others were cut for utility work. Better planning, or restrictions on road cuts of newly repaved roads would have helped. But more significantly, rejecting the repair work really needed to be done. The surface of the patchwork is nearly an inch lower than the undisturbed road surface. The condition is so bad in some places, cars ease into the on-coming lane. The devil is in the details, and accepting or rejecting substandard products and services is a detail that makes a difference. Quality matters.

    • Chris Eaker says

      As a former civil engineer, I am always appalled at how paving contractors here are not required to raise manhole lids, valve covers, and drains to the new grade. It’s terrible. They repave a road and you instantly have dozens of potholes. Where I come from in GA, these are always raised to new grade.

  16. As someone who has been going to downtown Knoxville for over 50 years , worked downtown for over thirty, and regularly walks downtown, I don’t agree with one of your comments.
    “We have more people walking our streets than at any time in recent history”
    There are fewer people walking downtown than when I first visited downtown Knoxville over 50 years ago. There are fewer people walking downtown over the past 30 years I have worked downtown. It is only on special events are happening downtown do I see more people downtown.

    I do find walking downtown sometime dangerous. I agree that construction is a problem for walking downtown. The city has been improving some of the uneven sidewalks by grinding them. I still fill a little bit uncomfortable walking. It is sometimes more dangerous than hiking in the mountains . I have fallen on uneven pavements and have had friends severely injuring themselves on uneven pavements.

    As far as the comment on biking. The only time i ever ride downtown is on Sunday mornings or holidays when there is no traffic. I wouldn’t feel safe riding a bike downtown, I actually don’t find it safe riding a bike any place in Knoxville.

    • BRUCE, are you downtown only during the day? Twenty years ago there were very few pedestrians on the weekends and after 5:30 during the day (and I knew all of them). Lunchtime crowds may be lower but the overall number of people is much greater now.

      • I was downtown last night (First Friday) not for First Friday , but just walking around after working. There was nobody there. Only because there was wine at the Chocolate Place that I realized it was First Friday. Maybe because of the cold.

        • It did seem sparse last night, but these days, that’s the exception to the rule. I live & work downtown, and I’m routinely amazed by how many people are on the sidewalks after hours.

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