Smart Trips: A New Director and New Directions

Do you have a favorite department or division of city government? I have several (I’m weird like that), but one of them falls under Knoxville-Knox County Planning (formerly the Metropolitan Planning Commission). I’ve written about Smart Trips a couple of times before, in 2014 and again in 2017. I learned the group is under new leadership and it seemed a good time for an update.

Savannah Robertson is the new Program director and we met to talk about the program, its history and its future. Savannah has deep roots locally. Both her parents are UT graduates and Savannah was born in Knoxville and moved around a bit, but mostly grew up in Oak Ridge where her father is an Engineer.

After graduating from UTC with a teaching degree and teaching for a couple of years. She traveled a bit afterward, living in Hawaii for a time, taught school for a couple of years, taught yoga and moved lived first in south Knoxville and now in North Knoxville. You may have met her as general manager at the Juice Bar when it was on Market Square.

When she saw the opening at Smart Trips, she knew it felt like a fit for her, as it deals with concerns that have been important to her for years. She applied for the position and started in February.

Bus at the Transit Center, Church Avenue, Knoxville, May 2018
Bus at the Transit Center, Church Avenue, Knoxville, May 2018

The organization started in 2004 in response to Knoxville’s poor air quality. Essentially, we’ve sprawled in every direction inside the bowl that is the Tennessee Valley. In 2014, one analysis said we were the 199th best city out of 221 relating to sprawl. With the sprawl comes many problems, but in this case, driving everywhere and very limited use of public transportation resulted in Knoxville being listed on the non-attainment list for air quality. Most of our air-quality issues in the valley come from the internal combustion engine.

The purpose of the new organization was very simple: Help ease traffic congestion and improve air quality. The good news is that in the years since the program was initiated, the air quality has gotten better. Not great, but better. When I first moved to Knoxville (in the early 1980s), the Smoky Mountains were rarely visible from Knoxville because of the haze. Now, its an unusual day that I can’t see Mt. LeConte from my balcony in downtown Knoxville.

The idea is really simple: We need to burn less carbon fuel. That might mean taking more trips on public transportation, carpooling, reducing trips in the car by consolidating errands, do some errands on bike or walking and on the list goes. The organization has tried a number of ways to encourage these and other behaviors. Did you know that upwards of ninety percent of area residents drive alone to work?

National Bike to Work Day, Knoxville, May 2015

If these issues matter to you, please sign up to join Smart Trips. Once signed up you’ll know about their fun contests and events. You’ll have the opportunity to win gift cards by logging in your commutes. Participating businesses are being expanded to cover the counties covered by the program. The program will also help you find people with similar commutes and connect you to form rideshares.

A program is also being initiated to allow participants to translate their trips into Smart Trips items (t-shirts and coffee cups and more) and soon, to translate those points into charitable donations if you so choose.

Events are designed to get commuters to think about the choices they make when they take a trip. Fun contests and pledges like “I biked for my groceries,” aim to get commuters to think of that simple errand that might be completed without an automobile. A map is being developed of grocery stores that might easily be reached by bike. The group hopes to get those grocers involved by offering discounts to cyclists.

Savannah Robertson, Program Coordinator for Smart Trips

The bottom line is that the more people involved, the easier it will be to find a rideshare and to reduce the number of trips we take in our cars. Eventually, some of us may feel we can live without a car, making the air better while reducing congestion.

Savannah pointed out that simple awareness of our commuting choices is the first step in making our air quality better. “If you can opt to bike or walk, it’s better for you, good for the planet and the right thing to do.” Sign up to participate, download the app (Knox Smart Trips) and support this organization today. It helps us all enjoy cleaner air and allows our children to have a better future.

If you’d like to hear more about local efforts to improve air quality and promote a sustainable lifestyle, tune in to WUTK, 90.3 FM this Sunday morning at 10 AM when my guest will be Erin Gill, Sustainability Director for the City of Knoxville, on KnoxCentric. She’ll have good news to share about our progress as a city and word of ambitious new goals.


Editor’s Notes:

I have several events coming up to which I’d love to invite you. Check them out below to see if you might be interested.

  • Urban Hike, Saturday, June 1, 11:15 AM. As a part of Bike, Boat, Brew and Bark, I’ll be leading a walk and talk as I did last year. We’ll follow a similar route, starting at the Market Square Stage and walking across the Gay Street Bridge to Suttree Landing Park before returning to Gay Street where we’ll disperse. Along the way we’ll talk about the city, development and whatever else you’d like to discuss. the walk is free, but participation is limited and registration is required here.
  • Knoxville Writer’s Guild, Central United Methodist Church, June 6, 7:00 PM. I’ll be the featured speaker at the monthly meeting of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild, discussing the writing journey that is Inside of Knoxville. It is open to the public and a small donation (for the guild) is requested.
  • Arts and Culture Alliance, Emporium, June 13, 5:30 PM, “Growing Your Social Media Presence,” Cost is $5 for members and $8 for non-members. Registration and payment are required here.