KAT Reimagined

Knoxville Station Transit Center, Knoxvillle, September 2022 (Photo by Heather Ryerson)

(Ed. Note: Today’s article is a guest post by Dustin Durham. Dustin received his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Tennessee in 2014 and is actively involved with Bike Walk Knoxville. He is a passionate advocate for New Urbanist planning, beautiful buildings and public spaces, bike lanes, and fighting climate change. He has worked with the East Tennessee Community Design Center since 2017 and was recently appointed to the Knoxville Transportation Authority Board.)

Inevitably, when I meet someone new, I’ll disclose how passionately biking and walking nearly everywhere I go. I mean that literally. I live a ten-minute walk to work and a 25-minute walk (a 10-minute bike) to downtown, where my gym is. That means I use my car, Evelyn, once a week to travel the mile or so to Kroger for groceries. I average about $30 a month in my budget for gas. It’s wonderful.

Like most Americans, my choice of location was strategic. Some people choose to live near good schools, or parks, or, in this housing market, wherever they can afford. I wanted to be somewhere that I could live an 80% carless life (while also affording it). I am lucky in 2023 that I have that option. As recently as 2019, though, I didn’t, and my life was largely reliant on an often derided and forgotten mode of transit: the city bus.

Through a strange but true series of events starting in 2017, I saw myself lose a car, be given one for free, lose it a few days later, get another a few months later for a good price, and lose that car within a year. I didn’t know it at the time, but from 2018 until 2020 I would not have a car, not be able to afford a new one, and be solely at the mercy of my feet, my friends, or the city bus line to get me everywhere, and I learned valuable first-hand lessons in what makes local transit good, bad, beautiful, and ugly.

Knoxville Area Transit (KAT, as you likely hear it) is undergoing a redesign of the entire system, and after multiple rounds of public input last year, a draft plan is now live. Public input is open through the end of the month, with a public meeting scheduled at the transit center this Thursday night (2/23), and I encourage you to examine the plans and comment on the new system. The link above gives the details, but I will give an overview of where we are, what a quality transit system looks like, and things to think about as you comment.

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


Where We Stand: The 70/30 Model

There are two general models of transit that a city can adopt. The Coverage Model attempts to cover the most area possible in a city, but with  more routes and routes taking more non-linear paths, trips can take longer, and the bus comes less frequently. The Ridership Model strives to get the most people riding. It focuses on more populated corridors, more popular destinations, and more frequent bus service. The downside to this model is that there may be far fewer places geographically in a city that transit serves, even if, due to lower density, it doesn’t affect that same amount of people.

Last year the Knoxville Transportation Authority Board chose to move KAT more toward a Ridership model. Previously, our resources were roughly allocated toward 50% ridership and 40% coverage (10% went to routes that duplicated services). Now, KAT is moving to a 70/30 split, with more resources focused on ridership. This is, in my opinion, a very good thing. This portion is a done deal based on previous public input. The question now is: what does this 70/30 split look like, and how can we make this first draft of the new system the best it can be?

Knoxville Station Transit Center, Knoxville, September 2022


Quality Transit: Not Feeling Bad When You Miss the Bus

The two years I had no car and was largely at the mercy of the buses, I lived just up the (insanely steep) hill from the Sevier Avenue Honeybee Coffee. One of the absolute worst feelings on earth was walking down the hill and seeing the bus drive by my stop before I got to it . . . and knowing that the next bus wouldn’t arrive for thirty minutes. This is absurd enough for a transit system, but when you realize that many of the routes in town only come once an hour, it really makes you rethink what quality transit is.

So, at the risk of taking a side, allow me to declare this radical statement: a quality transit system is one in which, when you miss your bus by 30 seconds, you don’t have to dread the wait. You don’t have to sweat in the sun or freeze in the sleeting rain. You know the bus is reliable, often, and it doesn’t discourage you to the point of giving up and setting up a tent at the bus stop or investing in a hang glider to fly from the top of the South Knoxville hills to Market Square.

The changes to this system will affect people both positively and negatively. Some routes will vanish. For those along those routes who rely on the bus, that is a change that is negative. But for many, more frequency on major corridors like Magnolia and Broadway will mean that the population centers of our town have more freedom to get around other than by car. This has the potential to greatly reduce emissions and helps create a culture in which we remember that a car is only a freedom-giving machine when it is an option, not a necessity. For our transit to grow, people must consider using it as opposed to a car. That simply can’t happen when you only have the option to get somewhere once an hour or once every half-hour.

Knoxville Station Transit Center, Knoxville, September 2022 (Photo by Heather Ryerson)


Things To Consider

I do not think the draft system is perfect. That would require a lot more money, and this redesign is being done with no change in the budget. However, I do think it is a very good start, crafted by people that are experts, and based on input from Knoxvillians all over town. Ridership is the new model. Changes are coming. I believe that they will be a net good for our city. Before I send you off, here are a few things to consider.

  1. When designing a transit system, remember that the goal is to have the most net positive effect on the most people you can. A transit system is about a city, not an individual.
  2. If you will be impacted by these changes, positively or negatively, please let KAT know! My first point is not to say that individuals do not matter, and that transit does not affect individuals, because it very much does.
  3. Bus ridership is not the only thing this will affect. I have a friend who is a developer and pointed out to me that under the draft plan, the route on Washington Pike would vanish, and he would have had a more difficult time developing his parcel because under current code, anywhere within a half-mile of a bus stop can get a 30% reduction in required parking. By removing certain routes, this could have a negative effect on trying to reduce parking throughout the city and make our town more walkable.
  4. If the new system works as intended, and ridership goes up, in theory it can be a snowball effect for positive change. The more riders there are, the more fares KAT collects, and the more bus routes can be added, as well as even more frequent service. Imagine being on Sutherland or Chapman and knowing a bus will come every 6-8 minutes. Imagine the freedom that would bring to travel through town and not have to rely on a car.

A final note: I asked Alan to allow me the opportunity to write this because as of January 1st, I am one of the four new members of the KTA Board. This means I will be one of the 9 folks tasked with voting on this eventual new system. While I am excited to bring positive change to our City, I do not take my vote lightly, since I know it will affect my neighbor’s lives. Which is why I am asking for your help. Give all the input you can on this draft so we can get it right. It won’t ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to get as close as we can.