KAT Reimagined Update (Bus and Trolley Plans Explained)

Trolley, Knoxville, May 2016
Bus at the Transit Center, Church Avenue, Knoxville, May 2018
Bus at the Transit Center, Church Avenue, Knoxville, May 2018

(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 is a member of the Knoxville Transportation Authority Board.)

Last February I wrote a guest article detailing the City’s efforts to update our bus system to better serve our community. You’ll find that article, which is great background for this one, here. At the time, the first draft of the plan had been released and KAT was soliciting input. I had just started serving as a Knoxville Transportation Authority Commissioner the month before and would be one of the folks voting on the finalized plan. Here are some of the results of what followed.

Facts Vs Clicks

I was discouraged in the Spring with the way KAT Reimagined was covered in both the paper and on TV. KAT staff received dozens of comments (which they forwarded to every KTA Commissioner) and the vast majority of those comments were focused on one item: The O’Connor Senior Center. The draft plan included removing the stop beside the Center and you would have thought that the official title of the plan was “KAT Reimagined: We Hate Your Grandparents.”

Many folks told us we were rude, wrong, or evil for removing service there, because that one small element of a vastly complex and nuanced plan was a headline grabbing, click-bait title that won the day. But it betrayed the facts and ignored the rationale behind the decision. The reality is there would still be a stop less than two blocks from the Center on Magnolia, which under this plan would now have bus service every 15 minutes. Seniors would have more freedom to travel throughout the day without the need for a car. It would also provide far more Sunday service. 

Current KAT Bus Routes
Proposed KAT Bus Routes

But what of those seniors who are mobility impaired and can’t walk two blocks? This is where the reality of dealing with a city-wide system comes in. When dealing with something affecting a city, you have to weigh pros and cons and make choices that have net positive impacts on the most people. KAT has data on each stop and how many boardings there are daily at each them. Do you know the average daily boardings at the O’ Connor Center? It’s not 50. It’s not 20. It’s 2. And that’s *boardings*, not people, so it’s very likely that it’s one person getting off there, going to an event at the Center, and getting back on later to return to their point of origin.

We can’t design a bus line, and especially a bus system, based on one person at one stop. The decisions made for this new plan were based on research, data, and community input. They were not done flippantly or callously. If that one person boarding at the O’ Connor Center was your grandma, I’m sorry. But we don’t hate your grandma. (She’s probably lovely). Yet even with that data and rationale, KAT Staff worked in a way to provide a route that allows the stop at the O’Connor Center to stay. Unfortunately, they did this by removing some services city-wide on Sundays. Sundays, however, are still going to be amazing. 

Sundays Are For Buses Now, Too

I’m a map guy, so I totally understand the focus on the maps showing where the new routes will run compared to the old routes. But the biggest game changer to our updated bus system isn’t found on the map, but on a time table. To fully understand where the resources in this plan are going, and why this will help our city so much, you have to look at the frequency charts – especially the weekend.

Current KAT Service Time Tables
Proposed KAT Time Tables

Under our current system every route on Sunday only comes once per hour. That’s terrible. Even worse, we have twelve routes – that’s over half the system – that don’t even run at all! If you worship on Sundays, or work Sundays, or just generally want to exist and *do things* on Sundays and rely on or want to take the bus, you’re essentially out of luck. Imagine what it would be like if over 50% of the roads shut down every Sunday. Now imagine that for the places you can get to, your garage door only opens once an hour to let you out. This is no way to live, yet this is our current bus system.  

Our new plan is revolutionary. The current system has 6 routes on Saturday with a frequency of one bus every 30 minutes. One route isn’t in service and the rest only come once an hour. The new system will provide 10 routes with a bus every 30 minutes and provide one route that comes every 15 minutes. Even better, the plan (as it stood in the draft – remember that this will change due to the restoration of the O’ Connor Center route) has Sunday service mirroring Saturday service, albeit with the last bus of the day coming a bit earlier. Think about that – we will go from having half of our buses taking Sunday off and the rest only coming once an hour to having every bus line in operation, 10 lines coming every 30 minutes, and one line coming every 15. This is what it looks like to offer true freedom of transportation to a city. 

Trolley, Knoxville, May 2016

The Trolley Problem

Tied for the most comments we got during the draft input period had to do with the trolleys. The comments I have seen the most online since then have been about the trolleys. So let’s set the record straight at what is and isn’t happening. Yes, the ‘trolleys’ are going away. They are going away for two main reasons. 

The first is that, statistically, they are mainly used by visitors, not locals. There are definitely locals that use them, especially the Orange Line that connects downtown to campus, and I personally wanted to find a way to keep at least that trolley, but I am no bus dictator and could not will that into being. The trolleys are just normal buses with ‘makeup’ on, so by removing the ‘bells and whistles’ we will have more buses to circulate on other lines, which will give us more frequency without having to purchase new buses. Removing the trolleys, while the end of a cute bit of nostalgia for many, actually allows us to help more Knoxville residents, which is the goal of this plan. 

The second reason for removing them is two-pronged: the first is that the areas covered by the trolleys will still have service, it will just be on regular buses. The places the trolleys took folks will largely be covered by future routes, you just won’t look like you’re riding there in something from 1884.The exception is the fact that city buses don’t go into campus, but this is offset by the fact that UT has its own bus system. As well, a new version of a trolley, the ‘Downtown Connector,’ will serve downtown, First Creek at Austin, and Depot Avenue. This service may or may not be free like the trolleys, but we have yet to vote on that route in detail. 

Not a lot has changed from the draft plan, and as the new routes and service times are approved this year (each route must be approved separately), I will provide an additional update. The new system is currently scheduled to go online in August and that will include months of outreach to riders explaining the new service frequencies and routes. This plan is not perfect. I wish so badly every line was 15 minutes or less, and that we had at least 6 more routes spanning and circling our city. But we did what we could in a cost-neutral manner, which was our mandate, and I believe to my core this plan will make the city better for everyone. Here’s to a 2024 of better buses in Knoxville.  

To see the Draft Plan (as it stood in the Spring) in full, click here.

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