Knoxville Has Great Walkability: Are We Walking the Walk?

Wall Avenue, Knoxville, May 2024
Blocked Sidewalks around the Corner of Blount and Chapman, Knoxville, May 2024

According to Walkscore.com, downtown Knoxville has a walkability score of 85 (Very Walkable). It’s the most walkable zip code in the city. Adjacent areas in Fort Sanders and UT get scores nearly as high. All other zip codes measured in the city are rated as “Very Car Dependent.”

While I can’t find an overall rating for the city, it would likely be rated very low. The score for downtown, however, would rank highly when compared to most cities in the country, though the area covered is much smaller. In the most recent national rankings San Francisco was first with a score of 89, followed by New York City (88), and Boston (83).

Exactly what goes into a walkability score?

Walk Score measures the walkability of any address . . . Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5-minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points . . . with no points given after a 30-minute walk. Walk Score also measures pedestrian friendliness . . .

Our walkability is something we prize and talk about when we promote our downtown. The word “walkable” or some version of it finds its way into lots of official press releases and promotional materials. We’re rightfully proud of it.

If we value walkability and it’s something with which we promote the city, it’s important that it be a primary value, or that we walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Walkability isn’t static. It changes with every brick missing on a sidewalk, with every additional non-pedestrian use of the sidewalk, as well as every improvement we make to slow cars and make crosswalks safer. Lots of decisions small and large either improve, hold steady, or diminish our walkability.

Over the last year I’ve been pleased to see several pedestrian tunnels along Gay Street. They are ugly and sometimes a bit narrow for passing opposite direction pedestrian traffic, but they say we care about pedestrian safety and access. Tunnels over the last year have appeared in front of the Phoenix Building, Gallery Lofts (AKA Mast General Store), the Century Building, and along the eastern side of the 100 block. Each tunnel allowed necessary work to be completed while continuing the primary function of the sidewalks.

But the decisions regarding walkability and sidewalk access never stop. Several recent and/or ongoing sidewalk closures around downtown give me pause and make me wonder if an outside observer, maybe a tourist lured here by our talk of walkability, would be disappointed at what they might find. Worse, some of the sidewalk closures make for unsafe conditions for everyone who walks in the city.

Western Side of the 200 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Western Side of the 200 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Eastern Side of the 200 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

The longest running sidewalk disruption is on the western side of 200 block of Gay Street. Construction fencing, erected in January 2023, covers both the sidewalk and the adjacent parking spaces. A section of sidewalk coming down Summit Hill to that block is also inaccessible. So, a person wanting to the 100 block of Gay Street coming down Summit would need to walk back up the hill, cross Summit in front of Crown Plaza, come down the hill on the other side, cross Gay, then cross Summit again before walking a block to the next cross walk and returning to the western side. Do people do that? Not so much. They walk in the street.

Assuming a person followed the long way around to be safe, what would greet them on the eastern side of the 200 block? A fence that takes up a portion of the sidewalk and support rods for the fence that extend even further. Impossible to see in a crowd, the supports are currently accompanied by burst sandbags on the sidewalk. The fencing surrounding the site for the new Pier 865 installation has been in place for a year with no sculpture in sight.

Central Street at Jackson, Knoxville, May 2024
Central Street at Jackson, Knoxville, May 2024

Some of the sidewalk closures I’ve noticed recently seem to be . . . impromptu. I’m doubtful that the one I observed recently on Central Street in front of a row of businesses including Java had any sort of permit. Caution tape surrounded a lift doing something on the roof. The sidewalk was blocked by caution tape, one end of which was attached to a scooter, the other end looped around bike racks. Doesn’t seem so official. The lift and caution tape blocked the entire sidewalk and a large portion of one lane, forcing pedestrians and traffic alike into the road/wrong lane. Given a recent tragic severe pedestrian injury on the block, it’s not a place for a random blockage. It’s already a dangerous street.

Blocked Sidewalks around the Corner of Blount and Chapman, Knoxville, May 2024 (Note the construction truck blocking the pedestrian passthrough.)
Pedestrian Passthrough, Blocked Sidewalks around the Corner of Blount and Chapman, Knoxville, May 2024

Another that caught my eye is the blocked sidewalk along the construction site on eastern Blount Avenue leading to Chapman Highway. It entered my radar because this is the primary walking path from downtown to the newly opened Kern’s Food Hall and, presumably, the owners would like downtown residents to walk down Gay Street, turn onto Blount and walk to the business down Chapman. Since a large portion of the southside of Blount is closed by barricades, walkers would need to use the north sidewalk, then cross back at Chapman (there are no sidewalks on the far side).

I found a very small walkway through the site along Chapman situated between construction barricades and a fence like the one on the 200 block of Gay Street. At some points no more than two feet across, the supports for the fence required repeatedly stepping over obstacles while traffic whisks by a couple of feet away. An opening is provided at each end to return to a sidewalk or crosswalk. A construction truck parked squarely in front of one end when I first passed, preventing anyone from accessing the small passageway.

The most recent example of a complete sidewalk blockage on downtown streets is the one along Wall Avenue just off the 400 block of Gay Street. It serves as the primary pedestrian thoroughfare between probably the two most densely developed blocks in east Tennessee: the 400 block of Gay Street and Market Square. Work on the roof of Lerner Lofts (the building with the window mural on the side) prompted the closure of the southern side of the sidewalk along the building.

It’s been in place for a month and will continue until the end of June. Pedestrians walking north on Gay and wanting to round the corner toward Market Square, or crossing from the other side of Gay, should walk across Wall and walk down to the crosswalk to the middle of Market Square. Is that what people do? Not on this planet. They walk in the street around the garbage bins, hundreds of people per day mingling with the cars in the street.

Wall Avenue, Knoxville, May 2024

I reached out to David Brace, Mayor Kincannon’s Chief of Staff who directed me to a list of several city employees who agreed to speak to the issue. He also pointed me to the permit request which seems to serve both road closures and sidewalk closures, though sidewalks are not mentioned on the form. The form indicates that work cannot begin until approved by the “engineering division.”

But what are the guidelines that would lead to an approval or a denial? That would be covered by the 2018  Policy on Work Zone Traffic Control.  It references that construction zones should result in “minimum interference to vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic.” But who decides what is “minimum?” Is it simply the easiest for the construction company or developer? Is there a best practice standard?

The 2018 policy says:

The blockage of a sidewalk, bicycle lane, or other public-use path shall be regarded with the same importance as the closure of a motor vehicle lane by applying temporary traffic control practices. The City may require accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists that provide a safe, accessible, and convenient route through, past, or around a work zone that provides sufficient capacity and is also likely to be followed by the pedestrians and cyclists.

Do we really give the “same importance” to a sidewalk closure that we give to a street closure? Further, it includes a list of prioritized acceptable options (the preferred choice being number one) when a sidewalk must be closed:

1. Protect the existing pedestrian route from the worksite.
2. Provide a temporary pedestrian route in a parking lane and protect it from adjacent traffic.
3. Provide a multi-use path in a bike lane and protect it from traffic. The path width must be a minimum of eight feet wide.
4. Provide a pedestrian route in an existing bike lane, protect it from traffic, and merge bicycles with traffic.
5. Provide a pedestrian route in an existing traffic lane and protect it from traffic.
6. Provide a pedestrian detour route.

It appears we’ve reversed the priority list, defaulting to the sixth best choice on the list in nearly every case.

I spoke to City Operations Chief Operating Officer Grant Rosenberg who acknowledged the issue and said it is sometimes difficult to avoid closures, particularly if the work involves facades, rather than roof tops. He suggested calling 311 to report the more impromptu closures that are likely not approved.

Cody Gentry, Vision Zero Coordinator, also responded. A city initiative, the charge of Vision Zero is to eliminate traffic fatalities on city-controlled roads by 2040. Obviously, pedestrians walking in car lanes aren’t going to help us get there. Cody pointed out that while there were no guidelines before 2018, the current guidelines require “acceptable passageway for pedestrians and bikes.” He said, “Our preference is always scaffolding with a walkway.”

He said a team of people across departments make the decisions as to whether to allow closures, but no one person is in charge, which reminded me of the recent recommendation from the consultants regarding parking, that implied one person should oversee parking. Maybe the same is true of sidewalk closures.

He said that the projects on Wall Avenue and the western side of the 200-block required construction difficult to perform without closing the sidewalk. Could the western side have been open for some portion of the two-year construction? Could Wall Avenue have been closed to vehicles, allowing for pedestrian use?

He agreed that improvements can be made and said, “We have to prioritize pedestrian and bike safety as highly as we have automotive traffic. A big part of Vision Zero is looking at the most vulnerable use which is almost always a pedestrian or cyclist. A big part of that is making people feel safe.”

So many great things are happening in our city, and we could point the finger at lots of places that are worse, but it’s important that we continually try to be better, that we never become content with the way we’ve always done things. We aren’t the same sleepy little town we were twenty years ago and sometimes we seem to be slow recognizing that fact. I’m not suggesting every one of these sidewalk closures could have been avoided, I’m simply asking if we could have avoided a few if we really treated them like the last resort as reflected on the priority list produced by the city.

I’m taking my summer trip to New York City next week and while that city has plenty of its own pedestrian issues (IE piles of garbage bags on the sidewalk every morning), in all the hundreds of miles I’ve walked in Manhattan and Brooklyn, one thing I never remember experiencing is a closed sidewalk. I’ll fact check my memory as I walk around on this trip. Maybe I’m forgetting. Still, if sidewalk closures can be that rare in a city filled with skyscrapers, can’t a small southern city with mostly small buildings do at least as well?