Knoxville’s Bike Plan Maps Out a Decade’s Worth of Improvements for Bicyclists—But Can It Find the $38 Million?

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The Knoxville Bike Facilities Plan Report released in February makes the bold claim that “Knoxville, Tennessee is experiencing a bicycling renaissance.”

Is it, really? Maybe.

An April 8 public meeting introducing the city’s new bicycle plan drew a near-capacity audience at the East Tennessee History Center. In her opening remarks, Mayor Madeline Rogero observed that 2013 was the first year the city set aside money—about $60,000—to fund bicycle-related projects. In 2015, the city budgeted $250,000 for bicycle infrastructure. But with over 220 projects planned at a projected cost of $38 million over 10 years, the city may have to get creative with funding sources as it begins implementation. The developers of the bike plan say they are counting on state, federal, and private grants to put the plan into action.

The bike facilities plan was developed by the city engineering department, the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, the consultant group Kimley Horn, Toole Design group, and a steering committee of bike advocates. It’s a flexible blueprint for future bike lanes, signed bike routes, and lane markings within the city. The list of projects is ranked in priority, based on factors like existing dangerous conditions and possible connections between popular destinations. (See sidebar below.) Bike advocates say increased bike use will promote health, improve the environment by reducing car use, and allow people without cars a mode of cheap transportation.

The public meetings on the plan have drawn lots of positive comments and gestures of support by local bike advocates, and the Rogero administration has been taking pro-bike measures, evidenced by its 2013 creation of an alternative transportation coordinator in the engineering department. Still, the bike plan faces challenges—namely, finding the money to pay for it while also overcoming a car-centric culture.

According to city communications director Jesse Mayshark, the city intends to start implementing the plan with next year’s budget. Rogero will announce the exact amount proposed for 2015-16 at her State of the City address on April 29—and, like the rest of the budget, it will be subject to approval by City Council. “But the bike plan is definitely a priority,” Mayshark says. “Obviously, any other funds—state, federal, etc.—will help do more things sooner.”

Jon Livingood, the city’s alternative transportation coordinator, has been seeking out those other funding sources. In addition to applying for a Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Improvement grant to fund improvements to Chapman Highway (see sidebar below), he has also submitted for the TDOT Multimodal Access Fund, which could fund improvements to Kingston Pike along the West Knoxville bike route. Some other grants he plans to apply for range from the relatively small nonprofit People for Bikes to the Transportation Alternatives Program, which is federal money managed by TDOT. Livingood aims to patch together these various sources of money to fund the bike projects piecemeal, with the idea that having an overall bike plan on paper will make the city’s requests more appealing to potential grant funders.

The city’s installation of bike facilities has received a little pushback in the past year. One local business owner complained about new bike lanes in front of his store, Livingood says, as well as opposing the conversion of one street-parking space near his front door to bike parking, complete with racks.

“His reaction was instant anger. It blew my mind. He wanted it to go back to four lanes of cars in front of his store,” says Livingood, adding that some people don’t understand the benefits of bicycles.

That public-relations gap presents another problem for the plan: How likely will the city be able to carry out its ambitious slate of projects if the plan lacks widespread public support?

“It’s likely if people speak up and email their councilpersons and the mayor and become more active in the county,” says Monika Miller, one of the organizers behind the 4th Annual Tennessee Bike Summit, which is meeting April 23-24 at the Knoxville Convention Center to specifically address how cities can better accommodate bicycles. “There is plenty of understanding for why these facilities are needed on a city level, but in order to justify it financially, people need to reach out to their elected officials. Then it’s absolutely possible.”

Miller spent her teenage years in West Knoxville, where she was frustrated by the lack of bike facilities. After college she briefly lived in Portland, Ore., a city famous for its bike infrastructure, and returned to Knoxville with a renewed sense of possibility. She reached out to TPO’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and got involved.

Miller and Caroline Cooley, unpaid volunteers, are the principle organizers of the TN Bike Summit, with help from Livingood, TPO’s Kelley Segars and Ellen Zavisca, and the advocacy group Bike Walk Tennessee. Cooley is a founding member and current president of Bike Walk TN’s local chapter, Bike Walk Knoxville. Miller, an architect at Elizabeth Eason, and Cooley, a physician at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, both regularly bike to work.

“As a physician, I see the health consequences of people not having what Monika calls ‘incidental activity’ in their lives,” says Cooley. “It’s having a sidewalk in front of your house. It’s walking to meet your friends.”

In other words, it’s exercise people get almost by accident as a result of a city that allows physical activity to be an ordinary part of everyday life, something for which Cooley has advocated for years through Bike Walk TN. But can progressive bike and pedestrian infrastructure affect real change in the health and culture of a city?

Liliana Burbano, project coordinator of Knox County Health Department’s Healthy Kids Healthy Communities program, attended the public bike meeting with her toddler, Gabriela, on her lap. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Burbano witnessed firsthand her city’s civic awakening through bike- and pedestrian-infrastructure improvements initiated in the 1990s by Mayor Antanas Mockus and continued by Mayor Enrique Penalosa and his brother, commissioner of parks Gil Penalosa.

Burbano is an enthusiastic supporter of Bogotá’s infrastructure changes, famous worldwide in public-health circles, which she says benefited the whole city by promoting a culture of healthy physical activity and even strengthening democracy by making public spaces enjoyable for young, old, rich, and poor residents alike. Burbano says Bogotá’s network of bike paths allowed her to use the city as never before, encouraging her to bike to places like the library and park.

“Before the ciclorutas, I never did it, comfortably,” Burbano says. “The fact that you were completely separated gave you confidence. [The city planners] understand that bicyclists and cars are not on the same level, therefore they cannot be in the same space. When a bicyclist hits a car, who’s winning? The car.”

Burbano is what planners call an “interested but concerned” potential biker. Since moving to Knoxville in 2009, she has not bicycled like she did in Bogotá.

“It’s too dangerous,” Burbano says, “I have the desire. I live close to work—it should take like 20 minutes. But it is so dangerous. People are so rude to bicyclists.”

Gil Penalosa, that former Bogotá commissioner of parks and now executive director of the non-governmental organization 8-80 Cities, happens to be the featured guest speaker at the TN Bike Summit. 8-80 Cities advocates for safe, navigable cities for all, especially the very young, the very old, and the poor—groups less likely to drive cars. His talk, “Creating Vibrant and Healthy Communities,” will be part inspirational speech and part reality check for Knoxville’s bike advocates.

“We need to be bold, and we need to be ambitious,” Penalosa says, “We need to move from talking to doing.”

In Penalosa’s experience, two major changes effectively get large numbers of people biking and walking. First, Penalosa is adamant about the benefits of lowering car speeds. If a car hits you at 40 mph, you have an 85 percent chance of dying, he says. If the car is going 20 mph, the chance of death drops to 5 percent.

Second, Penalosa advocates constructing a citywide grid of protected bikeways, like the ciclorutas he oversaw in Bogotá, ensuring people can bike comfortably between destinations like libraries, parks, and markets. If bikes are to become a major form of transportation, the city needs serious infrastructure that keeps bicyclists safe from cars and facilitates good routes, Penalosa says. An ideal bikeway is a paved trail, completely separate from car traffic by a median or even taking a divergent route, maybe meandering through scenic woods and along waterways, as is the case with our existing greenways. Bike racks, signed routes, and painted sharrows are nice features for confident bicyclers, says Penalosa, but they don’t work to encourage the majority of people to feel safe enough to get out and bike.

Unfortunately, the level of desirability for bicyclists coincides with cost. Sharrows, the painted arrows
on the road that indicate vehicular traffic and bikes will share the lane, cost $4 a linear foot, and the plan calls for 6 miles of additional marked pavement. Meanwhile, a separated bike lane with road widening costs $362 per foot, with an additional 5 miles of bike lanes included in the plan.

Can Knoxville find the money and the will to fund both?

Sidebar: The Bike Plan’s Top Three Projects

In 2013, former city hydrologist Jon Livingood was hired by Knoxville director of engineering Jim Hagerman, an avid bicycler himself, to become the city’s first alternative transportation coordinator, overseeing bike and pedestrian engineering issues. Livingood says that when he worked at the City County Building he biked or walked to work almost all the time. Now he’ll be working to make Knoxville’s new bicycle plan a reality, creating a more bike-friendly city.

“Whether it’s longitudinal cracks in the road, drainage grates oriented the wrong way, hills—these things matter that people normally don’t think of when they’re driving a car, so it’s really important to have someone who thinks of these things,” says Livingood, who, along with Kelley Segars, the bike representative of TPO, acted as co-project manager of the bike plan.

The number-one project on the bike plan affects the stretch of Chapman Highway between Lippencott Street and Henley Bridge. The city plans to create a two-way protected cycle track along the west side of Chapman Highway, where there is an existing 12-foot shoulder. Henley Bridge currently has two narrow bike lanes running along either side of the car traffic lanes. The city’s plan will reconfigure the lanes on Henley Bridge, moving the northbound bike lane on the east side over to the west side, continuing the two-way protected cycle track across the bridge. Flexible plastic bollards will create a clearly designated bike way. This cycle track will allow South Knoxville commuters a direct connection to Maplehurst Court, where they can connect to the Second Creek Greenway in a “seamless, safe manner,” Livingood says.

Obviously, a good time for this project would have been a few years ago, when Henley Bridge was closed for renovations. A major part of Livingood’s job is reviewing upcoming road projects and altering the order of bike-plan projects to align with other construction in a timely manner.

“Use of common sense and good judgment must prevail,” reads the bike plan.

Another part of Livingood’s job is applying for grants.

He recently applied for a $1 million Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Improvement grant from the Federal Highway Administration, which he hopes will help fund the Chapman Highway project. The premise of the grant application rests on the idea that increased bicycle commuting relieves traffic congestion and taking cars off the road improves air quality.

“Separated bike ways are known to attract less confident riders and get a whole lot more people riding,” Livingood says.

Gateway Apartments, a large college housing complex, sits just off Lippencott Street. A strong bike connection to the University of Tennessee may prove useful to the student population living there. With the planned South Waterfront development, city engineers anticipate a bike infrastructure “sweet spot” just south of the river—that is, a large population frequently making 3- to 4-mile trips, about the distance a healthy person can comfortably bike.

The second project on the bike plan connects another high-density neighborhood, Fort Sanders, to Tyson Park and the popular Third Creek Greenway, which leads to shopping centers out west. The project may include building a tunnel under the train tracks to the low-traffic road Metron Center Way, which carries a projected cost of $249,000.

“Right now we have a signed downtown-West Knoxville route that takes you on a narrow sidewalk that goes underneath the train tracks on Cumberland Avenue. It’s really not optimal,” Livingood says.

The third project plans for a new greenway from Victor Ashe Park to Middlebrook Greenway.

2015 Tennessee Bike Summit

The fourth annual Tennessee Bike Summit (tnbikesummit.org) at the Knoxville Convention Center draws a wide range of bike-related planners: cycling and sustainable-transportation advocates, traffic engineers, planners, public-health officials, landscape architects, researchers, cycling retailers, and elected officials. Its goal is to create “a Tennessee where everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of bicycling and walking” and pursues it with seminars in three tracks.

One track covers technical infrastructure and is geared toward engineers and city planners. The recreation track will showcase a few examples of local success stories. As part of this program, Legacy Parks director Carol Evans will make a presentation on the development of the bike trails in South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness.

The advocacy track teaches participants on how to effectively lobby for bike improvements, how government projects get picked, how funding works, and how bike advocates can influence local and regional politics, perhaps bringing about the anticipated bike “renaissance,” maybe even affecting sweeping citywide cultural change.

Registration for the Bike Summit closed on April 21, but Gil Penalosa will be speaking at a free public event on Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Standard.

Eleanor Scott
Contributing Writer

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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