Technology forecasters tell us we will eventually be driving cars that steer themselves, freeing the driver to engage in more relaxing pursuits or use that time to work on something else. Actually, this very day in the city of Knoxville many of us are already enjoying the luxury of letting someone else do the driving for the price of a vending-machine soda. In the past 12 months or so, Knoxville Area Transit has provided more than 3 million such rides on their fleet of state-of-the-art buses.
If your only experience with KAT was when the transfer station was on Walnut Street, you might be surprised by that statistic. Before 2010 there was no actual building that served as a transfer station, just buses lined up on the street at random, three small shelters to avoid the rain while waiting, and a rack with route and schedule pamphlets. Then a KATamorphosis occurred with the opening of the John J. Duncan, Jr. Knoxville Station Transit Center in 2010. More people began riding the bus almost immediately, and there has been a steady increase ever since.
The station, cater-cornered to the Civic Coliseum, earned the Shining Star Award from the Federal Transit Administration this past May for its innovative design. It is Silver LEED certified, meaning it meets certain standards for sustainable development, including a green roof with plants that absorb rainwater and provide insulation, geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels, and lots of glass to provide natural lighting. User safety, convenience, and comfort are vastly improved compared to the days when riders had to walk across traffic searching for their bus, with no way of knowing if it had already left or was delayed. Now each route has a designated point of departure and arrival at the transfer station, with arrival and departure times displayed and updated in case of delays.
What’s most important to riders, though, is having routes and departure times that meet their needs. The system currently has 25 routes extending north to Fountain City, east to Chilhowee, west to Cedar Bluff, and south almost to Governor John Sevier Highway. New routes have recently been added in Burlington and Vestal. KAT is working to shorten wait times between buses, especially on major routes during peak hours. Buses run every 15 minutes or less on Magnolia Avenue, Kingston Pike, and Broadway, 6-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. on weekdays.
Other than walking or bicycling, KAT is the cheapest way to get around town. Fares range from $1.50 per ride to free, and seniors, disabled passengers, and students up to 12th grade ride for half price. Passes for a full day or up to 30 days can cost much less per ride. You can get free trolley rides around downtown and as far north as Fifth Avenue at Gay Street every 10 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. The Vol Line is another free ride every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 15 minutes on Saturdays from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture campus almost as far east as Morningside Park.
So we have a convenient, state-of-the-art transit system in Knoxville that covers a lot of territory and costs riders next to nothing, but most of us have never caught the KAT. Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT’s director of communications, notes that getting a person on the bus one time goes a long way toward changing perception of the bus-riding experience. Toward that end, KAT has started partnering with local businesses such as Three Rivers Market, where spending $10 or more will get you a free bus pass home. Getting to and through the Cumberland Avenue construction zone is now easier thanks to the Free Fare Zone that KAT has established along the entire length of that busy street. For those who might simply be unsure of how to navigate the transit system, KAT provides a how-to video on their website and will even give one-on-one personal instruction.
Taking the bus instead of driving can save big money. A 12-mile one-way car commute five times per week can cost about $4,000 per year, especially if you pay to park. Could you save enough riding the bus to pay for a really special vacation each year? That same car commute consumes hundreds of gallons of fuel, emits over 1,000 pounds of greenhouse gases, adds to traffic congestion and the risk of wrecks, and increases the cost of highway construction and maintenance. Thus, every bus rider is making an incremental contribution toward reducing climate change and resource consumption, improving public safety and convenience, and relieving pressure on public infrastructure. Imagine the cumulative effect of putting a lot of car drivers on a bus.
Bus riders who walk or bike to the bus stop get the added benefit of free exercise. All KAT buses are equipped with bike racks, and bikes ride free. Bus riders use their extra free time to read, work, interact with their mobile devices, socialize, or simply watch the world go by and arrive at their destination relaxed instead of stressed.
Those who’ve experienced the bus culture tend to appreciate it as a microcosm of diversity, a community of people who might look and sound very different from each other, but who are neighbors and may become friends as they share time and space on the bus. Maybe this is the most important reason to Ride for Change.
Patrice Cole's Small Planet educates readers on local issues pertaining to environmental quality and sustainability. Topics include particular threats to natural resources, public policy with local impacts, and advances in environmental science. She has 25 years of professional experience in environmental science and sustainability. She has also taught biology, ecology, environmental planning, and sustainability at the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College. Cole earned a master’s degree in planning and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at UT.
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