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Knoxville Regional Complete Streets Study

Two heavily trafficked corridors are improved for pedestrian, bicycle and transit use

Many of our city and suburban streets are planned with one user in mind—the motor vehicle. As traffic and congestion increase, it becomes more and more difficult to travel by foot or bicycle, and mass transit has an increasingly harder time negotiating the choked streets. The Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization engaged GS&P to examine two corridors and propose a complete streets concept that would make room for all user groups while balancing service to vehicles and managing overall congestion. The team took the concept to the community, and the resulting elegant design marries simplicity, rejuvenation and accessibility.

 

 

What is the complete streets concept?

Kevin Tilbury: Complete streets is a popular term for a new approach to designing streets that looks at not just moving cars, but thinking about the role the streets play for everyone who might use them: bicyclists, pedestrians, older and younger people, transit riders and so on. You could characterize it as a national movement that has been picking up steam over the last few years, and one of the first places in Tennessee to advance the concept has been the Knoxville region, and, specifically, the Knoxville Transportation Planning Organization. They received a grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to conduct a regional study, and it included looking at two corridors in the region and how they could transform into more complete streets.

You started by engaging the community, correct?

Kevin: Yes. One of the first things we did was called a studio. We all met up in Knoxville and dedicated an entire week to each corridor. We landed in the study area on a Monday, had a public meeting and got the community’s input. Then we spent the better part of the week in our Knoxville office brainstorming on strategies. During Thursday night's public meeting we presented some strategies and concepts on complete streets to the community and got their feedback.

In your opinion, did this style of collaboration work well?

Jason Brady: The meetings were overwhelmingly positive. The citizens of the Fountain City community in Knoxville, particularly, were very supportive. There is a lot of traffic that goes down the main drag, a stretch where schools and other community gathering places are located. I was surprised that people were so willing to come out to the meetings, see what we had to say and to really support it.

Trey Rudolph: Some of the more interesting things that I got out of the public meetings were details we might not have realized were so important to the users. We do our inventory process and pick out the key points that we think are crucial or important, but when you get in there and the people that use this every day start talking about the problems that they have, it is really valuable information. I think we got a lot of critical information that improved our design process just by their responses.

Kevin Tilbury: I think another viewpoint that we can not overlook that is particularly true with the Fountain City and Broadway corridor was the City engineering staffs that were very much focused on automobile mobility. On one hand, we had the community that wanted to see more bicycle and pedestrian treatments, and on the other we had the City transportation staff that was very concerned about impacts to the motoring public. As a result, I think our approach was one of balance and compromise.

We had to look at the context of each street and consider the balance of needs and concerns and then make recommendations. Then we bounced them off of City staff and got their feedback.

In the case of either one of the corridors, there was extra right-of-way on either side of the street, so we could make recommendations for bike lanes that would not impact traffic. There was a two-way center turn lane running down the middle of both streets and we made some recommendations for installing raised medians that could be used by pedestrians to cross mid-block.

The last issue was cost. We also had to make sure things were affordable to do. It was not pie in the sky.

Jon Henney: The two corridors that we looked at were really quite different in terms of their context, and while the issues were similar, the applications changed because of the context of each. Part of the process before we even met with the public was we had a team visit the sites and do some inventory to help us understand some of the issues associated with each corridor.

We were looking at lane widths, existing sidewalks, if there was transit already in place, and what kind of traffic was already running on the roadways. We spent a lot of time looking at land use and where there were likely links that needed to be made between residential areas and destination points where people might want to be going.

When we had our original meeting at the beginning of our studio process, we shared what we had learned and that was an opportunity to get some validation as to whether or not we had identified the important connection points. It was great to take that feedback, create the design, and then share it immediately with the people that actually live and work there.

What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced?

Marshall Elizer: It is always a challenge to visualize the concepts. What would this mean? How would it fit? What would it look like? That is where our talented staff like Cindy Frear and Trey came in. They have wonderful graphic illustration skills and could create visualizations that showed what could actually be built in the future. It helped people look at alternatives and make confident judgments about them.

Kevin: And all that happened over the course of just four days. We landed on Monday night and then had two days to sum up this strategy given all of these constraints and expectations. We had to come up with these ideas on the fly and conceptualize them quickly and succinctly. That was a pretty big challenge because normally we all retreat back to the comfort of our offices and have time to noodle on things.

Trey: One of the challenges was obviously the time constraint, but at the same time we had to find how we could use some of the visual media that we have to express these ideas to the client, user groups and City engineers. It was definitely something that you have to be very careful not to get too lofty with. So not only the time constraints, but I think trying to be as honest and representative of the truth in design as we could be was probably the most challenging thing.

How do you feel this project contributes future value to your profession?

Marshall: Urban area congestion continues to grow. The number of residents, the number of cars, and the number of trips are all growing at a much faster rate than the roadway system is being expanded. The roads are busier, and there is a real need to open up alternatives for urban dwellers to make trips by methods other than the automobile: walking, biking and transit. This kind of project is all about doing that and facilitating those other modes. If you look at how urban areas grow over time, they get denser and more congested, and the automobile’s ability to get from point A to point B significantly diminishes. I think the importance of this project, the relevance, is that the need for it continues to grow in urban areas and it will be increasingly important as these areas congest.

Kevin: It is a gradual shift in culture about the way we treat our streets and this does not change overnight. It is a gradual process. This is one of the first studies that helps set a practice for complete streets that other people can build on in the future.

Marshall: And there is another angle here that is coming more into focus, and that is the health benefits of designing an urban area and a neighborhood—a community with transportation options that support the ability to get out and do something physical, whether it is walking or biking. And when you look at the health statistics of the nation and the obesity epidemic in the general population, especially the children, those opportunities just haven not been as prevalent as are needed. In other words, the roads have squeezed out those other mobility alternatives and there is a lot of what many people say is late demand in the population that would like to bike more, walk more and ride transit if they could do it safely and efficiently.

What are you proudest of about this project?

Jon: The success of projects is really tied to a collaborative effort between the professions, and this project is a perfect example. It was completed by engineers, landscape architects, planners, graphic designers and GIS professionals, and it really took this body of professional expertise to pull all pieces together to come up with the solutions. I think when you talk about future value to the engineering profession, it understands how complex our world is becoming and how complex the solutions are.

I was really proud of our ability, and I think that is one of the things that makes GS&P unique: the ability of all different disciplines to be able to integrate seamlessly and take the best of what each profession and practice has to offer. We come together in a team environment and end up with a product that I am convinced is much stronger than if it was an individual discipline effort.

Marshall: Absolutely. I am proud of the fact that there were several hundred residents of the Knoxville region that were touched by this process. Some of them did not know anything at all about complete streets, some did, and some had heard about it and did not like it. We advanced the knowledge of complete streets, and I think we made some people believers. Many understand the concept much better now and accept the premise that you need to design streets and neighborhoods for all users. I think we advanced the cause, which is a good thing for a number of reasons.

Kevin: This is a really innovative concept, and the fact that we were able to get forward-thinking innovation to be selected for the project through a competitive process, and then to have a good product that we can share with other people, is pretty great. That is something we can hang our hat on for a while.

Jason: On a more micro scale, something that I am really proud of is that the Hall Road section goes through an area of Alcoa and an area of Maryville I was raised in from about four years old. I live in Maryville now, and I am proud GS&P has had a positive impact through improving something in my hometown.

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Project Info

  • Client: Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission
  • Location: Knoxville, TN, USA
  • Market: Transportation
  • Services: Planning, Transportation and Modal Planning
  • Team:
    • Marshall Elizer, Jr., P.E., PTOE Principal-in-Charge
    • Kevin W. Tilbury, AICP Project Professional
    • Trey Rudolph, RLA Project Designer
    • Jason Brady, P.E. Project Manager
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