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Knoxville Area Transit: A Planning Study Could Change Public Transportation in Knoxville and Knox County

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S. Heather Duncan
Preparing to leave the WalMart Supercenter on Walbrook Drive for the hour-long trip downtown.

A map of Knoxville bus service looks like an amoeba just as sprawling as the city.

But it’s not.

During the last decade, affordable housing, jobs, and shopping destinations have spread even further outside that map of bus routes. For example, there’s no bus service to Midway Business Park or to the airport.

But size of public transit coverage isn’t everything. Hours, frequency and reliability are also important. Can you get to work on time? What if you have to ride the bus to drop a child at daycare first? Buses don’t operate overnight, leaving second- and third-shift workers with limited options. And since the pandemic, many bus routes run at half the frequency they once did.

“We have pockets of new jobs, but they are far away and hard to serve,” said Belinda Woodiel-Brill, director of planning and public information for Knoxville Area Transit (KAT). “And we have new apartment complexes that might be affordable, but are on streets that are not close to transit and have no sidewalk access or connectivity.”

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S. Heather Duncan
Belinda Woodiel-Brill, Knoxville Area Transit

To keep up with these changes, KAT is in the process of a major operational analysis that may lead to significant changes. The study will incorporate new information about neighborhood populations, the actual usage at each bus stop, on-time rates, and the result of surveys about where riders start and finish journeys that include a bus ride.

Although KAT operates 23 routes with more than 1,000 stops, the agency wants to understand whether it’s providing equitable access to work, medical care, libraries and educational opportunities, Woodiel-Brill said.

“When you have a service that is more frequent, you have people who can get more places in a reasonable time frame. We call that increasing access to opportunities,” she said. “And when we say access, are we talking about a 15-minute trip, or are we talking about an hour-and-a-half trip? Because an hour-and-a-half trip is not access.”

Mary Martin takes the bus to work daily. From her job at Westview Towers, Martin rides the number 11 bus for 45 minutes to get downtown, then waits for a connecting bus to drop her off on Chapman Highway near her home. It works for her.

“I catch my bus on time, and it takes me to my destination,” Martin said. “And they come on time, too. So far they’re pretty good.”

After KAT’s last major operations overhaul in 2010, it prioritized more frequent service over covering a larger area, Woodiel-Brill said.

“If we go everywhere, we have horrible transit service everywhere that serves very few people,” she said. “It’s kind of this balance between service that is really frequent, that runs all hours, that provides a lot of flexibility for folks, versus reaching a lot of different places – because your resources only stretch so far.”

KAT will first focus on changes that don’t increase its budget, like eliminating under-utilized bus stops as new ones are added, said Woodiel-Brill. But she anticipates the KAT board will probably also set some more ambitious goals that add to the roughly $24 million bottom line.

Consultant Jarrett Walker & Associates is conducting the KAT study, along with two others, for $470,000. All three studies are covered by state transportation planning funds funneled through the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

The second study will analyze how KAT coordinates with regional public transportation providers including the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC) and East Tennessee Human Resources Agency (ETHRA).

They both offer pre-scheduled rideshare programs, usually using large vans, to take people who do not live on the bus line to medical appointments, the grocery store, and sometimes work. These services, which cost around $2 to $3 a ride, can provide trips outside regular bus hours and/or across county lines. But availability can vary, and ETHRA passengers are warned to expect their trips to take more than an hour. (KAT also offers a door-to-door paratransit service called LIFT for disabled residents who live within three-quarters of a mile of the bus route.)

While these agencies already coordinate, the study may recommend further steps to help them avoid overlap and save trips, Woodiel-Brill said.

The third and final study will offer a prioritized menu of new regional public transit options. Doug Burton is principal planner with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization. He anticipates recommendations for connecting Knoxville to nearby cities, employers, shopping or educational centers. The study will include Anderson, Blount, and Loudon counties, plus the Seymour area.

“We have a lot of industrial parks and businesses locating out in Knox County proper or in Alcoa, Maryville, Oak Ridge. That does make a challenge of getting employees to employment opportunities,” Burton said.

Expanded service could include express routes to far-flung employers or between cities. From the consultant’s recommended menu of options, the TPO board will probably choose two or three to explore further, Burton said.

A similar regional transit analysis was part of a 2013 transit corridor study. Recommendations included creating a regional transit authority, creating dedicated bus lanes on high-traffic roads, and adding express bus service along the Pellissippi Parkway and Alcoa Highway. That kind of bus route could connect destinations in Maryville, McGhee Tyson Airport, Pellissippi State Community College, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

But these options weren’t pursued.

“We just haven’t had the political buy-in yet, and it’s very hard to serve our region because of its spread-out development,” Burton said. Sprawl makes fixed-route bus routes more expensive and less timely. “When we say mass transit, we really do have that focus on mass: You either need a mass of people, or a mass of jobs, or a mass of tourists, to be able to use transit effectively,” he said.

The current study is again supposed to include discussion of a regional transit authority. Such an agency would require buy-in and funding from other local governments and enabling legislation at the state level.

Federal dollars can often help public transportation providers with capital purchases like buses or shelters. But they don’t cover ongoing operations. “The city cannot bear a whole regional system,” Burton said.

Woodiel-Brill noted that although almost 60 percent of KAT funding comes from the city, Knoxville’s sprawl has made the line between city and county harder to see.

Burton said mayors and city managers in Alcoa, Maryville, and Oak Ridge have been hearing more requests from residents wanting better public transportation. “I think people are thinking about it, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.

Woodiel-Brill said she expects the initial KAT study results in late February or early March. Once they’re available, subcontractor Equitable Cities will head an effort to solicit public feedback. Opportunities will likely include community workshops, online surveys, pop-up information booths and in-person surveys solicited in senior centers, libraries, churches and similar neighborhood gathering places. Efforts will be made to reach non-English speakers, too. Helping to oversee the process will be a stakeholder advisory committee with representatives of local non-profits, colleges and business groups.

“We are going to reach not only our regular folks who ride with us now but the general public, because we obviously want to continue to grow ridership,” Woodiel-Brill said.

Only after this public engagement phase will local transportation officials develop concrete proposals, followed by a second round of public feedback.

“Hopefully by the end of the summer we will have an actual concept of: Here’s what the system should look like,” Woodiel-Brill said. We know that we can’t solve all urban sprawl problems with transit. I hope that we come up with some interesting ideas, but I also think it’s going to be a really good reality check for us about how good we’re doing now.”

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  • Many essential workers rely on public transportation to reach their jobs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Knoxville bus rides became more affordable, but also less reliable, and service still has not fully recovered. WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan has a look at the current state of KAT.