Could creative solutions build more sidewalks?

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

If you want to see a bunch of happy pedestrians, visit Cherokee Boulevard on a spring evening. You’ll see them in droves, tripping through the dogwoods, safe on a wide median. It’s one of my favorite exercise spots.

Contrast that with present-day Cumberland Avenue. Last week, I strolled down to the Strip from the hospital for lunch. I’ve got my eyes on the prize (an attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscape), but for now, it’s anything but. Torn up sidewalks and irritated drivers made for a stressful trek.

It illustrated something I already knew. Walking is a pleasure − if it’s safe. Walking in my sidewalk-free neighborhood is safe because streets are wide and there’s little traffic. But much of Knoxville and the surrounding county is different because we like to drive fast and take shortcuts. Our car-centric culture simply doesn’t respect other forms of transportation.

Last week, a group of West Hills residents walked from Wesley Road to West Hills Elementary to illustrate the need for a sidewalk along Sheffield Drive. One kid carried a sign that read, “We need a sidewalk. We want to walk to school.”

Long-time Sheffield Drive resident Sandy Robinson participated. Her kids used to walk to school before traffic became excessive, she said. Now, drivers use the road to avoid Kingston Pike. It was obvious at 7:30 a.m. that drivers along Sheffield were not used to pedestrians.

A few City Council members showed up to express support, but none could promise a sidewalk.

The city has a prioritization process that determines who gets sidewalks when. It’s based on a point system. Schools are a big driver, says engineering chief Jim Hagerman. Projects within Parental Responsibility Zones − areas that are too close to schools to be serviced by school buses − earn points. Sometimes PRZs overlap, resulting in more points.

Missing links get points. Short links get more. Isolated projects don’t get any points.

Areas with a high potential for pedestrian use, like high-density development within a short walk to a grocery store, earn points. Being on a KAT bus route earns points.

Sheffield Drive is good example of a legitimate need that doesn’t make it into the top tier, he says.

“It’s frustrating to us. We don’t have the budget or the staff to hand out a lot of sidewalks.”

The prioritization process is necessary because sidewalks are so expensive − an average of $350 per foot. The cost of purchasing right-of-way and East Tennessee topography drive the price up.

“Knoxville is a challenging place.”

Our car-centric culture is at least as challenging as our landscape. But finding creative ways to finance sidewalks, greenways and bike lanes could mean that our kids don’t grow up assuming they need to drive everywhere.

Businesses could purchase segments of sidewalks that will make it easier for pedestrians to reach them. The city could offer matching funds to communities that work together to raise money for sidewalks. Perhaps citizens could work alongside trained professionals on simple projects.

Walking is fun − and healthy − if it’s safe. Even kids know that. It’s up to us to give them the opportunity.

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