Downtown Isn’t Too Big To Walk

The other week I was listening to the KnoxNews podcast ‘The Scruffy Stuff’, in which the two hosts discuss anything and everything about downtown Knoxville and the surrounding areas. Basically, it’s the audio compliment to the InsideOfKnoxville blog, if you follow that. The episode was all about downtown parking, and whether or not there was enough. They agreed, thankfully, that there was indeed enough and that the only ‘parking problem’ downtown was the lack of awareness from the suburbanites that don’t come downtown often, or those that do and don’t bother to learn about the numerous options for parking other than the Market Square and State Street garages.

Fast forward a few days, to the first weekend of this month (May 2021). While I normally am able to attain anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand daily steps because of the blessing of living in Fourth and Gill – a quintessential walkable neighborhood if there ever was one – this weekend I ended up averaging closer to twenty-five thousand steps per day.

Why (or rather, how) the extra ten thousand steps, you ask ? Simple. My best friend Elliott was visiting from Chicago and I was taking him out to eat and drink at as many bars and restaurants as we could (we are both vaccinated and far less afraid of crowds now). And because of my apartment’s proximity to downtown, we walked. Everywhere. In fact, the only time we used my car was when we were in route to and from McGhee Tyson, when we went to and from Riversports to rent him a bike for our greenway adventures, and when we went to Kroger to buy a case of beer. Every other moment of our time together from the evening of Thursday, May 6th through Sunday morning, May 9th, was on foot or on bike.

This idea – of only using a car a small handful of times over a long weekend (especially with the intent of showing company around town!) – is absurd to most Americans. Most of us live in suburban, car-dependent places where the building types (homes, restaurants, bars, literally everything) are so spaced out and separated that we have no choice but to drive. Even in places like large shopping centers – think Turkey Creek – we give so much land to parking lots that we can’t walk from one store to another. This isn’t always because of distance, either, as much as perception. To walk from the Walmart to the Regal Pinnacle in Turkey Creek is not an impossible task: it is a boring one. So we drive.

Turkey Creek: a walker’s paradise it is not. Image from Google Earth

We are so spoiled, so pampered, so expectant that our cars must guide us as close to where we want to go as possible that our brains have fallen trap to the bias of suburban planning. We buy into the idea that the car must take us to our destination, as close to the front door as possible, or it is too far to walk. We demand it. We have forgotten what a long walk or a short walk actually is, and for most of us this lack of walking shows in our waistlines.

We drive from Walmart to the Pinnacle because … that’s just what we do. That’s just how it is, and why would we walk when we have a four wheeled chariot to take us there? We can’t even be fully blamed, because the walk from Walmart to Regal isn’t meant to be pleasant. It’s not meant to be enjoyed. It’s not meant to be, period. So why would we try?

The urban planning author Jeff Speck argues in his theory of Walkabilitiy that for people to want to walk, the journey must have four attributes; it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. From that perspective, I can understand why no one would want to walk from Walmart to Regal in Turkey Creek. The walk is useful in the sense that it gets you where you need, but it exists in a bubble of retail. True useful walks are the ones that can take you from where you live to where you need without a car. It is only marginally safe in that there is a sidewalk along the storefronts, but there is not one from the Regal to the larger parking lots to the east. As for comfortable and interesting, it is anything but these. There is no beauty to catch your eye on the walk, and with only shops on one side and a sea of parking on the other, it is far from comfortable.

Turkey Creek: not quite the streets of Paris
Not actually the same image as above.
Again, these are all different images, I swear.
Even worse, once you manage to traverse the blandness in the photos above, the ‘sidewalk’ just ends and you must walk to Regal through the parking lot. No wonder no one walks here. It’s almost like it wasn’t designed for people.

But here’s the thing. This stretch of Hell isn’t really that big. Roughly speaking, it’s a little less that half a mile long. For the average person on an average stroll, that’s only ten minutes of walking. Or, to put it into a downtown perspective, it’s the same time it would take to walk from the Bijou to the intersection of Jackson Avenue and Gay Street, where the Emporium Building is. To put it into layman’s terms: it’s doable.

The green line represents the walk: nearly equal in length and time. Only one walk is much more desirable. And yes, these are at the same scale.

Doable, sure, but no one would walk that, and as we’ve seen based on what makes people want to walk, it’s understandable. But what about walks that aren’t the safest, most interesting, or comfortable and are ones that people *do* walk here in town? Take, for example, West Town Mall. Sure, the parking lots there are rarely full, but let’s pretend, for a second, that its Black Friday (in the Before Times, when crowds weren’t scary and the thought of being packed in a building with strangers breathing on you fighting for things they’ve touched didn’t cause you panic attacks).

Of course, the inside of the mall will be more visually interesting than the parking lot (great bar to pass, by the way), but even then, the inside of the mall is homogeneous and bland compared to an outdoor city street. Let’s say though, before you get in the mall, you have to park at the furthest spot in the lot, because everyone is rushing to buy the 2019 version of Tickle Me Elmo. Or whatever was popular. I don’t have kids and anything before last year was 150 years ago.

Anyway, you park there. And you walk past all the cars, into the mall, and to the food court, because you need carbs before fighting all the Karens trying to get Elmo. For most folks, that doesn’t feel like a long walk. And sure, you may complain that you had to park at the edge of the parking lot, but you still feel like you’re close, because you can see the mall, even though you can’t see the specific stores you’re going to. You make this walk. You make this walk and more, because you walk all around the mall. And your perception is that you were able to park ‘next to’ your destination, because the mall is large and in sight. You were able to drive ‘right to the mall’.

Even on a day that isn’t the shameful pinnacle of American consumerism, one in which you can park a few rows back from Cheesecake factory and walk in, you still walk around the mall and, because of the shape of the mall, probably double back a time or two and get even more steps in than you otherwise would. People don’t mind making these walks from packed parking lots to the middle of the mall and back because, well, they do it all the time, and that’s just what you do. The perception is that it wasn’t a lot of walking, because you were able to park ‘at’ your destination, which is the mall.

Now, what if I told you that if you walked from that furthest spot in the lot to the middle of the food court, you have walked further than if you had parked at a garage at the edge of our downtown – like Dwight Kessel – and walked to Market Square? I’m a liar, you’d say. I speak devilish things and that can’t be in a thousand realities. Well, this is reality 1,001 baby, because I present to you the following. First, the image below was one I was given in college. It shows the footprint of just the mall, sans parking, overlaid on downtown.

Let that image sink in if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone (or with yourself) about how it is too far to walk around downtown, because it is factually not.

If that image isn’t enough to convince you that downtown is very walkable for the lay-person that’s used to suburban malls, I present to you images 2 and 3, which take into account that insanely large ocean of parking around the mall and show how it would not only engulf downtown, but how parking at the very edges of downtown and walking to the core are still less walking than a Black Friday experience at the mall.

West Town Mall & parking lot compared to downtown. This is the same angle and scale on Google Earth.
The same as above but with parking and destinations highlighted. In the downtown image, the yellow is the Dwight Kessel Garage and the green is Market Square. In the second, the yellow is the furthest (or one of them) parking spot in the lot and the green is the mall food court. Everything is perception yall.

Most people that drive to our downtown are rural or suburban folks. They may know a lot about downtown. They may not. Humans are creatures of habit, as well as followers. If you don’t come downtown often, or never have before, you may try to get as close to the center of downtown – Market Square – as you can. You may only have ever parked at that garage, or at State Street. Or you may just follow the crowds of cars to where everyone seems to be parking, which are those two garages. In these senses, you cannot be blamed for these decisions.

But to be blunt, you also can be, and should be blamed. It’s 2021, for the love of God. We have the internet, and smart phones, and you can google anything. Maybe it’s just the way my Dad raised me, God rest his soul, and my natural curiosity, but how hard is it to look up where there’s available parking downtown before you go there? I have a hard time having sympathy for people that complain that there is no parking downtown, or that it’s too far too walk. Because these are not factual. These are perception.

From the Parking section of DowntownKnoxville.org you can see all of the lots and garages that are free after 6pm and on weekends. The three garages at the bottom of the map are heavily underused. And all are less than a ten minute walk to Market Square.
Also, the Langley Garage, which is also free after 6pm and on weekends, is underused and is LITERALLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE MARKET SQUARE GARAGE. C’mon people. Be smarter. You don’t get to complain about a lack of parking when you have this monstrosity staring you down.

Here’s the thing. Could the City do a few things to help advertise these underutilized garages? Absolutely. Since the city hasn’t forced these garages to be built to allow ground floor retail, or an attractive facade, one idea is to cover them in murals to make them a destination of their own to bring them to the public’s attention. Another idea is a marketing campaign (billboards, commercials, I don’t know) that drills into people’s heads that these garages exist and that it’s all within ten minutes of a walk of the middle of the city. There are things that can be done, because even though the city has wayfinding signage, those signs are more for pedestrians and are hard to read for many drivers that aren’t used to downtown density. I’ll give them that.

All our public garages have these handy signs now.

Butttttt at the same time, the City *has* made wayfinding, and it’s pretty well spread out, and all public garages have clear signage on the entries. At some point we can’t blame the City and we have to blame ourselves. It’s simply bad perception, a lack of research, and let’s be honest – laziness. We don’t deserve parking ten feet from where we want to go. That is not owed to us. And that is not how downtowns work. If you walk around West Town Mall and are willing to park far away in that lot, you can park at the City County building and walk eight minutes and four blocks north. Just because you can’t see Market Square doesn’t mean it vanished. You are above the age of three: you have object permanence. You can’t see the Chick-fil-A in the mall, but you’ll park in the lot and walk there and not complain because you’re ‘at your destination’. We have to start viewing ‘downtown’ as the destination the same as ‘the mall’. You may be a few blocks away, but you are still ‘there’. You can do it. I believe in you.

In future posts I hope to examine the downtown parking situation more in depth and provide ideas for how to make it better. But I hope the examples I’ve shown have proved that downtown Knoxville is not ‘too big to walk’ and that no parking is ‘too far away’. It’s just that our perception is flawed, so our expectations are bad (and make us lazy). If we say we are unwilling to walk for ten minutes to reach Market Square but will walk West Town Mall, it is not downtown’s fault, nor is it the City’s for bad planning – it is our own. We must change our understanding (and let go of that suburban entitlement mentality). We don’t get to complain about a lack of downtown parking. It is there. We just have to learn, look, and walk a bit. Downtown isn’t too big to walk. Our perception is too small.

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