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Free downtown Knoxville trolleys swapped for traditional KAT bus route

Sep 15, 2023

To say downtown Knoxville has a trolley system would not be entirely true. Instead, what the city has are buses in trolley disguise and a history of cable cars that make this free means of transportation symbolic to some.

These trolley buses are going away as part of KAT Reimagined, a transit overhaul that will put more resources toward ridership over coverage. But downtown transportation isn't disappearing entirely.

In addition to increasing frequency for buses that come downtown, Knoxville Area Transit is planning a downtown connector loop that would replace the trolleys to an extent. But not everyone agrees that's the best move.

Downtown reporter Ryan Wilusz and growth and development editor Brenna McDermott have read through reports and discussed what these changes could mean for the city.

Below, you'll find a condensed, edited transcript of the discussion on "The Scruffy Stuff" podcast about how removing trolleys could affect locals and tourists, how new transportation concepts could fill this gap and whether the new downtown bus loop should be free.

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Ryan: When you first heard the news, what was your reaction?

Brenna: I think my initial reaction was like: "What? Why? How?" And then, I would really encourage people to go and read your reporting, Ryan, because I think ultimately what KAT's doing is really smart, which is taking a holistic look at the bus system and does it work for the people who live and work in Knoxville.

Ryan: I guess the question I have is, "Who are these trolleys for?" ... I've been here for five years, and I've ridden them twice. And I think for a local, by the time you can wait on a trolley, you could probably walk to where it is you need to be.

Brenna: The orange route comes every 15 minutes. The green route comes every 20 minutes. Honestly, you could walk anywhere in downtown Knoxville in that time or less.

Ryan: And then you say, "Well, what about people that can't walk?" And that's where the new bus route come in, right? They're calling it a downtown connector loop that is part of KAT Reimagined which, just to be clear, is a lot more than just about the trolleys and the downtown loop. This is an overhaul of the entire KAT system.

Ryan: Think about how much we've talked here on "The Scruffy Stuff" before about all these neighborhoods that are just on the edges of downtown Knoxville, whether it's Happy Holler, which we talked about just a couple weeks ago. That's actually a great example and one that (Visit Knoxville President Kim Bumpas) mentioned. If you can get over to Happy Holler more frequently as a visitor ... you're now expanding the tourism reach of Knoxville beyond just downtown and into these neighborhoods that are forming and becoming nightlife, touristy, fun destinations.

Brenna: It's important to think of the bus system as a resource for people who live here first and tourists second. And a good bus system can be an economic driver. How? Well, young professionals who are considering moving somewhere want to know there's reliable transportation, especially if they are worried about the environment or their pocketbooks.

Ryan: If you look at the amount of people who will be able to reach a job − 16% more jobs will be reachable compared to the existing network right now. Beyond that, for the average person in poverty, the number of jobs accessible by transit within 45 minutes would increase by 20%. And for the average resident of color, jobs accessible would increase by 24%. ... The firm that took a look at KAT's system realized that the trolleys and the bus systems seemed separate, and it didn't seem like it was all one cohesive unit.

Ryan: The question I asked of KAT was: "You're doing a downtown loop. Why not just put the trolleys on the downtown loop?" And part of what they said was, if we're going to make it this cohesive unit, which was a recommendation, we want to be able to be flexible with our resources. ... If you need to swap out (a bus) from the downtown loop, you can put it into another route. These trolleys, they're still going to be in use. They're just not going to look like trolleys anymore.

Brenna: I think it's all about marketing and branding and how you present this new change to visitors, right? Visit Knoxville is smart enough to know this: Instead of saying, "Well, the trolley's going away, Knoxville visitors," it's about, "Hey, we have one of the most walkable, fun cities in the U.S."

Ryan: One thing I did want to talk about is the timing of this − of getting rid of the trolleys at a time where downtown is actually growing. Now, there's more things to get to downtown. But also, you'll hear this argument made with the stadium, which is one of the reasons downtown is growing so much: OK, well now you can walk past 20 businesses on the way to get somewhere, so maybe the walk doesn't seem that long.

Brenna: I think we have to let the free market help us fill a gap if more transportation is needed. So, we have scooters, we have e-bikes, we have KISS Caboose. We've talked before about how the stadium's going to present a parking challenge in downtown Knoxville, and I would expect there's going to be a service that pops up to get you to and from the stadium from your parking garage. So, we don't have to rely on KAT for all our downtown transportation needs.

Ryan: August 2024 is when it's actually going to be implemented, and part of what they want to figure out is whether or not the downtown loop could remain a free form of transportation.

Brenna: I think it's for the benefit of our community that this downtown route changes. However, I think it would be a real loss if the downtown route was no longer free. It's bringing business downtown to eat and drink and shop. I think it would be a real shame if that went away. And your article hinted that perhaps there was an opportunity for someone to come in and partner with KAT to make that downtown route free. And I think that would be a phenomenal opportunity for a downtown business like Tombras or CGI to come in and sponsor the route.

Ryan: One thing we talked about was the downtown trolley seems to me more appealing to a visitor which is somebody who ... I imagine they have some money to spend and they could afford to ride a bus if they're going to be staying in a downtown hotel. Maybe there's a way to get in the downtown hotels a downtown loop bus pass or something that when you check in to your hotel, you can purchase as part of your stay in downtown. If they were free, even better, but I don't think it's the end of the world.

Brenna: If the route's not going to be free, I do think KAT and Visit Knoxville need to come the table on: "OK, can we make it free during Big Ears? Can we make it free during home games?" Because it's just like downtown parking garages. On those busy days when people want to come downtown and spend money, you want to make it as easy as possible for them.

Ryan: I think one of the biggest things is just getting used to a downtown Knoxville without a trolley around since it was such a symbol.

Brenna: I want to call that out a little bit because I just don't agree that the trolley is a downtown symbol. I think it's something people got used to seeing, but it's not like the Sunsphere where you can't separate it from downtown Knoxville. So, I think that's an exaggeration.

Ryan: I don't know. ... Knoxville used to have a cable car trolley system, and so there is some history involved in it. I think it's a symbol. It's not a Sunsphere but ... maybe the Bijou Theatre marquee?

Brenna: It's a cute thing that exists.

Ryan: Agree to disagree, which sounds like what a lot of people are doing right now.

Ryan Wilusz is a downtown growth and development reporter. Phone 865-317-5138. Email [email protected]. Instagram @knoxscruff.

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