Knox area's sprawl 8th worst Study says too many cars boost traffic deaths, pollution


By Richard Powelson, News-Sentinel Washington bureau

WASHINGTON - A new study gives Knoxville and its seven-county metropolitan area low marks for excessive sprawl, noting the area suffers from inadequate street connections and lacks adequate housing that is close to jobs and shopping areas.

The end result is too many cars on the roads, congestion, higher death rates that result from long commutes and more air pollution, according to the study released Thursday by professors at Rutgers and Cornell universities for a national coalition called Smart Growth America.

Among the nation's 83 largest metropolitan areas with complete data, the seven counties in the Knoxville region had the eighth worst overall score for sprawl problems and the eighth worst ranking for good neighborhood mixes of homes, offices and shopping areas.

Also, it had the worst score for low density of housing, but the defined metro area has vast areas of land with no housing, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Reservation and several TVA lakes. "I think we do have a sprawl problem within the region," Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe said. He stressed, however, that the study uses a Knoxville metro area that includes six border counties: Anderson, Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Sevier and Union. "It's not as bad within the corporate limits of the city of Knoxville," Ashe said. "Some of the issues they consider important (in the study) - like reinvesting in terms of housing, rehabilitating abandoned areas, new development, crafting transportation models - we're doing that."

The Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional environmental group, agreed that Knoxville is making improvements in key areas, but spokesman Trip Pollard said the study reinforces how heavy auto traffic from urban sprawl "is a major contributor to the air pollution" problem in East Tennessee, including the Smokies. "As this report shows, the damage to our health, our economy, our environment and our quality of life is tremendous," Pollard said.

The three-year study, which included support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggests there should be more housing, shopping and office development in neglected or abandoned areas. The study said more planning is needed to manage growth, and it noted the need for transportation policies that nurture "smart growth" rather than more scattered subdivisions that put more cars on the roads.

Norm Whitaker, executive director of the city and county Metropolitan Planning Commission, said the city's population density averages about 1,600 people per square mile, compared to the average of 750 per square mile in Knox County and much lower numbers in adjoining counties. "The MPC has been working on an agenda for quality growth," he said. "We also consistently rank near the top in quality of life studies. In the "Places Rated Almanac," we're the highest ranking metropolitan area under 1 million people."

The city also has been boosting mass transit, he said. Knoxville Area Transit announced recently that ridership grew 4.8 percent over the previous fiscal year to more than 2.4 million passengers. The downtown trolley system's ridership was up nearly 27 percent over the previous year to more than a half-million people. Whitaker said the Nine Counties. One Vision. group is addressing what can be done to reduce sprawl.

Knoxville has been receiving federal funding to help rejuvenate a 16-square-mile inner-city area for housing and businesses. It also is close to receiving approval for federal funds to build a new indoor central bus station downtown to improve and encourage more mass transit on buses using cleaner fuels.

Pollard said the region should focus more spending on work to improve connections between roads, which would result in better balances of housing, jobs and shopping in the same areas. Knoxville and Memphis were the only Tennessee metro areas included in the study, which used data from various studies from 1990 to 2000 to summarize ratings and rankings in four areas. Nashville was excluded because key data in one area was unavailable.

High sprawl results in more traffic and higher traffic death rates, the study concluded. The 10 metro areas with the most sprawl, including Knoxville's metro area, averaged 36 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents per year. The 10 metro areas with the least sprawl averaged 23 traffic deaths per 100,000. But the areas with the least sprawl, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco, have intricate subway systems that are used often for travel by residents.

A study for Knoxville said a light rail system would not be cost-effective because of the area's low population density. The city is working on ways to expand use of its bus transit system. The National Association of Home Builders praised parts of the study but suggested that cities and counties be allowed continued flexibility in how and where they mix developments. "It must be up to the individual communities, and not federal mandates, to decide how to balance those problems with their other pressing needs to create viable solutions to growth challenges," said Home Builders President Gary Garczynski.

Richard Powelson may be contacted at 202-408-2727 or


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