From urban planner to YouTube star, Delahanty keeps walking his way toward a more urbanist future.
The genesis of CityNerd is a Covid-era story of rebirth and job shuffling amidst a stressful and hectic time. Ray Delahanty had worked for two decades as an urban planner, but, by the second year of the pandemic, he was ready for something new. Starting with no real video experience, at first he imagined a brief sabbatical.
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t a sabbatical in the sense of, ‘hey, I’m gonna take three or six months off’ or whatever. It was a sabbatical in the sense of, ‘I quit’ and maybe I’ll come back if I want, or maybe I’ll get a different job or something,” Delahanty told The Urbanist. “It was a stressful time, you know? Covid had happened. There was a lot of stuff going on personally for me, and I just needed the time to like, clear my head and work on other things I wanted to work on.”
Delahanty did not realize making videos would turn into a long-term gig. But fast forward two-and-a-half years and 118 videos and the CityNerd YouTube channel has (at time of post) 199,000 subscribers, and he’s scratching out a living at it.
“If I had to guess the beginning of it, I would have thought, yeah, I’ll go back to work. Probably not at the same place where I was working. It was a fine place and I got along with everybody I worked with there. But I would probably go back and work either for the public sector or advocacy maybe or possibly consulting again — it would have to be a really good fit. So yeah, I kind of assumed, I’ll probably go back to work after six months or a year, but the YouTube channel caught on pretty quickly, and you know, and it still doesn’t generate income/benefits that replace what I was making before, but it’s good enough overall. I’m much happier doing what I’m doing now.”
Delahanty is visiting Seattle on Saturday, September 16, and the The Urbanist’s bike ride and meetup that we put together with Delahanty has sold out its first 250 tickets in a matter of three days. (We’re still offering free tickets to bike ride with us and to the park-hanging out portion of the day’s event for those who want to join, but the venue for the post-ride social hour is at capacity.) The event is a homecoming for Delahanty, who now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“I grew up in Seattle, and I moved to Portland, Oregon around 2000 over 20 years ago now,” Delahanty said. “And one of the first things I noticed about Portland is that Seattle didn’t have light rail yet. Portland had the light rail. Portland had what was even then probably a pretty good bike network. The downtown streetcar opened not that long after I got there.”
Moving to Portland ignited his interest in urbanism into a full passion. Launching a video channel was a return to the roots that drew him to urban planning in the first place, celebrating what’s great about cities, and advocating for more of it — not to mention trying to save some money on rent.
“And so, I realized that Portland had all these things going on that made it livable in a way that Seattle wasn’t quite as much at that time, and Portland was more affordable for them,” Delahanty said. “And that was the main reason I moved in the first place. And it still is, although they’re both quite a bit more expensive than what they used to be.”
Getting started as an urban planner
Noticing where Portland had lapped Seattle at that time ended up deepening Delahanty’s interest in urban planning to the point of it being a career.
“I became aware that Portland State had a pretty good graduate urban planning program,” Delahanty said. “I knew I would enjoy the curriculum, and I looked at what I know about planning and what does a planner do? And it’s like, ‘Yeah, that seems like the kind of stuff that I would be interested in because I’ve always been very into cities and transportation, the way people get around, and you know, what goes into making a place livable and healthy, and all those kinds of things. And so that’s kind of what got me into urban planning. So I applied to grad school. And I got in, so I went back to grad school at Portland State, and so that’s kind of my path to urban planning.”
Delahanty’s first job after grad school ended up being with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). The Oregon DOT had him doing traffic engineering, which ended up being a theme in his early career. His next job was with Multnomah County (which includes Portland but has almost no jurisdiction within the city itself) had him doing traffic engineering, too, even though he was often working on suburban bike and pedestrian projects.
“I was kind of like the bike/ped planner,” Delahanty said. “And so, it was interesting, but I didn’t stay there for too long because I really wanted to do city stuff and and there’s not that much city stuff to do when you’re working for Multnomah County.”
Traffic engineering: the good and the bad
Then, he pivoted over to the private sector at a consulting firm that specialized in traffic engineering and modeling. He found the work interesting even if he did not always agree with the projects he was working on.
“I actually enjoyed a lot of that work, even though I was kind of morally opposed to some of the outcomes we were achieving,” Delahanty said. “But technically, it was a lot of fun to do. I got to do a lot of travel demand modeling, which is super interesting and fun. And a little bit of GIS, which is good. And then I moved on to a different consulting firm that does more big infrastructure projects.”
Car traffic engineers get to touch a lot of projects, even if the aim of the particular infrastructure was purportedly to improve mobility and safety for people walking, rolling, and biking. Whether a pedestrian project or a highway expansion, a level of service (for cars) traffic analysis was likely in the offing, whether by federal requirement or because of the obligations DOTs placed on themselves.
“And even though I’m a planner, I ended up doing a lot of traffic engineering, like literal level of service, type analyses for intersections and highways, and but a lot of other stuff too. I got to do a lot of urban-type stuff,” Delahanty said. “So I got to work on bike/ped planning and transit planning too, because, on all of those projects, traffic is always in there as some sort of subconsultant — just to make sure you’re not doing anything really dumb or unsafe with traffic configurations.”
Of course, Delahanty also saw the limitations of the traffic modeling he and his firm were producing, and realized that basing decisions on future travel demand modeling was often a backwards way to do planning.
“The models are kind of good at some things and kind of not good at other things,” Delahanty said. “They’ve got a whole bunch of assumptions built into them, and generally, the most trouble is the mathematics that underlie them, but the models are often based on whatever the most recent regional household travel survey used.”
Those travel demand surveys used to be literal paper surveys, essentially travel diaries, he noted. An agency would take a random sampling of households, or representative sampling of households, in a region. The respondents “would keep track of where you went, how you got there, what time you went… how many people with you, and what kind of destination.” And then all those sampled responses feed into a travel demand model.
“These days they’re app-based and maybe even have location services, and that’s the same idea. You get a snapshot of how people around the region travel today, and you extrapolate to the wider population, but then you go into the future, and you essentially make the same assumptions about how people are going to make decisions on how to get around,” Delahanty said. “And so if there’s any mode shift that you see in the future, it’s usually because you made different assumptions about land use or the services that are going to be available, not really different assumptions about the way people are going to behave, or the way people are going to respond to certain changes in the provision of like infrastructure or housing. And I always think that’s problematic.”
Chuck Marohn came to a similar realization as a traffic engineer, and quit his job and launched the Strongtowns organization and movement hoping to correct for that underlying car-brain myopia guiding much of American transportation planning and urban planning in general. Delahanty saw that future traffic modeling that always expected demand for car travel to increase inexorably could lead to ridiculous, undesirable outcomes.
“First of all, you can’t assume that people are going to behave or respond to things the same way in 20 or 30 years as they do today,” he said. “And then second, of all, it’s kind of a backwards way to do planning, right? You’re predicting what you think people are going to do based on what they do today instead of starting at the other end and saying, ‘Hey, we have these targets for mode share and climate-related goals. How do we get to those?’ Because you would not do that by simply extrapolating today’s behavior out to the future. I’ve read Chuck Marohn criticism of that, and I agree with it. But yeah, it’s got not only a bunch of weird assumptions baked into it, but it’s really a little bit of a backwards way to do planning.”
The Urbanist explored creating a more holistic, forward-thinking traffic model for those interested in diving deeper on this topic.
In search of walkable neighborhoods
Now with CityNerd, Delahanty is free to do forward-thinking visioning and city planning that doesn’t have to be tied to a conservative car-centric traffic model. A frequent theme in his videos is walkability and finding neighborhoods that aren’t so dominated by cars.
I asked Delahanty if he ever gets sick of seeing urban design and planning decisions everywhere, in every new block he steps into, but he said it actually enriches his experience as an urban traveler.
“Oh, no, I think it’s the opposite. I just get a huge kick out of it. I can walk forever,” Delahanty said. “I can log 40,000 steps a day, just exploring cities I’ve never been to. So, I went to Miami this year. I had never been to Miami before. And I went in July [laughs] when it’s horrendously hot and humid, and maybe this is not medically advisable, but I still logged 30,000 or 40,000 steps a day. And it was just a blast. Even though a lot of South Florida is probably not only hostile in terms of traffic, but in terms of politics, too, but still just a lot of fun. And then I went to Charlotte, North Carolina, and did kind of a similar thing…”
It was the Strongtowns conference, and Congress on the New Urbanism conference, that brought Delahanty to Charlotte, but he still had plenty of time to wander the city in-between sessions. He didn’t necessarily expect to find much good urbanism, but he had his eyes opened to some extent.
“I didn’t really have any expectations of Charlotte at all, because it is purportedly the most sprawling metro area on Earth,” Delahanty said. “I don’t know if I really believe that, but maybe it’s true. But it was such a pleasant surprise, even in a city that does have a lot of suburban sprawl and objectionable land uses, there are still good urbanist areas that are growing faster than the non-urbanist areas. They’re actually putting the investment and the planning into the places where they need to. Not only that, but I got to meet a lot of local people who are extremely into urbanism and were super thrilled to show me their city, and so proud of it. They’d say ‘Look what they’re doing with this light rail stop. There was nothing here three years ago, and we’ll get it now.’ I find things like that incredibly inspiring.”
To find thriving urban neighborhoods in the Sun Belt that didn’t feel anything like cookie-cutter suburbs underscored that the thirst for “whatever it is we want to call urbanism: walkability, bikeability, or good transit or livability” is fairly ubiquitous nationwide.
Some of the most popular CityNerd videos are about finding walkability and urbanism in some relatively unexpected places where housing rent is still affordable. While the boom in urban living has meant sky-high rents in many West Coast and East Coast cities, many Rust Belt cities have affordable rentals even in neighborhood with high walkability scores and a lot of amenities and charm — the Pittsburghs and St. Louis’s of the world.
I asked Delahanty if people act on his advice and reach out to him to let him know how moving to a new city based on his rankings worked out for them.
“That’s funny. That’s probably my most popular genre of video — overlooked, affordable, urbanist places because people really want that,” Delahanty said. “It’s like, ‘oh, I can live in a place that has good walkability, and cool old urban fabric, and some decent transit, and the prevailing rent is $1,000 a month or something like that. Oh, yeah.’ And so I do hear from people. Yeah, specifically, who’ve moved to Pittsburgh, I think, for whatever reason, they don’t move to St. Louis as much. I’m not sure why that is. But I have heard from people who have moved there, and I haven’t yet gotten a message from somebody who was really mad at me for recommending that. They’re all generally pleased with their location decisions.”
Whether these last bastions of urban affordability have a lasting solution for the housing cost conundrum is a looming question and not one with an obvious answer. If they get too popular and the slack in their housing stock gets scooped up, they could be in the same boat as the coastal cities that are dealing with severe cost escalation in their housing market.
“I guess I don’t really know the answer to that,” Delahanty said. “Because most of the cities that I tend to talk about in that way are ‘Rust Belt’ cities, and the reason we call them that is because they used to have certain industries that have now either disappeared or moved somewhere else.”
Urban decline brought with it some opportunities, especially in cities that still had enough going on and had lots of well-built dense urban neighborhoods from their earlier streetcar-based industrial boom glory days. The explosion of teleworking during the pandemic has meant even more people are thinking about moving to those cities to take advantage of lower housing costs in relatively high-amenity walkable neighborhoods. But not everyone is poised to take advantage of those opportunities and uproot their lives.
“So yeah, there is a lot of housing stock, and a lot of vacancy, and the job opportunities are kind of spotty, but it depends on what you do. If you have a job that you can do remotely from anywhere then there’s this arbitrage opportunity with some of these cities, like Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati, or Milwaukee, or St. Louis, where you can live pretty economically and make whatever salary you’re making from your remote work, then that can work for you. But the thing is, that’s probably a minority of people, right? There are a lot of folks who don’t have careers that allow them to work remotely, and so they can’t take advantage of that kind of arbitrage opportunity.”
And the cities themselves often have not wholeheartedly committed to an urban identity and have to overcome decades of neglect and disinvestments in their urban infrastructure.
“I don’t know what the trajectory of a lot of those cities is,” Delahanty added. “A lot of them have been contracting for a long time. This video just came out yesterday, and it’s about what our intercity rail system looked like 100 years ago. I dug into the 1925 railway maps and timetables for all the different rail systems that are out there, and saw that there were hundreds of trains that went in and out of places like Indianapolis and St. Louis, every year. We’re probably not gonna get that back, right.”
But even if those Rust Belt cities do not get back to the extensive rail networks Delahanty laid out in his recent video (shown above), they could still go the route of an urban renaissance and recreate at least part of that network, perhaps with some segments of high speed rail to modernize it as well.
“But those aren’t the same cities that they used to be. The infrastructure is still there for them to absorb a population that’s hungry for a certain type of urbanism and potentially start companies or create new industries. So, it is interesting. I don’t know how that plays out, but the cities are out there. And it’s kind of up to people to decide how they balance living close to where they grew up, versus urban amenities, versus affordability, versus weather, right. There are so many pieces that come into play when you’re thinking about where you want to live, and I do talk about that quite a bit on my channel.”
A galvanizing urbanist moment?
Thousands of people around the globe are attracted to CityNerd videos. Going from zero to nearly 200,000 subscribers is a pretty dramatic rise, but Delahanty was quick to point out that others in the urbanist community have seen similar or even greater jumps and suggested it’s really a moment for the whole movement.
“Yeah, people tell me that my channel has grown really fast. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true,” he said. “There are other people in the space, like Reece Martin, who runs RM Transit, and Alan Fisher runs an urbanism-focused YouTube channel. And we’ve all, I think, grown at roughly the same rate since I started. I did get lucky, I think, with when I decided to start, but I can’t say why that is. Urbanism as a cultural force or an organizing principle for people to hitch their ideals to, or their advocacy, did seem to really coalesce in late 2021, early 2022, maybe. All those strains of advocacy have always been there in some way or another, but there’s something that happened that really galvanized certain things together.”
While draining many people of their health, livelihoods, and social access, the pandemic also brought a housing crunch that seems to have sparked a political awakening oriented around creating more good, affordable places to live. That’s been reflected in passing new legislation like statewide missing middle housing reform and in several urbanist YouTube channels suddenly having 200,000 subscribers.
“I think housing affordability is probably number one, and it’s something people face, every month when they have to pay rent, or that is in the back of their mind every day when they’re thinking, where am I going to live? I want to live in a city because that’s living true to my values, and that’s acting on the right thing for climate action. And it’s fun. Living in cities is great, and it’s increasingly unaffordable for more and more people. So I think that’s the number one thing that’s really brought [urbanism] to the forefront, but there are a lot of pieces to it.”
Join us for a bike ride and hangout along Lake Washington Boulevard if you’d like to meet Ray in person while he’s back in Seattle on September 16. And subscribe to CityNerd to follow Ray’s excellent videos.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.