Thursday, 29 October, 2020

What We’re Reading: Changing Scales


100 bucks: Where you’ll get the most and least value out of your $100 in the US.

Big projectsNew residential tower going up near Amazon’s HQ and new Vulcan apartments breaking ground in the University District.

Still delayed: The Washington State Department of Transportation says that Bertha is still delayed, but the tunnel could open sometime in 2018. Meanwhile, The Stranger got to tour a portion of the tunnel Bertha dug.

SnoCo’s tallest: The ten tallest buildings built and proposed in Snohomish County.

Saying ‘adieu’: Seoul throws a big party as a farewell to an urban overpass.

$100,000 question: Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute goes knee deep on Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) recommendations and his thoughts on the central issues.

Not public, but charterSave Seattle Schools rips the HALA recommendations for their exclusive attention to charter schools instead of all schools.

Greenwood park progress: The City of Seattle has acquired another property for the new central Greenwood park.

O’Brien’s big winThe Stranger lays out how Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien won big with a grand bargain on affordable housing policies.

Put it to rest: Five really poor anti-bike arguments that should be retired.

Fun with data: Where and how many houses you could buy in the US for the same price as Manhattan SoHo apartment.

New convention center: Details on the new $1.4 billion convention center ($) slated for Downtown Seattle.

Unemployment down: Seattle area unemployment is at a 7-year low, now at 3.7% ($).

Chip off the old blockOld Urbanist goes really old and talks about fall and rise of the “Euro block”.

Stockholm syndrome: A design pitch for sleek elevated airport runaways across Stockholm. Why? Because #avgeek. Duh.

Communist Berlin: Berlin is making sure that Alexanderplatz’s communist-era buildings don’t end up under a bulldozer any time soon.

Get your hate right: In the wake of Vancouver’s colossal transit referendum failure, Jarrett Walker of Human Transit reminds us that hating your transit agency will not make it better.

Jetsetting: Let London’s airspace mesmerize you as planes throughout the region dance across the metropolis.

It’s for the hockey: Not only are Detroiters footing the bill for a new hockey arena, they decided to implode an iconic tower occupying land in the city center to build the stadium.

Yellow brick road: Rotterdam builds a unique series of elevated pathways for pedestrians near a railway line.

Getting free: How one Denver couple went entirely car-free.

Places for people: Milan is embarking on a major pedestrianization effort in the city’s center, or as the Deputy Mayor calls it “the creation of a vast area of pedestrian privilege.”

Changing scales: European planners recently held there continental congress of all things planning and it appears that one theme was less national planning and more local planning.

Much DADU About Nothing


Since the release of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee recommendations, there has been much speculation on what diversifying the single-family zones means, and if duplexes and triplexes are, ‘too much’.  I don’t think even this nominal increase in density will do much to reduce the ‘economic apartheid‘ (and racial composition) of the status quo, but it’s a step in the right direction for once.

There has been a lot of…shall we say, hyperventilating, about protecting the single-family zones and way too many discussions centering around allowing more detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) as the ‘compromise‘ to allowing modest duplexes and triplexes. It’s absolutely true that backyard cottages are a better utilization of single-family lots than a detached house. They’re a really interesting typology worth promoting and they could make a property more productive for owners. But it is farcical to argue they’re a practical solution to Seattle’s housing shortage. The reality is that they will, at best, play a very minor role in providing additional housing stock.

Ballard downzoned.
Ballard downzoned.

If DADUs are to play any role, however, they will require a complete removal overly restrictive regulations. This means adopting all of the HALA recommendations for backyard cottages:

  • Removing the parking requirement;
  • Removing the ownership occupancy requirement allowing both units to be rented
  • Allowing both an ADU and a DADU per lot (hey, essentially a triplex!); and
  • Loosening development standards like height limits, setbacks, and maximum square footage.

The HALA report estimates doing all of this will “boost production of ADUs and DADUs to levels in the range of 5% or more of all single family lots within 10 years, which could produce 4,000 or more new homes.”

Disregarding the history from a few years ago where neighborhood groups actually went out of their way to try and prevent Seattle’s DADU regulations from even being adopted, it’s unclear whether or not all the recommendations will be successful. Seattle is presently only averaging about 30 backyard cottages a year–less than a single microhousing project. For a bit of context, we need only turn to Vancouver, BC–the North American holy grail of DADU liberalization. According to Brent Toderian, a renowned Canadian planner, Vancouver, BC is only building a whopping 320 DADUs per year. And that’s in a city replete with higher rents to justify the mortgages.

Assuming Seattle can somehow double Vancouver’s productivity rate, it would still take more than 62 years to produce 40,000 DADUs within the city, as suggested recently by Bill Bradburd, a prominent candidate for Seattle City Council. Exactly how far in the hole Seattle will be on housing at that point, with another sixty years of exclusionary zoning, isn’t clear. But what is clear is that ‘neighborhood activists’ are pushing DADUs as the sole compromise for additional dwelling units in single-family zones, and for the following reasons:

  1. They know it will do very little to address the city’s housing deficit.
  2. It gives the appearance of compromise without really being any kind of compromise at all.
  3. It keeps 49% of the city’s rampant exclusionary zoning perfectly intact while their neighborhoods remain ‘stable’.

Given the contentious history of implementing backyard cottage policies, I find it highly dubious that neighborhood groups won’t fight the HALA DADU recommendations. It’s especially unlikely that all of the committee’s recommendations will be implemented, which doesn’t bode well for higher DADU housing numbers. The overarching question, then, is how much harder will it be to develop anything down the road by keeping half of the city’s land effectively off limits for new housing options over the course of another 60 years? More importantly, how lacking in vision and devoid of creativity is it to suggest a nonsensical, ineffective approach that would affect 25% of all single-family lots for a paltry 40,000 dwelling units (over 63 years!)?

Instead, why not just rezone 7% of all single-family lots to be rebuilt as densely as, say, Vienna’s Margareten? That Viennese district is home to 70,00 residents per square mile. Using the Vienna approach here would add nearly five times as many dwelling units in a significantly smaller time span and area.

Wikimedia Commons by Hjanko.

Confounding, no?

Major Milestones for Sound Transit Light Rail Expansion


Sound Transit is making substantial progress on the Northgate Link and South Link extensions. This week, two key milestones were reached with tunneling work and the placement of final elevated guideway segments.

Pamela, one of two tunnel boring machines (TBMs) mining the underground Northgate Link extension, broke through to the Roosevelt Station Station pit. Her arrival marks the second TBM to reach the station this year. Pamela was initially launched in November from the Maple Leaf Portal near Northgate Mall. Since then, she has traveled southward for the first 1.5 miles of her 3.4 mile trip to University of Washington Station. Pamela will take a temporary break at the Roosevelt Station site for repairs and refurbishment until being relaunched. The TBM will continue onward to the next station pit site located in the University District.

Northgate Link extension schematic.
Northgate Link extension schematic.

In March, Pamela‘s sister TBM Brenda arrived at the Roosevelt Station site after eight long months of mining. Brenda has already been relaunched from the Roosevelt Station site and is expected to arrive in the University District later this fall. Both TBMs should reach University of Washington Station (near Husky Stadium) some time in mid-2016. Sound Transit expects contractors to wrap up interior tunnel work like power and track, fire and life safety, and signaling and communications systems some time in early 2018. However, service will likely start three years later in 2021.

The Northgate Link extension is a $2.1 billion, three-station extension. Two stations (University District Station and Roosevelt Station) will be underground while one station (Northgate Station) will be elevated. Sound Transit is projecting 35,000 daily riders to access each of the three stations (University District: 12k; Roosevelt: 8k; and Northgate: 15k). For riders boarding from the University District, travel time to Downtown Seattle will be as little as 8 minutes while Northgate is even shorter at 5 minutes. Today, both of these trips are considerably longer with most in excess of 20 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively. But perhaps even more dramatic is the project trip time from Northgate to Seatac Airport. Station-to-station trip time is estimated to be 47 minutes one way. That trip would take 1 hour and 4 minutes and two buses under the best circumstances today.

University District Station bulk rendering.
University District Station bulk rendering.

Sound Transit has a number of fascinating tunneling statistics that transit nerds will appreciate:

  • By completion, more than 500k cubic yards of earth will have been excavated by the two TMBs;
  • The cutterheads of each TBM are 21.5 feet in diameter (about two stories high);
  • 7,200 concrete rings will line the tunnel walls (these are placed as the TBMs move forward); and
  • Each TBM is more than 300 feet long and weighs 600 tons.

After two years of construction, Sound Transit is nearing completion on the South Link extension from Seatac Airport to South 200th Street. Work on the the 1.6-mile double-track extension has progressed rapidly considering that construction only began in May 2013. Sound Transit’s contractors have largely focused on the construction of pylons and elevated guideway, but extensive work has been done on Angle Lake Station near South 200th Street. Earlier this week, construction crews hoisted the last few concrete guideway segments into place on the alignment to complete the connection to the Seatac Airport Station terminus.

Once opened, Angle Lake Station will act as the new interim terminus of Central Link until the Kent/Des Moines extension becomes operational in 2023. Angle Lake Station is projected to have more than 5,400 daily boardings by 2018. Trains departing from the station will head northward and terminate at University of Washington Station. Sound Transit has estimated travel times to be 37 minutes to Downtown Seattle and 43 minutes to the University District. Frequency during the weekday peak will be relatively high at every 6 minutes. The station itself will be elevated and come with a number of amenities and services:

  • A 1,050-stall parking garage for drivers and vanpool riders;
  • Covered waiting areas and platforms;
  • A transfer area for local routes and the RapidRide A Line;
  • Secured bicycle storage; and
  • Local improvements for pedestrian and bicycle access as well as site landscaping and artwork.

Sound Transit reports that the project is currently running well under budget by $20 million. Total project costs are estimated to be $383 million. The extension should open in fall 2016, about a half-year after University Link to the north. In the meantime, contractors have plenty of work ahead of them before trains get rolling. Construction crews will now set the remaining rails, erect overhead catenary wire systems, and install signaling and communications systems.

Aside from these two projects, the latest update from Sound Transit indicates the University Link–the extension from Westlake Station to University of Washington Station–is 95.3% complete. Station construction is still ongoing at Capitol Hill Station. Meanwhile, testing and minor work also remains before the extension opens in early 2016.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 00.50.29

Transit App Update: Transit Alarms, Bike Lanes, and Better Trip Planner


Transit App pushed out an updated version of the app for iOS (Version 3.7) and Android (Version 3.7.1) users on Tuesday. The latest update focuses on optional alarms, bike lanes, and an improved trip planner.

Users can now set alarms for specific transit trips or routes. Setting up a transit alarm is fairly simple. In Nearby Mode, users first choose a particular route and then tap the clock icon. This takes users to the stop schedule of the route. Trips available for transit alarms will have a small bell icon on the right side of the screen. Tapping the icon will reveal alarm options. Reminder alarms for individual departures can be set for up to one hour before arrival.

Transit App Alarms
Left: Alarm for individual departure. Right: Continuous alarm for route and alarm options.

At the top of the stop schedule screen, users can also set reminders to repeat at specific intervals (e.g. 10 minutes) for each upcoming departure. This could be useful for users who are out late on the town and aren’t familiar with the schedule, but might want some flexibility in their departure time. An added bonus to this feature is that the departure alerts will disappear once the user is moving (assuming they’ve enabled that particular option); future alarms become deactivated.

If users leave the app, the alarms will still appear across the device like any other alarm set on iOS. Apple users will find their set alarms in the Notification Center and Unlock Screen if active.

(For those of you in Philadelphia, rumor has it that the bell icon has a crack in it!)

Bike lanes are now shown on the app map, making it much more useful for the bikeshare users out there. The bike lane data is based off of Google Maps and excludes sharrows. Users can rest assure that if they follow the bike lane information on the app map, they’ll be riding in a bike lane or on a paved off-street trail.

Transit App Bike Lanes
Left: Bike lanes on Transit App. Right: Bike lanes on Google Maps.

Finally, Car2Go now appears in the Trip Planner for users logged into their Car2Go account on the app. This is a handy modification for users because it’s now possible to compare the time competitiveness of transit, Uber, and Car2Go. Estimated walk time to the car and parking time is included in the trip comparison. However, the Car2Go trips only appear in the Leave Now mode. If users try to compare specific trips by arrival times to their intended destination or departure times in the future, Car2Go will not be shown. Given the deployment of this new feature, my guess is that it’s only a matter of time before Transit App adds bikeshares to the Trip Planner mix.

The new Trip Planner.
The new Trip Planner.

Supported Puget Sound transportation services by Transit App include: Sound Transit (buses, Link Light Rail, and Sounder), King County Metro Transit (buses, streetcars, and water taxis), Pierce Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Kitsap Transit (buses and foot ferries), Intercity Transit, Washington State Ferries, Pronto! Cycle Share, Car2Go, and Uber. The Transit App also serves 99 metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and Africa.

For the Sake of the Others


Rachel is a name which has been very important in my life. It’s also the name of the woman on my bus right now, standing next to me as we float down Rainier Avenue, finishing up the midnight run, drifting ever deeper into the darkest reaches of the Valley. In a way the name is fitting, because our conversation somehow turns to matters of great value to me. How did this happen? A second ago we were talking about transferring from the B Line to the 550. Sometimes you know you can go a little further with someone. The air feels right, and before you know it, you’re sharing secrets, finessing them into a more considered polish.

This Rachel was a young soul in an older body, dressed in scruffy black, her sea legs ably keeping balance as we stopped and started. Words flew out of her quickly, a mad and tumbling rush, slurred by both fatigue and enthusiasm– you know that point in the evening, where both seem to hold equal sway?

She’d started things off by thanking me for being the kind of driver that I am, and I’d asked about her commute. Sometimes I couldn’t hear her quiet voice as we took the fluttering curves, but I understood when she mentioned she was a widow. I paused, trying to think of how best to share the Alfred Lord Tennyson quote– you know the one– when she just up and said it herself. This is Seattle, where even some of the street folks know Tennyson.
“Well, better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”
“So true. So, so true.”
“It’s hard though,” she said. “To open up. To let yourself love.”
“It’s so hard, once you’ve lost. It’s hard for me to open up, really let go, and that’s why. I’m not good at it.” Brandon Street. Can’t believe we’re talking about this. “I used to be good at it, but once you know how much that type of loss hurts,”
“We’ve all lost though.”
“That’s true.”
“You’ve just gotta do it. We have to allow ourselves to love so that other people can receive it. So they can feel it. People need to feel loved in their lives.”
“Oh wow. I’d never thought of it in exactly those terms,”
“Yeah. It’s not just for us, it’s for them. It’s like we have a responsibility to be happy. If we’re happy, we make the people around us happy. If we’re sad, we make everyone around us sad. We need to be happy, we need to love. We affect the people around us. It’s not selfish. It’s our responsibility. You’re doing good to the people around you, you know?”
“Yes! Yes!”
“It’s like nature, all this green everywhere. Nature’s not afraid to grow and change and live. You ever see one tree saying it’s better than another tree? Never. Can’t be afraid of it.”

And just like that, she was out of there.

Ballots Mailed: Better Know Your Districts


Ballots are in the mail, and that can only mean one thing: it’s election time! The upcoming August Primary will present voters with some important local measures and a wide slate of candidates. Washington uses an open, top-two primary system where voters can cast their vote for any candidate that appears on the ballot. The top two vote-getters in the Primary then proceed to the General Election for a runoff.

This Primary will be a particularly big change for Seattle voters due to the introduction of district elections. Over 40 candidates are competing for nine positions on the Seattle City Council. But unlike prior city council elections, voters won’t be able to vote for every council position. That’s because district elections created seven district positions and two at-large positions. Seattle voters will instead see three positions appear on their ballot. One position will be for their district and the other two positions will be at-large.

This may leave some wondering: “But what is my district?”

Well, it’s amazing what you can find when you’re tooling around on the web. King County has put together a really helpful interactive map of all political districts in the county. Their map shows districts for the Seattle City Council, King County Council, Washington State Legislature, and Congress. Never wonder again (at least until the next boundary change).

In case you missed it, The Urbanist published a series of interviews with candidates for Seattle City Council and released endorsements.

A Big Revision: Seattle’s Pedestrian-Oriented Commercial Districts


Dotted across Seattle are scores of commercial districts, often lining the city’s major thoroughfares. They are the centers of community where people assemble, conduct commerce, and exchange ideas. From North Seattle to South Seattle, they are steeped in history, diversity, and character. No two are exactly the same; they are entirely unique. But what makes these places so beloved by local residents is that they are people-oriented.

A place truly connects with people when it is designed to interact on a human level as opposed to a mechanical level. Look around and what you’ll notice in people-oriented commercial districts is that the streets, buildings, and uses directly engage with people on foot. Sidewalks are generous, well maintained, offer opportunities for respite, and maybe even a little bit of earth. Moving from one side of a street isn’t a chore, it’s a comfortable and convenient experience that draws you from one point to another. Buildings are relatively continuous, detailed, vertically scaled, and have ample transparency on the ground floor. Spaces for uses vary in size, but generally are small in frontage. Uses are diverse throughout, but particularly active and practical for daily needs and wants when located at street level. Mix these qualities together and you probably have spaces that are tailored to people.

Yet, this doesn’t happen entirely by accident.

Over the course of the past few years, Seattle has engaged in an effort to revamp commercial districts through regulatory changes. One such change was enacted in 2013 by the adoption of minimum density rules. These rules apply only to pedestrian retail areas (known as “Pedestrian Zones” or “P-zones” in the land use code) in urban centers and urban villages, and require the development of denser commercial and mixed-use projects. Minimum floor area ratios (FAR) are set based upon maximum zoned height and ultimately push development to cover more lot area and build upward. But the latest changes go much further.

In early May, the Seattle City Council approved (Ordinance 1124770) a suite of land use code changes for Pedestrian Zones. In sum, the changes touched on new permitted uses, transparency of ground floor spaces, overhead weather protection regulations, residential allowances, live-work units, and the location of Pedestrian Zones themselves. The new regulations came into force on June 15th.

The land use code describes a Pedestrian Zone as “an intensely retail and pedestrian-oriented shopping district where non-auto modes of transportation to and within the district are strongly favored.” Pedestrian Zones are typically located within Neighborhood Commercial zones (NC1, NC2, and NC3), but they can also be found in a limited number of Commercial zones (C1 and C2). Pedestrian Zones are formed in two ways: the mapped area of the designated Pedestrian Zone and the Principal Pedestrian Streets that lie within Pedestrian Zones. The distinction here is important. Some regulations apply throughout a Pedestrian Zone while more specific requirements only apply along designated Principal Pedestrian Streets.

In the spirit of this, Pedestrian Zone regulations directly prohibit drive-through lanes for businesses, restrict the location of parking to the rear of a property or within a building, and discourage driveways that cross a sidewalk along Principal Pedestrian Streets. Also in the regulatory mix are reductions/waivers for parking requirements and specific set of active uses required along the street-level frontages when located along a Principal Pedestrian Street. However, the the latter two policies were revised in the recent code change.

Expansion of Pedestrian Zones

The most noticeable change from the Pedestrian Zone code update is the expanded number and extent of Pedestrian Zones. At the outset of the regulatory changes, Seattle had 33 Pedestrian Zones designated across all quadrants of the city. But nearly 40 locations were added to the City’s official zoning map. A few of the additions were merely extended Pedestrian Zones (e.g. Fremont, Upper Queen Anne, and Green Lake), but most of these additions were entirely new designations for commercial districts (e.g. Wedgwood, Loyal Heights, and South Park). Until the regulatory changes, Pedestrian Zones covered just 24% of Neighborhood Commercial zoned land (1.2% of the city). A few prominent locations (e.g. Uptown, Ballard, and the University District) were excluded from the code changes due to ongoing planning updates within them.

Street Level Uses, Live Work, and Residential

The Pedestrian Zone designation is focused on active street level uses. Naturally, the land use codes calls for these uses to be located on Principal Pedestrian Streets to drive foot traffic. But this desire for active uses does come with some restrictions. As you can see in the table below, the uses in the two left columns were the only uses permitted at the street level of buildings in the Pedestrian Zone. Meanwhile, the uses on the right hand side were prohibited. The regulatory changes opened up a wider variety of uses within Pedestrian Zones, including community gardens, a larger spectrum of entertainment and institutional uses, food processing and craft work, and limited amounts office and heavy sales and services.

Office space is not typically seen as an active use due to low customer volumes, but the City wants to experiment with allowing small office spaces on the ground floor of structures in Pedestrian Zones. Office uses may be located in any street-level, street-facing structure so long as there is no more than 30 feet of frontage dedicated to office uses within it. The same restriction applies to heavy sales and services, which are typically uses like laundromats, furniture stores, or major goods suppliers.

Old street level use restrictions.
Old street level use restrictions.

In addition to the above, some clarity was brought to how live-work units should be designed along Principal Pedestrian Streets. The work aspect of a live-work unit must now extend the full width of the unit along the street and have a minimum depth of 15 feet from the front of the unit. No residential (live) features are allowed within the business (work) space. That means no kitchen, bathroom, sleeping, or laundry facilities. Live spaces must be designed beyond this work area or entirely separated. The land use code also now calls for clear business signage for all live-work units. Signage must be conspicuously located on the outside. And, each owner of a live-work unit must have a copy of their business license located within the unit on file. Those changes reflect a general concern that many live-work units are merely being converted to townhouse/rowhouse-like units instead of bonafide ground floor businesses with living space. Beyond these changes, the existing land use code maximum for total live-work space remains in force: live-work units are restricted to 20% of the street level frontage of a structure.

While not specifically live-work, a small change to the residential use rules resulting from the code change could be big. Street level residential uses are now permitted in many more Neighborhood Commercial and Commercial zones. But, the code change could allow up to 17 new areas not designated as Pedestrian Zone designation, but zoned as commercial, to allow street level residential uses. And, a departure from the general development standards could grant up to 50% of a street level frontage in Pedestrian Zones with residential uses.

Overhead Weather Protection

Given Seattle’s relatively rainy environment, overhead weather protection provides pedestrians a good measure of relief from the elements. Overhead weather protection often comes in the form of awnings, canopies, and marquees projecting from a building’s facade and over a sidewalk. The City wants to encourage the proliferation of these features throughout pedestrian-designated areas. To do that, two sections of code were modified: the first in the land use code, and the second in the transportation fee code.

Overhead weather protection is now required for frontages of structures located on a Principal Pedestrian Street. A minimum of 60% of the street frontage for the structures must have some form of weather protection. And, these overhead weather protection features must be at least six feet in width. Additional guidelines in the land use code describe how the overhead weather protection should be designed for lighting, overhead clearance, and conflicting street elements.

Since overhead weather protection is typically located over the public right-of-way, they require review, permission, and the payment of fees. With this in mind, City staff recommended that fees be waived to encourage the deployment of overhead weather protection by property owners and developers. The adopted legislation specifically dropped the street-use fee in its entirety (it was originally $0.51 per square foot). The primary intent of this change was for commercial areas, but technically, the removal of the fee applies to all areas of the city regardless of zone.


For structures with non-residential uses on ground floor street frontages, the land use code calls for a minimum amount of transparency through structure facades. 60% of street-facing facades between 2 feet and 8 feet above the sidewalk must be designed as transparent (yes, it is that specific). In other words, people should be able to view into and out of the structure with minimal obstructions. Clarification was added by the code changes to ensure that window tinting, shelving, permanent signage, or other fixtures do not unreasonably impede the transparency of windows. In many instances, retailers and street level businesses have gone to extremes to foresake their primary frontages with blank walls or excessive clutter, which is detrimental to the quality of districts that dependent upon active foot traffic. This change gives the City greater power to enforce active frontages instead. On the flipside, the code changes also created some flexibility to challenging sites where vehicle access options are limited. In specific instances, up to 22 feet of vehicular access entries on a frontage could be excluded from the street frontage facade calculations for transparency, thereby reducing the overall transparent frontage requirements.

Individually, these changes may not seem like much, but together they really add up to enhance the overall quality of Pedestrian Zones while also offering greater flexibility. So, what do you think the City could do next to enhance pedestrian-oriented commercial districts?

Map of the Week: Access and Choice to Grocery Stores in Seattle


Human settlements are built on the bedrock of food access. Without adequate sustenance, urban environments cannot flourish. People will travel long distances to ensure that they are adequately fed, and so it’s no surprise that rural and suburban dwelling will often traverse many miles to the nearest food source. But urbanities would appear to have an especially unique advantage of food access on their side. After all, dense urban environments naturally mean an increased density of food sources and less distance between them. But access to food is not entirely equal in Seattle, and data from Walk Score shows it.

Last year, Walk Score set out to determine the access and diversity of grocery stores in major cities across the country using their walking algorithm. They wanted to see where food deserts and food havens were. Walk Score identified grocery stores by using a variety of data sources (in-house, Localeze, and Google). They also defined what their criteria would be for identifying individual grocery stores. They decided to limit their search for grocery stores by excluding convenience stores and requiring that a food store sell produce.

On the face of it, that seems like fairly reasonable criteria. Convenience stores may not offer a diversity of products to truly sustain the needs for an affordable and varied diet. Yet, a grocery store that sells produce is likely to have a wider diversity of goods that range in quality. With that in mind, let’s look at what Walk Score found for Seattle food access and choice.

Choice and Access maps

Walk Score’s data looks at grocery stores in two differing ways: choice and access. The first of these, grocery store choice is shown as a heatmap. The greener the color, the more choice a particular area has for grocery stores while extent of the red-to-green color shows the related walkshed being analyzed. Meanwhile, the grocery store access map series depicted solely as green to the areas with access to at least one grocery store.

Walk Score’s most recent data would suggest that there are 401 grocery stores within the city limits. When it comes to access, Seattle seems to score pretty well in the 10-minute and 15-minute walkshed maps below, with 70% and 87% of residents having access respectively. When it comes to choice, the 15-minute walkshed map provides more than twice as many grocery store choices for the average resident than the 10-minute walkshed map. With only 2.78 grocery stores within a 10-minute walk, the diversity of choice for the average resident seems modest.

5-minute walkshed

The 5-minute walkshed maps seem to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, Downtown Seattle has relatively good access and choice to grocery stores. Belltown is the shining star here in both regards. But, only 31% of Seattle residents actually have access to a grocery store within a 5-minute walk of their homes. Even worse, most residents end up with a very low ratio for grocery store choice, which stands at 0.64 grocery stores within a 5-minute walkshed.

5-Minute Choice 5-Minute Access

10-minute walkshed

Within a 10-minute walkshed, things get considerably better for Seattle. Urban centers and urban villages appear to have the best variety of grocery stores. Accessibility to grocery stores is more than twice the 5-minute walkshed with 70% of residents being able to walk to a grocery store in 10 minutes. Areas of the city that still fall outside of the 10-minute walkshed tend to be located at the fringes of the city. Although, some significant areas toward the interior of the city stand out like High Point, Ravenna, and Delridge. (Keep in mind that many areas near the Seattle city limits like White Center and Skyway are under other jurisdictions and are therefore excluded from the Walk Score analysis.)

10-Minute Choice 10-Minute Access

15-minute walkshed

At the 15-minute walkshed, over 87% of all Seattle residents have access to a grocery store. This is a pretty healthy number, and 13% more than the 10-minute walkshed. However, the increase in access is not as dramatic as seen between the 5-minute and 10-minute walksheds. Again, areas toward the fringes (e.g. Broadview, Magnolia, and Sand Point) of Seattle remain outside of the 15-minute walkshed. If you put Seattle in the context of geography and development patterns, then this makes a lot of sense:

  1. For starters, the fringes tend to be lightly developed and often have significant vertical grades or other geographic constraints that make access to grocery stores less feasible for residents on foot;
  2. Businesses that typically demand a high volume of patronage (e.g. supermarkets) are unlikely to relegate themselves to location near the fringes largely because the customer base is likely to be low; and
  3. Most grocery stores are located within commercial zones that permit them. Those types of zones are not usually located along the fringes.

But Delridge remains as a glaring food desert within the 15-minute walkshed. No grocery store of any kind is accessible to those on foot. On the flipside, the Rainier Valley boasts phenomenal access to grocery stores–and grocery store choice. In some ways, this comes as a surprise given that minority-majority communities are usually the primary victims of food deserts, and this map series appears to suggest otherwise.

The other big detail in the 15-minute walkshed is grocery store choice. This number more than doubles over the 10-minute walkshed. The average Seattle resident willing to walk 15 minutes is likely to find 6.29 grocery stores.

15-Minute Choice 15-Minute Access

Analysis, Caveats, and Concluding Points

Walk Score sets a 5-minute walkshed as the minimum threshold for analysis. It’s a nice, small number–and probably would be satisfying for most people. But as we can see from the 5-minute walkshed map, Seattle doesn’t deliver so well on access to grocery stores within that walkshed timeframe, and perhaps even worse in the diversity of choice.

If you consider the average shopper, there is a happy medium in what they’re willing to walk. A 10-minute roundtrip walk is a breeze; that’s 5 minutes out and 5 minutes back. Most shoppers are almost certainly willing to take up a longer walk than this for their daily food needs. If I had to pick a fixed roundtrip time as a maximum, it’s probably more than 20 minutes, but less than 30. Beyond this roundtrip timeframe, people will likely pursue other options that are faster like biking, busing, or driving.

Using that broad 20-to-30-minute roundtrip walk threshold, we can reasonably exclude the 15-minute walksheds as a standard for access and choice to grocery stores. It’s not clear what the magic number is, but let’s assume it’s 26 minutes for a 13-minute walkshed. The resulting data points from this aren’t markedly different from the 15-minute walkshed. In this instance, 83% of Seattle residents end up within a short of grocery store and have a choice of 4.79 grocery stores on average.

Despite all of this, what we don’t know is the actual diversity or quality of grocery stores that Walk Score is counting in Seattle. There’s no way to distill down the details about the 401 stores that their database is measuring. We can assume, at worst, that their definition covers the limited offerings sold in many bodegas and corner stores, and, at best, the breadth of goods sold at Uwajimaya and Fred Meyer.

It’s entirely possible that many areas that appear to have access and/or abundant choice, actually have poor offerings of food in terms of the quality, cost, and variety. At the same time, not all chain grocers–which are not identified by Walk Score–are even created equal themselves. Safeway, a large grocer in the area, run on a spectrum for store formats for size and diversity of food choices. Meanwhile, Walk Score chooses to exclude convenience stores and stores that don’t sell produce (e.g. 7-Eleven and Walgreens) in spite of the fact that they may provide important local access to basic needs of consumers. Ultimately, it’s difficult to draw absolute conclusions on what these maps mean for quality, walkable access to food sources.

Regardless of these issues, it is clear that most people in Seattle still live or work within a very reasonable distance of a grocery store–even if we toss out the 15-minute walkshed maps. But in areas where choice and access are low, they present compelling cases for local growth. Because, as we know, growth and added density eventually beget important urban benefits like neighborhood food sources. Many neighborhoods would love to have the problem that Capitol Hill (land of a million QFCs) is faced with–residents there get to debate whether or not another boutique grocery store could be great addition to neighborhood’s beloved Broadway corridor.