Tuesday, 15 October, 2019

Improving the Grid in Capitol Hill


Residential, woonerf. Attributed to: La Citta Vita – license – original

Over the past few years, the southern section of Manhattan’s Broadway has steadily transformed from a major vehicle arterial into a “complete street” and pedestrian boulevard. Instead of a “car sewer”, Broadway is now an inviting thoroughfare for walkers and cyclists, and a destination for shoppers, diners, and tourists.

The changes have also improved mobility, even for drivers. It may seem odd that removing traffic lanes could make driving easier. But as the article says:

In pursuing a policy that discourages automobiles from using the street, traffic planners see themselves as issuing a corrective to history: They say the diagonal of Broadway should never have been allowed to cut a path across the orderly right angles of the Midtown street grid. The resulting three-way intersections can slow down cars and tie up the broader system.

Like New York’s Broadway, Madison Street cuts across the grid, creating difficult traffic patterns and an inhospitable environment for pedestrians. When Madison Street was first laid out, it played a vital role in regional connectivity. A cable car ran the length of the street, and ferries waited at the other end to take passengers across Lake Washington. Today, Madison Park is a quiet residential neighborhood, and cars and buses travel across Lake Washington along two wide freeways. In addition, the Pike/Pine corridor has experienced a renaissance, becoming one of the most vibrant (and expensive!) parts of the city. And yet, Madison continues to carry four lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting through the south end of Capitol Hill in the process.

We have a unique opportunity to reshape the southern end of Capitol Hill. By changing the role and layout of Madison Street, we can create a better environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. And we can do this while simultaneously improving mobility for drivers (or at least not harming it).

Pedestrian Retail Areas

Pedestrian Retail Areas
Pedestrian Retail Areas

Pedestrian Retail Areas

Great cities have active pedestrian-oriented retail areas, and Seattle has many. Could we use more? I think so, and Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) does, too. DPD is evaluating a major expansion of the city’s Pedestrian Retail Area zones, the biggest such expansion in the city’s history.

The Pedestrian Retail Area designation is an overlay on top of an area with Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zoning. The designation doesn’t increase development capacity. Instead, it requires pedestrian-oriented businesses on the ground floor, restricts driveway placement and parking, and waives parking requirements for certain uses. The rules are designed to foster a variety of uses and make these areas more walkable and safer for pedestrians. DPD is considering a set of new rules to strengthen Pedestrian Retail Areas by requiring that developments provide wider sidewalks and overhead weather protection, setting minimum floor area ratios (in Urban Centers, Urban Villages, and Link Light Rail station districts), and limiting lanes for businesses.

Pedestrian Zones MapDPD has identified 62 study areas for the project, including some new areas and expansions of exiting ones. For each study area, DPD has prepared an informational overview to analyse study area conditions, potential regulatory change impacts, and the study area candidate rating.

One of my favorite proposals for a new Pedestrian Retail Area is Aurora Ave N between N 72nd St and N 80th St. The area has changed a lot over the past few years:

  • Many new businesses have opened and existing property owners have invested in their buildings;
  • The RapidRide E Line provides more frequent and reliable transit service;
  • Traffic calming has reduced the speed of traffic; and
  • Many new mixed-used developments have been proposed, such as the recent project Aurora 77 at the intersection of Aurora Ave N and N 77th St.

If any area of Aurora has a real chance as a pedestrian-oriented street, this is it. Designating this corridor as a Pedestrian Retail Area will build upon the recent success of the area, reconnect both sides of Aurora, and further tame the street.

DPD is seeking input from the public on the study areas. If you’re interested in making Seattle more pedestrian-friendly, please take their online survey. It will only take a few minutes. The survey concludes on March 31, 2014.

Amad, iPads, and Customer Service



Read more stories form the road at www.nathanvass.com.

It’s that kid again, the one with the observant eyes. I’ve had a chance or two to chat with him in the interim. He is Amad, eleven or twelve, dressed in ordinary, low-profile garb. No flashy bling or starched denim–just a regular dark gray hoodie, not baggy, and jeans that fit. Amad’s coming home from school–it’s late afternoon on the 4, several hours after the schools have let out. Absent-mindedly I wonder what he was doing hanging around for so long before going home.

“Hope it was a good day at school,” I say.

I like to engage the young folk, to give them the example that yes, strangers can and do talk to each other. As a youngster, such opportunities can be strangely absent, particularly if you’re not employed; you may spend years of childhood and adolescence talking only to peers and adults in environments you already know.

The Bigger Picture of Viaduct Traffic

WSDOT - license - original

This past week saw a new plot twist in the Bertha tragicomedy: vehicle traffic is way down on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, from 110,000 daily trips in 2009 to 62,000 in 2012. As Ben noted, this not only explains some of the drop in solo commuting Mayor Murray touted in his State of the City speech but also bolsters the Mayor’s goal of lowering it below 25 percent. In fact, this target almost certainly hinges on not finishing the tunnel, since that new capacity would shift recent converts to carpooling, transit, and cycling back into their cars.

Given the uncertainty that Bertha will ever complete her route, there’s no question the SDOT data is good news. If we enter into the legal and engineering quagmire that the current standstill portends and the tunnel never comes to be, at least we’ll avoid catastrophic citywide gridlock.

WSDOT - license - original

Over at Sightline, Clark Williams-Derry offers four reasons that Viaduct volumes have declined. The most interesting is the “disappearance” of trips due to traffic delays, as commuters have shifted modes and changed routes in response to congestion caused by the removal of the southern end of the Viaduct. But not all of Seattle has seamlessly adapted to the substantial drop in capacity. Though a little hyperbolic, the commenters on Clark’s post reveal that commuting from West Seattle remains a struggle.

But the tunnel has never been the best solution to that. Not only is it devoid of exits into downtown and liable to worsen, not improve, congestion in Pioneer Square, but it’s stuck in an outdated, cheap-oil paradigm that we need to move away from. Plus, we now see it’s grossly overbuilt! It was sized for and justified based upon 110,000 daily trips, 40 percent of which are gone.

Still, I fear discounting the grievances of West Seattle commuters only solidifies their pro-tunnel point of view. In their minds, after all, they haven’t adapted seamlessly to a diminished Viaduct. Plus, it detracts from the real solution: bringing light rail to West Seattle. That isn’t a new fight. Back in December David Lawson considered what a West Seattle Link might actually look like.

Two months on, the data prove we don’t need the tunnel. But if commuting from West Seattle is really a nightmare, then the case for connecting it with better transit is only stronger. Rather than deflect their plight, let’s redirect disgruntled commuters towards that goal.

5 Cities And Their Housing Cost Solutions


Next City’s article “Five Extreme Models to Combat High Rent” is an interesting read simply because it lays out solutions to housing price problems that have actually been put into practice. It also illustrates (intentionally or not) why some of those methods aren’t actually solutions.

Methods That Aren’t Working

The first method discussed is inclusionary zoning, which Next City argues is a success story in Monaco:

But one city has made it work: The tiny principality of Monaco. There isn’t much room left for building in the less-than-one-square-mile city-state on the French Riviera, but when a new development comes around it includes — or at least funds — a lot of affordable housing.

The author claims inclusionary zoning has provided more affordable housing in high-rent Monaco, but the city hasn’t done anything to make the city accessible to everyone that wants to live there. The author hints at this, first saying:

For one, it takes incredibly high housing prices to sustain that ratio of affordable housing

and then later saying:

anyone without obscene wealth or the good fortune to be born there would be shut out of the city.

This example illustrates how easy it is to confuse the goals of providing a certain number of affordable units with the goal of having an affordable city. Just because a city has affordable units, doesn’t mean the city is affordable; if a city is truly affordable, anyone with a reasonable amount of income should be able to move there.

The same issue is seen when the author talks about rent control in Stockholm. The prices of apartments are affordable, but it can be almost impossible to actually get an apartment. The city has a wait list for apartments because there isn’t enough housing. Statistics from Stockholm’s municipal housing queue show average wait times of 8.5 years (up to 17 years in the central city). There is no point in having low rent if you can’t actually get an apartment. Neither inclusionary zoning nor rent control in these two case studies offer actual solutions.

Actual Solutions To The Housing Price Problem

The article does show three examples of cities that have managed to keep the price of housing low while also providing accessibility. Two of the cities, Houston and Tokyo, basically allow developers to build as much housing as they like. In Singapore, the third city, nearly all the housing is built and provided by the government. The key characteristic to note with all these examples is that enough housing is built.

Singapore’s Ugly Housing. Attributed to: Joan Campderrós-i-Canas – licenseoriginal

With each of these three examples, the author points to problems caused by these solutions. First with Singapore, the author complains about the housing aesthetics:

The downside of ubiquitous public housing, though, is that it looks like public housing. HDB flats aren’t as bad as the towers-in-the-park that went up in U.S. cities after World War II, but they’re not a whole lot better.

That may be a downside of housing in Singapore, but we should applaud the city for actually putting accessible housing above aesthetics. Furthermore, if the housing is publicly owned, it seems likely that people could encourage the government to build more diverse and attractive housing.

The only weird thing about this picture is that the highway appears empty. Attributed to: Paul Sableman – licenseoriginal

The author offers a similar critique for Houston: Unregulated development has created an ugly city. It’s inaccurate to describe Houston as completely unregulated. The city does a number of things to regulate how land can be used, including design review. Since I’ve been to Houston, I would concur that it’s sprawl and highways are ugly. Again, this is a small complaint compared to accessible housing. It also misses a more important complaint about the Houston model. The price that people pay for rent is not the only price paid for housing. It is nearly impossible (and dangerous) to live in Houston without a car and car ownership is expensiveAccording to a Consumer Reports study, the absolute lowest paid per year for a car was $5,000. If average rent in Houston is $881 per month (as this article claims), owning the cheapest car possible could make rent over 50% more expensive.

What a variety of housing looks like. Attributed to: JeHu68 – licenseoriginal

Lastly, the author discusses Tokyo. Supposedly Tokyo is unique in that it doesn’t zone for density. Tokyo is a fascinating example because it is a huge city that has managed to actually have much more affordable housing than other cities. In fact, buying a home in Tokyo is similarly affordable to Sacramento or Providence Rhode Island (page 16).

The author’s complaint with Tokyo is interesting. While the city is known for its public transit, the author posits that Tokyo has extremely long commutes, citing a blog post as proof. Take note that this citation is a blog post from 2008 by a random person on the internet, who himself is only making a rough estimate. If people live densely and housing is affordable, why wouldn’t people move closer to where they work? I remain skeptical that Tokyo has much worse commute times than other cities, but if that is true, it is a real concern and should be considered in an evaluation of housing cost.

What To Take Away From This

Like we’ve said before, when we talk about housing cost, what we’re really talking about is accessibility to housing. Housing is accessible when you can answer “yes” to this question, “Can you move where you want?” A city in which you have to wait eight or more years to get an apartment has not solved the housing price problem. Lastly, housing is intimately tied with other costs that need to be taken into consideration beyond the listed price of rent.

Seattle has a real opportunity to offer a unique solution to the housing cost problem. In both Houston and Japan, additional costs like transportation may add significantly to the affordability of housing. In both of these cities it appears that some smart planning and a focus on density could be a solution. Seattle is unique because the city actually encourages density and the state of Washington attempts to restrict sprawl. The only thing missing from our housing accessibility is a serious attempt to building more a lot housing.

Your Housing Is More Expensive If You Have To Own A Car. Here’s How Much.


One of the biggest pleasures I get out of living in a city is that I don’t have to own a car. Cars can be a great convenience and a lot of people enjoy driving, but I’ve never been one of those people. I’ve always found driving stressful. Nevertheless, the conveniences of owning a car are huge. I still rent a car about once a month, carry memberships for car2go and Zipcar, and occasionally use taxis. With that said, my day to day life is possible without owning a car and I feel extremely fortunate to have this choice. This is entirely due to the way Seattle is designed but, unfortunately, not everyone can choose to get rid of their car.

Freedom to get from point A to point B is incredibly powerful, but providing more transit options is more empowering than simply giving people transportation choices. In fact, the most empowering aspect of transit is that it saves people a lot of money. I initially got rid of my car because I couldn’t afford it. The extra money was huge for me. In case you were wondering, here’s the cost of car ownership per year (from Consumer Reports), graphed against how long the car is owned.


That graph shows an average which might startle a lot of people; over $6,000 a year?! This is the truth though. The direct cost we incur for owning a car is huge. You might think to yourself, “That might be the average but I’m sure I pay way less.” Actually, you probably don’t pay much less. The post shows the cost for many cars. The lowest price is $5,000 a year:

To Achieve Mayor Murray’s Goal, Stop Tunneling

Viaduct traffic collapse - From Sightline
Viaduct traffic collapse – From Sightline

Yesterday, in Mayor Murray’s first state of the city speech, he touts downtown’s low single occupancy mode share (page 10) – fewer than half of downtown commuters drive alone to work, preferring instead transit, walking, biking, or carpooling. He laid out a vision I strongly agree with – reducing driving alone from just under 50% to 25%.

This morning on Sightline Daily, Clark Williams-Derry shows us why we’ve dipped below that 50% mark – “traffic volumes on the Alaskan Way Viaduct have collapsed“.

The viaduct is down from carrying 110,000 cars a day – the number used to justify needing a tunnel – to only 62,000. Surface streets are seeing a barely noticeable increase. Transit usage has jumped. This lack of gridlock was predicted by myself and other proponents of the cheaper, lower carbon emissions, more equitable, lower risk, and faster surface/transit option.

Great, right? Not so fast. Finishing the tunnel would likely bring driving alone back above half of commute share. Currently, car trips bypassing downtown on I-5 compete with commute traffic. Putting them in the new tunnel would free up car space on I-5 and other routes, shifting users back from transit to driving, and taking our goal backwards.

If we agree with Mayor Murray’s goal, we would be better off stopping the tunnel today, and spend the remaining money on projects that grow the transportation system we want.

Seattle 2035 Open House

Seattle 2035
Seattle 2035

Seattle 2035Seattle is in the midst of its update to the city’s comprehensive plan, dubbed “Seattle 2035“. Washington State’s Growth Management Act requires that cities and counties across the state update their comprehensive plans every 10 years to adequately plan for a 20-year horizon. The current update cycle has many other cities and counties working to complete their updates by the state-required June 30, 2015 deadline. Prior to the update process, a lot of behind the scenes work is done: buildable land and capacity analyses, reviews of effectiveness metrics from past plans, demographic and job projections, analysis of current levels of service, and much more.

With the launch of Seattle 2035, two years of public engagement begins, led by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). The public can review the background profile of the comprehensive plan and comment about where future planning policy should go. Whatever ultimately comes out of the comprehensive plan update, these policies will guide implementing regulations, programmes, initiatives, and plans over the next decade and more.

If you would like to get involved, be sure to check out the website, comment, and attend future meetings. On Thursday the 20th, DPD staff will be holding an open house and presentation from 5.30pm to 8pm at the Central Library. Be sure to meet in the Microsoft Auditorium:

Join us for an open house about Seattle 2035, a yearlong citywide conversation about how Seattle should grow over the next 20 years. After the Open House, Christine Gaspar, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), will speak about how this New York-based non-profit uses art and design to improve public participation in shaping the built environment.

Where does the water go when you flush the toilet? What is affordable housing? Who owns the Internet? Who decides where noxious land uses go? The Center for Urban Pedagogy wants you to know!

CUP is a New York City-based nonprofit organization that makes accessible, visual explanations of the complex issues that shape our everyday lives. CUP’s Executive Director, Christine Gaspar, will talk about how the organization collaborates with grassroots organizers and talented designers to create posters, workshop tools, websites, and animations that demystify policy and planning and give individuals the tools to advocate for their own community needs.

The projects are designed with and for advocacy organizations to help increase their capacity to mobilize their constituents on important urban issues. CUP’s print, audio, video, and media projects, along with tactile interactive workshop tools, are in use by dozens of community organizers and tens of thousands of individuals in New York City and beyond.

The work have been featured in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s National Design Triennial, PS-1, and two Venice Biennales, and awarded a 2012 Curry Stone Design Prize and a 2010 Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund Award.

DPD will have a mini open house starting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the update to the Seattle Comprehensive Plan.

The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m.

Urbanist Advertising Partner: Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente