Tuesday, 11 August, 2020

Sunday Video: Farewell to Massimo Vignelli


This past week, transit designer Massimo Vignelli passed away. Vignelli was well known for his revolutionary thinking of wayfinding for transit systems. In this video, he discusses his very controversial and simple New York City Subway map of 1972.

What We’re Reading: Yearly Cost of Accidents Is Over $800 Billion

Car Runs Into ‘Donate Your Car’ Ad On The Back of Metro Bus – Attributed to Tom Lianza

Driving is costly in more way than you might think: Most people don’t realize the enormous cost of driving; operation costs are much higher than most people expect, over $5,000 a year for the least expensive cars. AAA most recent study puts the cost for the average sedan close to $9,000 per year. But operation costs don’t even come close to account for the entire costs of car ownership. Another huge chunk is spent on accidents. A study by the US Department of Transportation pins the cost in 2010 at nearly $900 per person in the US, or $871 billion dollars.

Design matters: Greater Greater Washington chronicles the failure of urban park space. When we make green space, it needs to be well thought out.

Making streets safe is cheap: The cost from one year of car accidents is nearly 30 times larger than the cost of making the entire country safe for biking. We also know where we need to make streets safest for cyclists. But, there may be some serious discrimination of pedestrians based upon race.

Farewell to a transit designer: Massimo Vignelli has passed away, a designer known for many different products and logos. He was most beloved for his unique redesign for the New York City Subway’s famous map of the 1970s and the DC Metro wayfinding pylons.

$15/hr moves forward: The city council took action this week to move forward and amend legislation that would enact a $15/hr minimum wage. Though, the effective date for the law may be delayed until April 2015.

Transit is cost effective: Planetizen has a great rundown of funding public transit and concludes that it is very cost effective, especially compared to automobile ownership.

Small lots lose: The council passed legislation requiring smaller lots to have lower rising buildings than their neighboring buildings on larger lots. Matt originally broke down the bad news with this legislation for us.

Next up on the chopping block: The council is also poised to pass legislation that will more minutely regulate small units, referred to as micro-housing. Perhaps the strangest part of this legislation is the requirement that units cannot include a food prep area and have a limit on the voltage of the electrical connection allowed in the room. The legislation states that only 25% of all units are allowed to have a food prep area and an electrical outlet that could be used for a stove. It’s hard to see what the goal of this particular regulation is besides making the units less useful for residents (units use for college dormitories are exempt from the rule).

What a play street looks like. Attributed to SDOT

Streets for the kids: The city has completed it’s first ‘play street’ in Madrona. What’s a play street? Essentially it’s a street closed off to traffic that people can use as a public space like any other park. This program creates a safe outdoor are for children and families to enjoy their city. And if you’re interested in getting one in your neighborhood, check this information from SDOT.

Parking spaces for all: More parklets are popping up int he city as well. There is a new one in the International District. The one we previously mentioned here is now funded, and there a whole bunch more that have been approved for 2014.

Rules of engagement: City Lab gives us a good laugh this week with the rules of engagement for riding transit in European cities. There’s actually a lot of truth to this.

Get involved: The Department of Planning and Development has two projects open for public comment. One on Minimum Density rules for Pedestrian Zones and another on Lowrise 3 Zones. Meanwhile, SDOT will hold a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the Northgate Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge for the new light rail station.

Free for the taking: Who say all developers are evil? This one wants to save old houses and is even giving them away for free if you’re willing to move it elsewhere.

Driving is plummeting: The trend lines are still the same, and they keep heading south with people driving less and less. We peaked in the 2000s and are now at 1994 levels.

This week in architecture: Dezeen discusses the reawakening of architecture in post-9/11 NYC, highlights a clever commercial rowhouse in Copenhagen, and transformation of a former police station. Paris freaks out over a modern take for a historic department store. Capitol Hill Seattle Blog praises the recently opened, historically preserved, and newly dense Sunset Electric Building. And while we love cities, we also love the countryside, especially the Spanish countryside. This renovation may leave you salivating for a trip to the Spanish hinterlands.

Capitol Hill murals: There are lots of good design for new murals to line Olive Way to 15th Ave E. The good news here is that you can help vote on these!

In Praise of the Swing and Grave


Picture 7

I’m riding home from Sea-Tac with a dear friend of mine. The last train headed for downtown has already left for the night, and we thus opt for a late-night 124 to work our way back into town. For decades Metro offered 24-hour service from downtown to Sea-Tac; maybe someday when there’s money they’ll consider doing so again. But nevermind. My friend and I pass the time pleasantly at Tukwila International Boulevard Station–yes, such a thing is possible at 1:30am! She and I talk around in detailed circles, always with more to say to each other, sharing space with the working few.

For tonight at least, the hour has since passed for drunks and users. Now is the quiet time, that elusive pre-dawn realm populated by people who very much need the bus. Cruising down the Boulevard now, I look around at the nations seated beside me, hollow cheeks and thoughtful, tired eyes, gazing into the middle distance, statuesque and contemplative, resting on the go.

Mostly men here, but not all, dressed in layered practicality: raincoats, work coats, sweaters, hoodies, windbreakers, reflective jackets… all with a tinge of earthy scrappiness. We’re on Pac Highway after all, and this is no place for the careless. The globe, our globe, balances precariously on the services and elemental labor these folks provide, and would swiftly crumble if not for their continued presence.

The 124 driver, also a friend of mine, takes us gently through the night like the seasoned pro that she is. One of my favorite things about being an operator- and something I never anticipated- is the sense of being surrounded by people you know whenever you’re going about the city on foot or by bus. Those are all your friends or acquaintances out there, familiar working faces on the move.

Seated- sprawled is a better word- about the front seat is a thin African-American man of roughly thirty. Oversized dark gray sweater with the collar turned up, black jeans and fuzzy cornrows ending in a bun behind his head. He stares vacantly, head resting on the top of the seat, his body draped in an expansive slouch, conforming to the surfaces around him.

At some point an older woman boards. She steps in slowly, heavier, hobbling forward on swollen limbs, colorful knee-high socks mostly covering her pale and puckered skin. She’s white and sixty-plus, with friendly eyes and her hands full- a bag, a backpack, a cane.

Cornrows notes her presence entering and, without waiting for any suggestion, gets up to offer his seat to her. He’s already stepping away when she manages a “thank you.”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all,” he says. He says it fluidly and quietly, a natural kindness, in a cadence I wouldn’t have expected based on his dress and stance. Had my eyes been closed I’d have thought he was Cary Grant. Sometimes the 124 is more than worthy of the “Jerry Springer” designation; tonight we’ve got Jimmy Stewart in here. We’ve got Sydney Poitier.

Is A Car-Free City A Practical Idea?


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Road Crazed. Road Crazed is a blog about all things relating to roads, highways, and transportation.

For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a life without killer rush hours, incessant and problematic road construction, and seemingly endless traffic issues. However distant a world without these elements may seem, though, there was once a time when none of these problems existed. It’s hard to believe that barely more than a century ago, personal automobiles were nothing more than a dream for the average individual.

That all changed in 1908, of course, when Henry Ford’s assembly line opened the door for the luxury of unrestrained travel to millions of middle-class Americans. Understandably, the Ford Model T was a huge success. In the words of Henry Ford himself, the Ford Model T was “so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one–and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” Now what doesn’t sound appealing about that?

The personal automobile has transformed the world since then–and that’s an understatement. Cars are both a blessing and a curse in our modern-day society. According to a 2011 article, the world’s car population has surpassed one billion, with the amount of cars worldwide to increase to 2.5 billion by the year 2050. I’m not going to go into a big argument about scarcity of resources and greenhouse gases here, but surely billions of vehicles pumping CO2 into our atmosphere can’t possibly be a good thing…right? Not to mention that the world requires almost 100 million barrels of oil per day, a statistic which is a bit concerning considering that this oil is not an infinite resource.

World Wide Oil Production – Attributed to The Economist

While electric vehicles offer a potential solution to the problem of limited resources and pollution, they do nothing to resolve the world’s other crippling issue with personal transportation–traffic. If you commute by car in a large metropolitan area, rush hour traffic is generally unavoidable. There’s not really a cure for this traffic, either, especially in growing areas. Expanding roads provides temporary relief, but actually makes congestion worse in the long run–a phenomenon which I briefly described in a prior post. To make matters worse, road expansions make conditions much more unpleasant during the duration of the construction itself.

According to this infographic by Nationwide, the average yearly cost of road congestion to each driver is $713, which is more than an entire week’s worth of wages for the average American.

The obvious alternative is the widespread implementation and usage of public transportation. However, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Numerous studies have shown that people are irrationally biased towards automobiles, and many people will choose to drive their cars even in situations where public transportation is proven to be quicker and more economically feasible.

This behavior alone would make the development of a successful car-free city a difficult task, especially in the current-day. However, China is attempting it. Outside of Chengdu, 78 million square feet of land has been set aside for the construction of a new city designed to house 80,000 residents, none of whom will need a car to get around. In this so-called “Great City,” transportation will be provided by electric shuttles, and all residences will be within a two-minute walk of a public park. The city also plans to implement eco-friendly features in order to save energy and minimize waste. However, we have yet to see if this will be successful in China, and whether or not such a development could be successfully built elsewhere. Still, it’s an impressive plan.

Pedestrian Zone in Chengdu – Attributed to little_ram. Original photo here.

While large cities with no cars are basically nonexistent in today’s times, there are a few examples of cities with significant pedestrian-only areas. Freiburg, Germany is a good example of this–Freiburg has both a large pedestrian zone and an extensive public transport system.

Perhaps a more relatable example of a mostly car-free community is the average modern-day university. Even though it’s not entirely comparable to an actual city, many large universities offer education, jobs, housing, and dining all in one constrained space–which is completely accessible by foot or bicycle.

Only time will tell if an entirely car-free city is a current-day possibility or merely an element of an unrealistic utopia. One thing is for sure, however–the world’s irrational aversion to public transit has to come to an end before anything like this can become a widespread part of our future. Once this happens, our future generations just might see the day when no one needs a car to get to where they need to be.

Why Do We Write About Cities?


When we write about cities, sometimes we do best when we take the metrics away.



In 2011, amid a visit to San Francisco and just back from Africa, I offered some thoughts about why we write about cities.  Three years later, I’m not sure much has changed.

I continue to believe that visiting and photographing cities worldwide can take the metrics away, often amid economic boom, or bust, next to revolution or facing or remembering the challenge of reconstruction. In such settings, qualitative and interactive experiences and comparison seem more important than documenting carbon emissions, census data, rankings or ratings.

While data and catch-phrases have merit to enhance background principles and to support goals, so does the sense of wonder with which people explain where they live, and ask about how other places are different, day-to-day, at the human scale.

Witness the frustrated commuter, who will authentically share perceptions, no matter the transportation mode. People will earnestly talk about neighborhood safety, a sense of economic well-being or challenge and satisfaction or concerns about a child’s education. With sincerity, others will refer to the weather, green or water surroundings or the music of place and time.

And transfixed, the world listens to and watches revolutions and disaster, where the urban setting is entirely disoriented and must rebuild again.

The fundamental reason that successful cities resonate is because they satisfy and/or complement some very basic human needs, often related to mental and physical health: congregation, safety, and the three “e’s” of education, environment and economy. In our policy and regulatory discussion of such urban settings, I continue to think we might perform at a higher level by starting with reminders of the core: the basic human needs which cities can give, or frustrate.

Only after acknowledging the fundamentals—and pausing to watch and listen— should we debate the circular arguments of ends versus means.



Images composed by the author in San Francisco and Seattle in 2011 and 2014.  Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

This post first appeared in similar form in myurbanisthere.

Baugruppen: Innovative Constructs


Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a series on Baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read Part 1 or check out the series.

photo: mike eliason

Baugruppen provide a vehicle for experimental modes of constructing versus traditional models of housing, where experimentation and innovation can prove difficult. Due to the nature of designing and building in a group, BGs allow owners leeway in the direction they’d like their project to go, or what type of structure the building should have. They allow the potential to incorporate highly individualized units, extremely innovative construction methods (prefab, CLT, brettstapel!), uber green buildings (passivhaus!) – all whilst remaining relatively affordable. And, in some cases, it is this experimental nature that brings the cost down.

Energy Efficiency

Previously, I wrote that individual BG owners have access to reduced rates for hitting levels of efficiency (via the state-owned bank, KfW). Some locations also give a further subsidy for higher levels of efficiency, such as those meeting Passivhaus (which, depending on jurisdiction, can entail little cost increase for window/door packages, ventilation system and increased insulation levels over ‘barely legal’ construction). For Vauban, there was an efficiency requirement for all projects, and several ended up meeting (or exceeding) Passivhaus. These projects provide a high level of comfort, acoustic privacy, and low operating costs – all quite handy for urban housing, or even housing geared towards the elderly. As Passivhaus has becomes easier to meet (effectively no up charge on certain typologies), the transition to net zero PHs, or even plusenergie (energy positiveprojects, is already underway. Awe. Some!

The Baugemeinschaft Sophienallee is a really well done multifamily Passivhaus by Neustadt Architekten, located in Hamburg’s dense borough Eimsbüttel. The 5-story, 16-unit project features a variety of unit sizes, and corresponding diversity in owners (seniors, young families, DINKs, singles), roof terrace, garden and two community rooms.  Construction costs were about $250/sf. Drawings, photos and details via deutschebauzeitungen, and Passivhaus stats also available.


BGs have the option of pushing as far as their budget will allow in terms of materials and structure. The group may feel that certain forms of construction are advantageous in terms of embodied energy or carbon (e.g. CLT v. concrete) – and it’s entirely possible given the right approach, those methods may even cost less as well. For the BG, being ecologically-minded may not be an afterthought, they may even be willing to take on the risk of an all-wood building whereas a risk-averse developer might avoid that route. They can debate the merits of EPS, XPS, cork  in financial terms yes, but also through other lenses.

The 3xgruen BG (also by A52’s designer, roedig.schop architekten) is a phenomenal, jaw-dropping game-changing 5-story,13-unit wood building incorporating CLT and prefabricated walls. In terms of sustainability + affordability + density, I’m not sure a better project exists (and I would know!). Construction costs are incredible (about $175/sf gross) – even though the quality is quite high. This low-energy project was envisioned as a prototype, with the form and structure being transferable to other sites, which could result in even lower prices (whuuuuuut?!?). Common areas include a garden (kid’s realm!) and roof terrace (adult’s playground!). Truly a stunning urban prototype. Info, drawings and pics from a bauwelt article. Short video of this award winning project is also worth perusal.


Building in urban environs can be difficult, and many urban projects are opting for panelized assemblies to reduce the construction duration. This is advantageous to both developers and baugruppen – for BGs , specifically because the design and decision making process can be quite lengthy.

Kaden Klingbeil’s e3 is an incredible, 7-story wood construction in the heart of Berlin. A lot has been written about this project already, I will just note that not only is it highly innovative – but special permission was required in order to build that tall (hence the adjoining concrete stairwell + elevator). Thankfully, they prevailed, and the world can revel in the beauty of this stunning project, built for around $280/sf. Nice writeup of the architects and project by Joe Mayo’s timbercity. Great video on the project, w/ English subtitles.

Fragments From The Road


Picture 20


I feel like I see so many fragments of universes, the visible tips of deep and storied lives, icebergs whose temperatures and histories we can only guess at. Here are the glancing shades of a few.

Shan (“not Shannon, just Shan”), standing at the front of my 358, telling me how she broke up with her emotionally abusive boyfriend and thus felt a new and heady sensation of release. She’s developed a heretofore untapped appetite for exercise and has lost 150 pounds in ten months. I look at her beaming face, long hair and the first beautiful aging lines, letting all that vitality hit me.

An old but hardy man, perhaps a seafaring type, getting off at Seneca, quipping to me as he leaves: “okay, you can go home now!”

At Beacon and Lander. An African-American man stands up inside the coach, yelling through the open window at his friend across the street: “IT’S TEN O’ CLOCK! WHASS UP CHUCKIE!” I glance at my watch. It’s 3:42. Maybe he means New Zealand time.

On the 36, a little south of Judkins outbound. Who’s that Chinese senior walking with her head down, a half-smile on her face? I know that profile. I’ve pulled up to the stop, way past her, she’s back there somewhere, a hundred feet away, walking away- but I know that face. I saw her yesterday, for the first time in months. I throw on the parking brake and jump out of the packed bus- “gimme a second-” and cup my mouth as I yell, “MELBA!” That’s her name. “MELBATOAST!”
She looks up, looks to her right, now she’s turning around- that half-smile transformed, exploding as she recognizes me. “Nathan!” she shouts. We wave. I wish her a good day and jump back inside.
“Don’t mind me,” I tell the passengers. “Just sayin’ hey to my buddy!”

A working girl (you know what I mean) in a leering tank top, straps and bra straps, cleavage for miles, midriff exposed. No makeup today. Her sweatshirt is tied round her waist, somehow matching her hair tied back in a high ponytail. “Thank you,” she says as she gets off. She’s carrying, among other things, a hub cap for a Honda Civic.

Halfway down the bus sit two older Vietnamese, easily seventy, one a man and the other a lady. They sit across the aisle from each other, in their own separate seat pairs. Not relaxed around each other enough to be a couple; maybe they’re neighbors. They’re passing a cantaloupe back and forth. One really wants to give it to the other, and the other is just way too polite about it. Gestures of “no thank you, really” and “here you go,” until finally they grin back and forth, crinkling into ageless humor.

Sunday Video: 3.5M in Los Angeles


Many elements have to be considered when we talk about the total development capacity for a place. Gensler LA offers a good starting point for some of these. This Sunday’s video gives us a great visualization of what it would take to support 4.3 million residents in Downtown LA. Perhaps this is a worthwhile discussion for Seattle.