Capturing Underlying Patterns of Urban Street Design


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Chuck Wolfe and was originally published on


Have you ever wondered why some places seem built for automobiles as opposed to humans?

In a recent study, J. Alexander Maxwell and fellow researchers from the University of Strathclyde’s Urban Design Studies Unit found evidence that before the rise of the automobile, cities developed on a walkable “human” scale, with main streets that rarely exceeded 400 meters (a little more than 437 yards).

I recently joined Mr. Maxwell as co-author of an article in the London School of Economics and Political Science American Politics and Policy Blog. Together, we argue that this uniformity reveals an underlying pattern to pedestrian city settings, which merits renewed attention in contemporary urban design and policies.

Read our article here.

Image composed by the author in Aix-en-Provence, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist.  All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

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Seattle Metronatural


If you’re in need of a little pick-me-up today, you’re just in luck! Visit Seattle has a new, quirky little video that will leave you smiling and falling in love with this city all over again (as if that doesn’t happen every day anyway!) But this video is more than just a tribute to a great city, it highlights many Seattle’s best attributes: diversity, environment, recreation, art and culture, neighborhood business, livability, transportation, opportunity, and so much more. These are the things that great cities are made of. Here’s to Seattle!

Stephanie at 185th


Picture 8


“I got my transfer in here somewhere.” We’re at 185th inbound, and her face is lined with age and humor, that kind of spirit you don’t find enough, equal parts confident and humble. She’s over fifty, blue-gray eyes, wearing a couple older sweatshirts and nursing some bulging paper bags, babying them so they don’t tear.

“D’you wanna come in and look for it?”

I remember an operator who came out to ride my 3/4 once. He was intrigued at how excited I was after every shift, and why I had so many commendations. “What the heck are you doing out there?” he asked me one night at the baseAfter riding a trip on my 4, incognito, he came up and said, “Okay. Two things. First of all, Nathan, you should never become supervisor. You’re way too good at being out here. You’re doing a valuable thing, and we need people like you out here. Secondly, I’ve driven this route many times, and I know a lot of these guys. When they get on my bus, they don’t pay when they leave. But I watched them get on now, and at first they don’t know what you’re doing, being so friendly, if you’re bullshitting them or being sarcastic, but I notice they sit down and they keep watching you. And they realize after watching you interact with everyone else that you’re actually being sincere, you’re for real. And they go digging in their pockets for every loose scrap of change they have.”

“Wow,” I said, thrilled. “Thank you.” I didn’t know that. It’s hard for me to gauge the experience of riding my bus- partly of course because I can never do so, and because I’m so preoccupied with the road, with the front of the bus, and with being myself.

After a time the woman comes forward and says, “this is my transfer, but it’s expired. But I have a cold pop. I got a cold 7-Up here, for an upgraded transfer.”
“Oh, you don’t have to give me that, you should hang on to it. That’s nice of you though,” I say, trading out her transfer for a fresh one. “I love the idea. Barter! I wish more people did that, I wouldn’t have to pack a lunch! But no, I’m happy to help.”
“That’s just what I need. Thank you.”
“I’m glad I can help, I know it’s just a little thing.”
“Oh, everything helps. I’m planning a memorial service for my friend. She died. Well, she OD’d.”
“Oh, no,”
“She’d been on heroin for thirty-two years, she tried methadone thirteen times.”
“Wow. Oh, that’s heavy. I’m so sorry she’s gone!” I’m thinking how amazing it is she lasted that long in the first place. As if reading my mind, the woman says, “Yeah, but honestly I shoulda lost her ten, thirteen, fifteen years ago. I’m glad I got to know her.”
“That’s heartbreaking.”

She spoke of her friend’s time in jail. How she tried vacating her spot at the methadone clinic so Sam, her friend, could take her spot, though this turned out to be of no use because THS is an addiction clinic, not a pain clinic. I wasn’t sure if Sam was her deceased friend or another one; either way I could see the large-heartedness in her aging face, those blue eyes still bright and pulsing.

“That’s really good of you,” I said. “That’s a pretty huge gesture, just ’cause the hardship that puts on you,”
“Yeah, well, you know, sometimes, these folks in the clinics are goin’ through some tough-”
“They’re great people.”
“They are,”
“They have a lot to offer,”
“They do.”

I meant every word, and I hope it registered. On the morning reverse peak runs of the outbound 2- “the methadone express,” as some call it- the recovering addicts are easily the kindest passengers. They’re more expressive than most, which I personally enjoy, even if others find it grating, and they look out for each other in the way that small-town communities do, invested and intertwined with each other’s lives. They ask about your living situation, and they get sad when your dog dies.

“I like your outlook.”
“Hey, we’re all the same. What’s your name?”
“I’m Nathan.” Handshake. “It’s good to meet you.”

A month or so later I saw her again. I said, “how was the memorial service?”
Stephanie’s jaw dropped. “Wow. It was good. You remembered!”

One of my films concludes with the lead actress delivering a six-minute monologue, which I asked her to memorize in full because I wanted to shoot it in one continuous take.  She did so magnificently, and I was thrilled at her ability to retain all the information necessary to perform a monologue of that size. I was beyond impressed when I learned that she had simultaneously memorized another lengthy monologue for auditioning purposes, while also working on other things, and that she was able to dedicate complete focus to all of these works. You can keep adding, she told me. We think that by adding stuff, some other material in our brain has to get thrown out, but you can retain a lot in your memory. I definitely can’t remember everyone’s face, but I make an effort.

“Of course!”
“It was good. It was okay, actually.” Stephanie’s grief had grown in the intervening weeks. There was energy inside her still though, and she was trying to expend it in healthy ways. Some people feel most whole when they’re helping others.
“You know that area, around by the side of the tobacco shop, and up to where the bus stop is?”
“You notice anything different about it?”
“Uh,” I said, stalling. That area’s usually overrun with filth, but I remembered it looking cleaner than usual today- though I couldn’t be sure.
“Did it look cleaner today?” she asked me.
“Actually, yeah, it did!” I said, turning. “it looked kinda nice today.”
“That was me,” she said with pride. “I cleaned up that whole area. I was thinking, this place just looks-”
“Wait. You cleaned up that entire section?”
“Yeah, I spent seven hours over there yesterday. I just got tired of looking at it. I was like, the whole rest of Shoreline looks great, and then this spot by the clinic always looks like complete shit-”
We started laughing.
-“and what kind of message does that send to everyone, you know?”
“That is fantastic, Stephanie. Seven hours! You know, before you said that, I was thinking, it looked good.”
“It’s about the community, you know? These aren’t bad people.”



Read more of Nathan’s adventures on the 358 and other routes at

Which cities have the cheapest housing? It depends how you measure

House for rent. Attributed to waltarrrrr.
House for rent. Attributed to waltarrrrr.

Some cities are more expensive to live in than others. Many writers and researchers have attempted to quantify the difference. One commonly used metric is the ratio of median home selling price to median household income. This makes intuitive sense; if home prices are higher, then people will spend more on housing, right? Unfortunately, this metric is deeply flawed. As an example, Detroit consistently ranks among the cities with the lowest price-to-income ratio, which would seem to suggest that it’s an affordable place to live. But an alternate measure—the ratio of median rent to median household income—shows that Detroit is among the least affordable cities. This metric isn’t perfect either (as the rest of the article will demonstrate), but it’s a lot more accurate than the first one.

How can these two measures be so different? Why is the incorrect measure so widely reported? And can this mistake teach us anything about how we should plan and build our cities?

Event Reminder: Seattle 2035 EIS Scoping and Comprehensive Plan Alternatives

Comprehensive Plan Presentation
Comprehensive Plan Presentation. Attributed to: Montgomery County Planning Commission

As The Urbanist reported last week, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) will be holding an open house and presentation on the city’s update to the Comprehensive Plan. Here’s DPD’s event summary:

On March 24, the City of Seattle is holding an open house to discuss ways to plan for the growth expected in Seattle in the next 20 years. Learn about options for future population and job growth in Seattle, and comment on growth alternatives to be studied in an environmental impact statement (EIS). Public comments will help set the scope for the environmental study of growth alternatives.

Seattle 2035 is the 20 year update of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan.

Staff from DPD and our consultant, Studio 3MW, will be there to answer questions, but more importantly to listen to your comments and learn about your priorities.

The meeting takes place tonight at 5pm in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at Seattle City Hall. The agenda is as follows:

  • 5pm-5.30pm: Open House with staffed displays about Comprehensive Plan, Seattle 2035, Growth Alternatives, Environmental Impact Statement Process
  • 5.30pm-5.45pm: Presentation about Comprehensive Plan and Seattle 2035 by DPD
  • 5.45pm-6pm: Presentation about the Environmental Impact Statement Process by Studio 3MW
  • 6pm-6.30pm: Public Comments on proposed Growth Alternatives
  • 6.30pm-7pm: Open House continues with staffed displays about Comprehensive Plan, Seattle 2035, Growth Alternatives, Environmental Impact Statement Process

Sunday Video: Stockholm’s Clever Subway Ad


This is one way to liven up a subway platform.

Angels on Second Avenue




In that doorway, over there on Second South, is where a woman goes at night. She injects and imbibes various assortments of drugs as her body shudders and moans, phasing through the different reactions, pushing out time and life.

Just down the block is where a shooting was last night; Sho Luv came by to tell me about it, looking unusually mellow. He still managed his usual “you old enough to have a license?” upon seeing me, gold teeth smiling thick and wide, but not as wide as usual. “I was gonna go over and wait for the bus over there,” he said, explaining his preference for the Third & James Street zone over Second & Main, “but something told me not to go up there. That’s when I heard the shots.”

His monologue today was a sober one, cascading between several intercutting topics- “knew a woman who got shot through the cheek, she was okay otherwise,” “my big brother, at the club down there,” “it don’t matter, anybody gettin’ shot is bad,” “I’m gonna stop inside 88 Keys,” “food’s alright,” “what are they called, the hairstyle, remember back in the, wha’s, casual in the back-”
“Mullets! Yeah!”

He walks over to the club, considering the pavement as it passes him underfoot. On the other side of this block is Third South and Jackson, where Troy Wolff died from an inexplicable nighttime stabbing in September; his girlfriend was injured but survived. I’m here parked on my layover, doors open by choice, proofreading stories in my journal.

Today the sky is low and gray, the wind coiling around brick facades, giving murmur to the empty historical structures. Garbage blows by, scraps of yesterday catching on uneven pavement. I hear a lilting soprano carrying on the wind and look up. Who could be singing like that, here? There is a boy across the street, climbing on the lower sections of a streetlamp pole. He is trying to tape up posters and adorn them with some sort of flag-like banner.

He looks to be early teens, black, in a green hooded zip-up and beige carpenters. The wind keeps rushing through his colorful flag-banner, forever stopping him from securing it as he would like, but there is no frustration in him. His gentle voice sings out soft and pure, angelic, over and over, a lullaby for a bedraggled square. It’s a repeated stanza from a previous age, and I can hardly believe it’s him. I watch him clamber up a few steps, precarious, as he strings tassels around the pole. The lyrics are lost in the whisk of air, but it feels like a forties slow piece, Ella Fitzgerald or early Nina Simone, maybe a song his mother sang when he was little. The block is mostly deserted. It’s just him and the wind and the litter, the flag-banner never quite cooperating, and now, his unfaltering soul singing out, now and now again.

Does his song keep him warm, I wonder? He is not discouraged by the repeating wind, by sullied decrepitude or the buckling weight of history. In his faint but unwavering voice is an outlook that completely revitalizes the space. Some might call him naive; I say he has the boldness to know something we don’t want to forget.

What We’re Reading: SLU Is A Boomtown

Terry Avenue in South Lake Union.
Terry Avenue in South Lake Union. Attributed to Transit Nerds.

Transit could be a lot better: At Seattle Transit Blog, your columnist proposes big changes to Metro’s South King County network, with Link playing a key role in the plan. The Rainier Valley advocates for a new Link Light Rail stop at Graham Street. Perception of good design for transit facilities may matter just as much as service itself in attracting ridership.

Or it could be a lot worse: Bus cuts are the antithesis to all the above.

The number of pink mustaches is too damn high: The Seattle City Council voted to legalize transportation network companies (TNCs, also known as “ride-sharing”). The bill will establish unified licensing and training procedure for the city’s various car-hiring services. More controversially, each TNC will be limited to 150 active drivers at a given time. Like any good compromise, no one is happy with the result.

Take a walk on the supply side: A Canadian company will deliver 1,945 housing units, in close proximity to Amazon’s new campus. As Dan Bertolet argues, this is cause for celebration, not anger.

Separate and unequal: Inequality is rising throughout the country, and especially in our cities. Interestingly, some cities are unequal because the rich are really rich, while other cities are unequal because the poor are really poor. Not that either one is a great place to be.

Urban adventurer: John Feit takes us on a wonderful tour of West Capitol Hill’s urban alleys.

But will the roasters earn $15/hour? Starbucks plans to build a specialty roasting facility on Capitol Hill.

Carmageddon, take 20: Basically every highway in Seattle is closed this weekend. Our prediction: nothing bad will happen, proving once again that transportation patterns are not set in stone.

It turns out that some people actually drive in Manhattan: New York City is considering a plan that would implement roadway pricing for Manhattan’s most congested streets and bridges. If you’re going to implement roadway pricing, then a borough where fewer than 25% of residents own cars seems like a good place to start.

It’s really happening: Over at Ravenna Blog, Rebecca has posted a beautiful photo series of North Link construction activity at Roosevelt Station and the Maple Leaf Portal.