Nate Silver from the always wonderful FiveThirtyEight political blog gave a fascinating TED talk about racism’s role in the 2008 election. Through the course of his speech, Silver recognizes the differing patterns of diversity in cities compared to rural areas and briefly talks about the benefits of the street grid in facilitating diversity. He raised one particular point that struck me: cul-de-sac development was, in Silver’s opinion, a contributing factor in the rightward shift of the nation’s politics in the 1980’s. While I’d need to see more information to back up this hypothesis, it is an interesting theory.

You can watch the full speech below:

We always say that it’s impossible to talk about transportation without talking about land use. Is it possible to talk about land use without talking about communities? How do you think the street grid or lack of it affects your community?

41 Replies to “Diversity, the Street Grid, and Obama’s Election”

  1. I’d say that without a street grid it would be unlikely that I’d have a coffee shop, a pizza joint, a gourmet restaurant, and a bus stop within three blocks of my single-family home. And I would certainly not have apartments and townhomes across the street. Cul-de-sac developments generally mean extreme segregation of uses to the extent that residential density and household income is almost completely uniform. This also often results in ethnic segregation far beyond what is seen in the already-segregated Seattle.

    1. I live in a single family home, have a pizza place, three indian places, three coffee shops, a music store, a fancy italian place, a mini-mart, another fancy italian place, walgreen’s, a nice japanese place and like 10 cheap places to eat, all within three or four short Seattle blocks of my house.

      If you extend it to ten there’s bookstores, baby clothes stores, trendy clothes stores, barber shops, trader joe’s safeway, whole foods, a 100 cheap places to eat.

      1. Oh, I thought this thread was about oneupsmanship and was trying desperately to figure out how I could beat that… “Well I have 40 thai restaurants IN MY HOUSE. And a time machine. So I win.”

      2. I misread it, I thought at first, you were saying single family homes can’t have walkability, which I disagree with, but it really was “cul-de-sacs” can’t have walkability, which I agree with.

  2. I live in a suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood that was built in 1959. Unlike most of those that came later it’s a single street that comes off a major street on a grid, instead of a warren of confusing dead-end streets off winding roads with a single entry point from a real street. In general I’m against cutting off residences from the grid but my experience is that an isolated cul-de-sac with quick access to a connected street is not such a bad thing. Neighbors, particularly kids, regularly use the street as social space and it keeps people from withdrawing into their homes as is so common in other places. But because it’s just one block perpendicular to a regular street it doesn’t create a barrier separating our block from the surrounding area. There’s a grocery store a quarter mile away down the hill, a high school half a mile away up the hill, a library 3/4 of a mile away, and several shops, professional offices, and restaurants in walking distance. Economically, it’s solidly middle-class and while it’s not ethnically diverse by urban standards it’s hardly an all-white enclave either (there’s one mixed-race family and a Vietnamese American family, plus a group home with people of various backgrounds, out of 17 homes).

    I think it helps that the homes are small by contemporary standards (at 1800 sf ours is one of the bigger homes on the street) and the street is a cul-de-sac by necessity and not design because it backs up on a steep hill above a ravine.

    That said, Nate’s probably right about the effect of the cul-de-sacs that came later. I just think it’s too easy to say that cul-de-sacs are always bad and I don’t think that’s true.

    1. Good thoughts. I’m not sure if Nate is really right or not, since there were some societal shifts that allowed cul-de-sacs to gain in popularity — but it is an interesting theory.

      Can you post a Google maps link of your cul-de-sac?

      1. I will add that in general the area I live is *not* very pedestrian-friendly. There are lots of strip malls and huge parking lots and street-facing garages, as evidenced by the Google maps link. I’m on the edge of a residential-only area segregated from non-residential uses. Still, because the trends of the 20th century hadn’t advanced as much, there’s a lot within walking distance. And there are plans to add density and more walkable amenities in the area.

    1. There’s a difference between disagreeing (“I think cul-de-sacs are more safe because of random street violence”) and insighting anger like you did with that comment.

  3. “cul-de-sacs” can’t have walkability

    First off, somehow walkability has become a code word for commercial development. A trail enhances walkability; restaurants and bars don’t. Restaurants and bars (and other commercial development) will have a greater percentage of walk-in traffic if they are located in areas that also have a high residential density. It just so happens that this typically occurs in US cities that are laid out on a grid. Pick any old quaint European village (like San Remo) and you’ll see it’s anything but a grid and yet much more pedestrian friendly than a grid system designed to transform the land rather than adapt to it.

    The “qualities” which are attributed to a grid, fast food, bars, apartments, are many of the things people move out to the suburbs to get away from (one mans meat is another man’s poison). But it’s not the grid vs cul de sac which determines this, it’s density. Kirkland from Market Street up to I-405 is a mixture of grid and cu de sac. There’s very little difference between the homes or character of the neighborhood based on street layout. You have lots of commercial development mixed with residential down near the water and as you climb the hill it transitions to residential.

    I agree that cul de sacs which are completely cut off from each other are less desirable than ones that have a system of interconnecting trails. But there are plenty of examples of grids where poor or no sidewalks, heavy traffic, parked cars, noise, etc. make it very uninviting to walk.

    1. Definitely grids aren’t the whole solution, but it’s an excellent place to start.

      I would like to add that in my neighborhood there are just a handful of bars, so you can have walkable density without being an “entertainment district” or whatever.

      Kirkland’s got a nice grid near the water, but very little walkability. One of my very good friends lives just up to hill from downtown Kirkland, but he’s got one restaurant, a dentist and a mini-mart he can walk to. Not even a single shop.

      1. The parts of Kirkland where the highest percentage of walk in business is promoted isn’t really a grid or cul de sac. The residential areas of Kirkland which conform strictly to a grid are pretty exclusively residential (exclusive residential?). Starting with a fresh slate I think it would be rare to find a well designed development, residential or mixed use that would be architecturally pleasing using a strict grid. In places that got stuck with a grid the common thing to do to eliminate cut through traffic and give a sense of neighborhood is to block streets to through traffic; like they tried (and I thought was successful) with Westlake.

    2. walkability means there is something you can walk to. it could very well be stores.

      a trail is worthless if it leads to nothing.

      1. The Wonderland Trail is worthless? Although I commute by bike I find walking and bike riding to be very worth while just for the sake of doing it. Urban and suburban trails always lead to somewhere but the county doesn’t promote them primarily as a transportation alternative.

      2. Trails are good for biking, but let me know if you can think of one “walking trail” in the area that is heavily trafficked for a reason beyond novelty. A trail might have destinations on either end, but a lively street ideally has destinations every step of the way. That mash of destinations creates an active sidewalk and encourages its use. A trail isolated from civilization are going to have a real hard time suggesting to people that they’re safe. Perhaps if the trail was in front of houses or retail it might feel more safe, less disconnected from eyes and ears and help. But then we’d just call that trail a sidewalk!

      3. How many people does the Wonderland Trail get out of cars? I think two very different kinds of “walkability” are being talked about here.

    3. A trail enhances walkability; restaurants and bars don’t

      That’s not the same type of walkability. The most introductory sort of reading on the subject (someone like Jane Jacobs) will illustrate that businesses such as bars and restaurants do heavily relate to the use of sidewalk space. That use of sidewalk space defined by destinations is “walkability.” But you can’t have a use of sidewalk space without a sidewalk and you usually won’t without a street grid.

      A walking trail or a park really doesn’t do anything for walkability.

      The “qualities” which are attributed to a grid, fast food, bars, apartments, are many of the things people move out to the suburbs to get away from (one mans meat is another man’s poison).

      All of those things exist in suburbs, they are just not on a street grid. And where has fast food ever been lauded as a good attribute of a grid street pattern?

      But there are plenty of examples of grids where poor or no sidewalks, heavy traffic, parked cars, noise, etc. make it very uninviting to walk.

      No sidewalks are definitely a problem, and I’d be interested to read more about the effect of noise on foot traffic. Perhaps you can recommend some reading? I will say that parked cars generally enhance a pedestrian’s feeling of safety. Even “walkable” suburban areas typically have mostly street parking. I guess if you mean the giant and excessive acres of parking that dominate commercial development in suburbia then I agree. Those lots not only provide a minor visual blight or an inviting feeling, but physically increase the distance you have to traverse to go to your local suburban fast food joint. And of course, there is never a walking trail between the sidewalk and the front of Sears or Fred Meyer or the dozens of other bland and impersonal chains that mark 148th Ave NE.

      1. there is never a walking trail between the sidewalk and the front of Sears or Fred Meyer or the dozens of other bland and impersonal chains that mark 148th Ave NE.

        That area is a blight, it’s also on a grid and has sidewalks. Somehow a Link station on the corner of NE 24th and 156th NE is going to change all that… yeah sure.

        Redmond Town Center was not laid out as a grid and is designed to be pedestrian friendly. It has sidewalks and for the most part no on street parking. Although they could have done a better job with some of the outer stores to the east the concept was to try and recreate a sort of village layout.

        Parked cars are pretty ugly irregardless of whether they are lined up along a street or put in lots between the sidewalk and the storefronts. Nobody really wants to sit next to a parking stall (or traffic). Hence the suburban Mall concept was born. Drive to one place and shop, dine and watch a movie. Sure the parking lot is ugly but you don’t see it inside. Bellevue Square (not my favorite place, admittedly) does this one better by at least providing a parking garage and with the dramatic increase of housing in Bellevue actually has a number of people that can walk there. Sure it’s on a grid but it’s not inherent to the design.

        A walking trail or a park really doesn’t do anything for walkability.

        The plans for South Lake Union sure don’t reflect that attitude! That’s an interesting area because while it is crisscrossed by streets it’s far from being a sterile north south uniform grid. It’s that, along with the lake shore and of course proximity to downtown that give this area it’s unique potential.

      2. Redmond Town Center is just a mall and while I think some improvements could be made to increase its walkability it isn’t really part of the walkable landscape. It is bordered by massive parking structures on one side and large parking lots on the others — except one side which is apparently the way pedestrians get to the mall. I’d say that people walk around the mall, sure, but not many walk to the mall. Note how there are only three streets to reach the mall on foot from downtown Redmond. Any “shortcuts” you would logically take from downtown Redmond involve crossing naked train tracks.

        I lived in that area for a year. I walked to Redmond Town Center once or twice, but I did walk to the QFC in the area and would have been content had I worn gloves at the time. The place I lived was on a grid, but admittedly much of downtown Redmond isn’t on a grid.

        Parked cars are pretty ugly irregardless of whether they are lined up along a street or put in lots between the sidewalk and the storefronts. Nobody really wants to sit next to a parking stall (or traffic).

        People walk by parked cars all the time. Whether sitting is a very important mode or not is up to you, but we want to talk about parks and flying kites that’s a lot different than talking about walkability.

        The plans for South Lake Union sure don’t reflect that attitude! That’s an interesting area because while it is crisscrossed by streets it’s far from being a sterile north south uniform grid. It’s that, along with the lake shore and of course proximity to downtown that give this area it’s unique potential.

        Are there trails planned in SLU outside of the waterfront park?

        That area is a blight, it’s also on a grid and has sidewalks.

        There is no such thing as Sears and Fred Meyer in cul-de-sacs. This discussion is specifically about residential neighborhoods and the travel modes of those residents. Cul-de-sacs came before giant parking lots and big box stores, and the notable unpopularity of cul-de-sacs in some areas entirely prevent the formation of big box blights and parking lots that take minutes to traverse. This is probably a big simplification, so there’s always more depth and complex interactions at work. But certainly a walking trail wouldn’t open this area up to pedestrians.

      3. Westlake Center and Pacific Place are just malls. Sidewall space is really nothing; all the stores center inward and they’ve got parking structures just like suburbia. Really the big department stores were a vertical mall except all the “shops” were owned by the same retailer.

        Redmond Town Center didn’t include (to my knowledge) any residential (not counting hotel rooms). It did include however a large amount of office space which provides walk-in clientele for the restaurants and probably a fair amount of shopping (buy a bike chain at REI before heading home). It’s also interesting that the Samammish Valley Trail connects City Hall and all the new townhouses north of there (on cul de sacs) with Redmond Town center. Although that would be about a mile walk. The new Bear Creek Parkway extension will directly link Town Center with a huge amount of new residential development. Redmond has requested ST put the downtown station on the old BNSF right of way at Leary instead of the Redmond Transit Center and has plans to link all the destinations with open walkable routes. If you haven’t seen downtown Redmond in the last six months you wouldn’t recognize it. The entire area near the Transit Center has sprouted condos up to six stories. The sidewalks might actually start getting used for something besides skateboards!

        There is no such thing as Sears and Fred Meyer in cul-de-sacs. This discussion is specifically about residential neighborhoods and the travel modes of those residents. Cul-de-sacs came before giant parking lots and big box stores, and the notable unpopularity of cul-de-sacs in some areas entirely prevent the formation of big box blights and parking lots that take minutes to traverse.

        Huh? As you point out big box retail is almost always in an area defined by grids. Cul de sac or grid as far as residential retail mix isn’t what matters. It’s density that drives the proximity of retail. If you have a low density neighborhood it’s not going to have stores irregardless of the street layout. A grid will tend to support a shift to higher density without advanced planning. But there’s plenty of places where high density emerged around road structures built before the automobile and that’s what planned development can achieve.

      4. I think there’s a difference between a square grid and a through streets. You need through streets for walkability, but you don’t need a grid.

        Even low-density places in Japan that are full of windy streets are generally walkable because the streets go through to other ones. Having interior-looking, single-exit cul-de-sacs kills walkability because it makes it so hard to get anywhere.

      5. Westlake Center and Pacific Place are just malls. Sidewall space is really nothing; all the stores center inward and they’ve got parking structures just like suburbia. Really the big department stores were a vertical mall except all the “shops” were owned by the same retailer.

        Is someone claiming that Westlake Center and Pacific Place are representative of good urban development?

        But more people can and do walk to these two urban malls because density and a street grid (which RTC isn’t connected to). The fact that these public sidewalks are packed on a Saturday afternoon and the sidewalks going to Redmond Town Center are empty is not a small note, yet you ignore these travel patterns. Of course RTC has sidewalks, it’s required by law now — it is no innovation.

        Neither Westlake Center nor Pacific Place has parking structures “like” suburbia. Their parking structures are not free, they are underground, and they do not separate the pedestrian from his destination. These are not small differences, they are fundamental. One cannot ignore them.

        (I should mention that both Seattle malls have outwardly retail/restaurants. Again, not a model, but these sidewalks have eyes on them. A parking lot replaces that function for Redmond Town Center.)

        I can quarrel with my city’s downtown malls. I can ask if this block is really the best place for a Nordstrom Rack that has no other outwardly retail. But why? This urban area is alive with people walking at all times of the day. It could be better and there could be more, absolutely, but what we have right now works. This is in contrast to cul-de-sacs, big box stores, Redmond Town Center, and walking trails which not illustrated their success in allowing communities to be walkable.

        The entire area near the Transit Center has sprouted condos up to six stories. The sidewalks might actually start getting used for something besides skateboards!

        I’ll have to check it out, sounds interesting. I agree with Redmond’s recommended Link routing, it seems very solid to me.

        Cul de sac or grid as far as residential retail mix isn’t what matters. It’s density that drives the proximity of retail. If you have a low density neighborhood it’s not going to have stores irregardless of the street layout.

        Maybe you need “density” — I think it can be achieved, and has been, even with all single family homes, but they can’t be McMansions. I think the grid can allow for a better mix of high-density and low-density living near each other — averaging out a community’s density in a way that support stores or restaurants. Like Redmond’s condos you just mentioned. Then those in the single-family homes still have a better walk to the condos, the restaurants, etc.

        Not every suburbanite will want that, but many will. Let’s give them the option instead of forcing them to live in cul-de-sacs if they don’t want a house in the city. Connected or streets, a confluence of retail and residential (and the transit that encourages it), sidewalks, and other tools are ways to get there and reduce suburbia’s net dependence on automobiles.

      6. I think there’s a difference between a square grid and a through streets. You need through streets for walkability, but you don’t need a grid.

        I think a grid is a natural and easy way to ensure connectivity, but you’re right that connectivity in any form is the real goal. It isn’t that cul-de-sacs aren’t geometrically pleasing, it is that they are disjoint.

      7. Are there trails planned in SLU outside of the waterfront park?

        Look at section three “Park and Recreational Facility Needs”. Sidewalks they’ve got what they’re after the City refers to as Village Open Space.

        Safe, well-lit pedestrian connections – especially through-block connections – are encouraged and should be a feature of open space planning on full-block developments.

        It’s interesting to note part of Seattle’s definition of green street,

        One of the key factors to making a street safe and inviting for pedestrian is maintaining slow vehicle speeds and relatively low vehicle volumes. This is why Green Streets are designated on streets that do not, or are not anticipated to, contribute significantly to vehicle capacity in the area. Often, Green Streets are designated on non-through streets or streets that are not a key part of the street grid (e.g., dead ends and short segments of street created by the collision of street grids)

        In other words, all grid all the time is no good at all. Enter the faux col de sac.

      8. It’s worth mentioning that Westlake Center has a subway station underneath it, and has for 19 years. It’s the only underground retail in a subway station on the west coast.

      9. Even low-density places in Japan that are full of windy streets are generally walkable because the streets go through to other ones. Having interior-looking, single-exit cul-de-sacs kills walkability because it makes it so hard to get anywhere.

        I’d agree with this. There are examples of badly laid out cul de sacs where you can’t even walk to a friends house, school, bus stop, etc. that’s virtually next door. However, for walkability it’s not important that the streets connect for autos. Again, Kirkland up by Northwest College has numerous examples where through streets have been blocked off to make the neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.

        A grid is the cheap and dirty way to accomplish this. Especially if you have no vision of what the development will ultimately look like. I’m sure glad John Olmsted didn’t adopt the easy way out when he developed the main plan for the UW campus. I’d wager a guess that on any given day the are far more trips by foot on the UW campus than any other area of it’s size in the city.

      10. Safe, well-lit pedestrian connections – especially through-block connections – are encouraged and should be a feature of open space planning on full-block developments.

        Is that sort of like alleys only well-lit? Sounds good. This is not in alternative to a connected grid though.

        In other words, all grid all the time is no good at all. Enter the faux col de sac.

        Things like mini-round-abouts you see in Captiol Hill reduce a street’s capacity without hurting the grid, and I don’t think a grid must be complete for vehicles in all cases. That’s a far stretch from a cul-de-sac which is incomplete for all modes. To the pedestrian or bicyclist, a green street is nothing resembling a faux cul-de-sac.

      11. Seattle was unusual to me oh so many years ago because it had the 5th Avenue shopping street, something that was more like the old shopping districts of major cities which at that time were pretty much dead because ‘everyone’ had moved to the burbs and shopped at big malls.. I just loved the fact that one could walk down the street to see all the stores as opposed to being inside a mall.

    1. While you’re mostly right I think that the persistence of bigotry in monolithic communities can’t be written off as “they just are.” I’d think we’d agree that children aren’t born specifically prejudicial. As a result I’d posit that environment, in and around the home, are factors that probably affect bigotry, or at least the easy continuation of it.

      I’ve seen this first hand as an Army brat, siblings who spent formative years in different places often continue to have very different outlooks vis-a vis race, sex, etc. And while this is circumstantial I think the idea of environment as a factor in learned behavior is worth thinking about.

  4. “I think there’s a difference between a square grid and a through streets. You need through streets for walkability, but you don’t need a grid.

    “Even low-density places in Japan that are full of windy streets are generally walkable because the streets go through to other ones. Having interior-looking, single-exit cul-de-sacs kills walkability because it makes it so hard to get anywhere.”

    Exactly. Saying “we need grids” is misleading. It’s the connectivity of through streets that is needed. I’d go so far as to say that strict grid layouts make cities more sterile and less enjoyable even if they are mostly made of through streets. The ideal city, to me, has a lot of through streets, small blocks, and isn’t a pure grid, but has more of the organic growth pattern of pre-automobile cities.

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