What is our road network? Is it this?

Interstates, State Routes, Primary and Seconday Arterials
Interstates, State Routes, Primary and Secondary Arterials

Or is it this?

Local Streets and Secondary Arterials
Local Streets and Secondary Arterials

They are very different aren’t they? I have been thinking a lot about this recently, partly because of the Draft Pedestrian Master Plan, but also because I’m trying to come up with a systematic way of analyzing how our existing road network right-of-way (ROW) could be put to better use. 

When most of us think about the road network, we think about the Viaduct, SR-520, I-5, etc. These are the huge projects that have graced the cover of the Times and the PI (RIP) hundreds of times, and are natural attention grabbers because hundreds of thousands of people use them, and because they cost billions of dollars. But what about neighborhood streets? Every one of us uses them, every single day. Neighborhood streets are where we call home. They are the streets that contribute most to walkable communities and truly high quality bicycle networks. As a society our windshield perspective of the built environment has blinded us to the untapped possibility of neighborhood streets to improve our quality of life. 

The function of roads and freeways in the top map is dominated by the movement of people through space, which is a reality of our built environment that will not change any time soon.  However, the streets in the bottom image can provide accessibility, while also improving our health, happiness and well being. The two networks serve very different purposes, and their designs should reflect this. The dense network of neighborhood streets should be seen as public space for public use, not just as a place for cars. Neighborhood streets should be a place where kids can play safely, a place were you can lay in the sun, BBQ with your friends, pleasantly ride a bicycle or walk. This is what the livable streets (aka woonerf, home zone, share space, etc.) movement is all about; go here to  watch a presentation by Hans Monderman who started this movement in the late 1960’s.

The bottom map shows that the number of opportunities for putting streets to better use is not trivial. As Seattle expanded, most of the city proper was built using a gridiron plan street network. In the development field, this type of network is thought of as “inefficient”, because it has a high ratio of street ROW to private property, as where winding suburban street network are “efficient” because they have a low ratio of street ROW to private property (which has a pretty evident value judgement that connectivity of the network, ie walkability, doesn’t matter). In Seattle, most of the road network is not actually needed, especially in areas with alleys. As evidence of this, 43% of land area in the Denny Triangle is street ROW(1).  This historical inefficiency is now a huge opportunity in disguise, and is probably the best chance to add more open space in Seattle. Currently the city is looking at turning Bell St into a linear park by reclaiming excess road ROW, and the Blume Company plans to include a woonerf in their new Yale Campus in SLU. 

If you would like to get involved with these changes, you should join the Streets for People campaign website as well as attend meetings for the finalization of the Pedestrian Master Plan. 


(1) Public Streets for Public Use – Anne Vernez Moudon

19 Replies to “A Little Perspective”

  1. Heh, can you add alleys to that second map?

    I don’t think development “efficient” road networks are necessarily bad if there are foot and bike paths to connect people with where they need to go. For example, look at UW campus on that map. There’s just one loop through campus that’s regularly used by cars and buses. The rest of those streets are for deliveries, utility access, disabled parking, etc., and regularly have people riding bikes or walking on them (in more safety than a typical street, I might add). Altogether the streets are a fairly low percentage of the land, yet UW is one of the densest areas of the city (due to a few highrises and a lot of 5-8 story buildings).

    I don’t think UW campus is perfect and a lot of it built in the last 50 years is terrible. We have the the Olmsted brothers and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to thank for most of it.

  2. I’m not a planner but there’s also a school that gridiron streets are more efficient than the alternatives. The reason Seattle’s traffic is not as bad as Renton’s or Bellevue’s or Kent’s is that there are many streets to choose from, so everybody chooses a different street. And if traffic slows down on one street, you can easily move to a parallel one. People in north Seattle generally try I-5 first; if that’s too full they try Aurora; if that’s too full they try Greenwood or Meridian or 15th Avenue NW. That doesn’t happen in neighborhoods where there’s only one street in or out, or only one street to approach a shopping center.

    Jane Jacobs also makes the point that shorter blocks are more human scale. She contrasts the short avenue blocks of Manhattan’s east side with the long blocks of the west side. Short blocks means there’s always something interesting coming up to break the monotony. Long blocks make feel like it takes forever to cross them, and drive people to their cars. She says people are always going through the buildings on the west side looking for a mid-block passage to the next street, which doesn’t exist, but they keep looking for it anyway because surely anybody in their right mind would have put one there.

    The Bell Street plan looks all right since it does provide an auto lane. Bell Street is a major connection from Denny Way to 1st Avenue. Maybe there are too many lanes in Belltown and some could be reused. That doesn’t mean entire streets should be eliminated.

  3. The Bell Street park is an interesting idea. I find this part about the “park rangers” who will be able to “remove people from the park” a little scary. I guess they hope to have a hobo free park?

    1. Did it say they could remove you from the park? I just saw “Park Rangers” mentioned in the bullet list, without explaining what they were. If the park is essentially part of a public street (or even if it’s a park), I don’t see how they could remove you, especially if they’re not police.

  4. gridiron plan street network… is thought of as “inefficient”, because it has a high ratio of street ROW to private property, as where winding suburban street network are “efficient” because they have a low ratio of private property to public ROW

    Isn’t a high ratio of street ROW to private property the same thing as a low ratio of private property to public ROW?

  5. In the second map North Seattle is barely connected to everything else. Makes it pretty hard to get around.

    1. And as the second map does not show, North Seattle is berift of sidewalks.

      Thank you developers!!

      1. The North Seattle residents did not want sidewalks eighty years ago when that area was built up; that’s why they don’t have them now. They thought sidewalks were too urban and low-class for them. Sidewalks haven’t been retrofitted since, because it would cost a lot of money to do so.

      2. How can that possibly be true? Developers don’t often conduct a straw poll of future property owners… It wasn’t the residents’ fault, it was the lack of government regulations.

      3. No, it really was the residents. Those people settled up there because they didn’t want to be part of the city, and the regulations that came with it. That means no sidewalks, either.

      4. Do you have an example of anything built before 1940 that does not have sidewalks? All the streetcar suburbs like Ravenna and Wallingford do. Postwar developments like Wedgwood don’t. I think it goes hand-in-hand with car culture.

      5. Keep in mind, Seattle ended at 85th street until 1954. Most of the city has sidewalks south of 85th, little of it does North of there. Those places were suburbs first (and sort of still are, few jobs there), and thus have suburban road formations and a lack of sidewalks.

      6. Does anyone know whether the street rights-of-way are as wide in the sidewalkless north as in the streetcar-era parts of town? When I’ve been riding my bike up north, I’ve thought about where sidewalks would go, and I’m really not sure how it works — would they come out of residents’ existing front yards? Or would they come out of the existing street?

        If they come out of the streets, we could have some really nice, narrow residential streets if we ever put in sidewalks. But if they come out of yards, I can see why there’s never been a lot of momentum to put them in.

      7. 1) One of the primary reasons that North Seattle voted for joining the city some fifty-plus years ago was for city amenities like sidewalks, police, fire and buried utilities. Actually, sidewalks were mentioned explicitly in the campaign.

        I’d post the HistoryLink essay on this topic (AGAIN!) but it looks like that site has been infected by a virus Anyhow, posting that has never seemed to disabuse Andrew and Ben of their ridiculous notions about why people moved there and what “they” wanted (nice othering, very subtle), so I don’t know what good it would be except maybe infecting their M$ computers with malware, that’d be good fun.

        2) It wasn’t the people who moved there who didn’t want sidewalks, it was the original developers who skimped on them. Most of North Seattle was built during or just after World War II not 80 years ago, as well. So yes, they are automobile suburbs but so are many neighborhoods of West Seattle and West Seattle has way more residential sidewalks.

        3) Residential street rights of way in North Seattle are generally quite narrow – street widths are not at all comparable to even Shoreline let alone Bellevue, Kirkland, etc. But it does vary from tract to tract.

        4) With the exception of a very small area around Haller Lake most of North Seattle is and was much more working class than, let’s say, Capitol Hill in either the 1940s or today, so I find some well-fed Microsofties playing the class card to be amusing. It was never as poor as the Valley but the SF houses are generally small (1200-1500 sq ft) and there is a sizable amount of multifamily clumped around the arterials. The well-off, once again, moved to Kirkland and Bellevue (you know, serial catowner and Bernie’s progenitors) NOT to North Seattle.

      8. Steve I don’t know but I’ll look next time I look at the shapefiles.

  6. What’s the data source?

    Interestingly, Lake Washington Boulevard is conspicuously absent from both, and things like the Seward Park loop (closed to vehicles) and (it would appear) the railroad tracks along the North Seattle’s west coast are included. Lake Washington Boulevard feels like a rural, two-lane highway during commute times – drivers commonly pass just like you would on, say, US-2 over Stevens Pass.

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