What is our road network? Is it this?
Or is it this?
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.
(1) Public Streets for Public Use – Anne Vernez Moudon