I often wonder what advocates for more car infrastructure and less density in Seattle think about Vancouver. It’s about the same size, nearby, culturally similar, and is routinely ranked as the best city to live in the world. They seem to get by fine with families in dense housing, no freeways through downtown, and rail transit. Yet opportunities to mimic just parts of Vancouver’s success bring predictions of doom and gridlock.

(H/T: Erik Griswold)

121 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Vancouver’s Bike Lanes”

  1. There is gridlock in Vancouver. Traffic is horrible! I think their transport situation is more appealing than ours but people who are married to the idea of living in a suburb and traveling by single-occupancy vehicle won’t ever see it that way. Their metrics are different than yours.

    1. Agreed. I love Vancouver, but I’ve had many a moment of frustration trying to drive through the city to get up to Whistler. Still, I’d take their infrastructure over Seattle’s any day.

      1. I love Vancouver. The city is a pain to drive though but usually we ditch the car and then we use the transit system considering it being extremely convenient and frequent. Also the walkability near the Seawall, it was great just to be able to walk although I want to take a bike up to ride around the city. I am hoping more separated bike lanes will become normal as they are great to have and give riders more confidence in using a bike.

    2. Who cares? There are great alternatives to sitting in traffic. And it’s not as if we’ve solved congestion here.

      1. That’s the point. They’ve used congestion as a tool to make it difficult to drive. Case in point, no city in the world with fantastic transit has roads that are sitting empty.

    3. too much emphasis is given to keeping traffic in urban areas free flowing. it is not good for urban businesses to have traffic speeding past at 50 mph. in the city, traffic should be slow, calm and “congested” with on-street parking. the most successful urban retail districts are clogged with cars on a two lane two-way street, see robson street as a perfect example.

      lets design our cities to be real cities and not try to make them suburbs. what works in the suburbs does not work in the city.

  2. I really wish there was more dense family housing in Seattle. There was a brownbag with Catherine Benotto of Weber Thompson “Where’s the family in multifamily?” In Seattle’ “multifamily” apartments, very few units are suitable for families; for example, in my building only 6 of 180 units are 2 bedrooms (and there are no 3 bedrooms). It’s possible to live in a smaller unit with one child, but it’s literally illegal to have 4 people (even infants) in a one bedroom apt. In denser cities you see a lot of apts with 3 or 4 very small bedrooms which makes sense with kids.

    So far there are no incentives or requirements for dense family housing in Seattle. In 1992, Vancouver required 25% of units in False Creek North meet their “High-Density Housing for Families with Children Guidelines,” which includes features like large entryways and good sight lines to keep an eye on young children. It has been a big success; 96 percent of residents said they would recommend the area to others, and Elsie Roy School is filled to capacity. The guidelines are at

    1. Yet the apartments on Capitol Hill had lots of families with children living in them in the 1950s. My neighbor was one of those children and later one of those parents, and she says it was a nice middle-class neighborhood then, like how people view the suburbs now.

  3. Actually I would note that the metropolitan area of Vancouver has about half the population of Seattle’s. Only the central cities are of comparable population.

    1. It’s about (“aboot”) 50% less.

      Seattle: ~3.4 million

      Vancouver, BC: ~2.3 million

      1. Depends on which figure you use for “metropolitan area.” The combined statistical area has over 4.1 million people.

      2. I guess I would use the US Census Bureau’s. (Obviously you can’t for Canada…)

      3. There is a difference between a Combined Statistical Area and a Metropolitan Statistical Area.

      4. I have never heard anyone say that the Seattle metro area has 4.1 milling people. Where did you see that.

      5. Completely insane.

        The population of Seattle is 500,000 — half a million.

        The population of the Puget Sound region is 2 million.

        About 800,000 of those came in the last 10 years, although my conjecture that many of them left in 2008-2010 period and immigration here has gone negative.

      6. According to the US Census Bureau the Seattle Combined Statistical Area had an estimated population of 4.1 million in 2009. This is the larger metropolitan measure the census bureau uses and includes eight Puget Sound counties (Skagit down to Thurston on the east side of the Sound and then Mason and Kitsap on the west side). The smaller Seattle MSA (King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties) had a 2009 estimated population of 3.4 million.

      7. Bingo. I’m not necessarily saying that the CSA figure should be used in lieu of the MSA figure, I was just pointing out the fact that it exists.

      8. Good to know although I have to say I have never thought of people outside of King, Snohomish and Pierce as part of the Seattle region. Maybe the Puget Sound region but not Seattle.

      9. Yeah in my mind, Seattle area=Puget Sound area. Given the (unfortunately) very large number of people who commute into Seattle or its closer in suburbs from Thurston, Island, Skagit, and Kitsap counties (and others…) I think it’s reasonable to include them.

      10. I would agree with Alex. I would say, it is probably to look at the region as a Polycentric Urban Region with Seattle as its defined core, but not its only sole core. So yes, the Puget Sound Region is a PUR with with at least 5 major urban centres, which suggests that it would be fair to look at CSA rather than just the MSA.

      11. I would probably agree with the CSA being the boundaries of the greater Seattle region, and would include Whatcom if it weren’t for Bellingham’s magnetic pull to Vancouver. I’d even extend it out to the Pacific coast, south to Centralia and Chehalis, and a little over the mountains – maybe even all the way to Yakima and the Tri-Cities. Maybe that’s just because I used to watch KING 5 News as a kid and they’d cover areas that far out to some extent… but if a kid from Aberdeen named Kurt Cobain can be the vanguard for a “Seattle sound”…

      12. Ehhhh once you get east of the mountains, south of Tumwater, north of Burlington, and west of the Hood Canal, you’re definitely outside of Seattle-area territory. Inside those boundaries, everything is interconnected, but it gets far less so outside of them.

    2. If anything, that strengthens my case. Less population, yet more transit orientation.

  4. Saying you’re the “best city in the world” is like saying you’re the dung heap that smells the least.

    Metro Cities are obsolete.

    Small concentrated nodes linked by Wimax and High Speed Rail are the future.

    Lots of low density, low cost healthful lifestyles are 21st Century.

    Bicycle Boulevards supercede vehicular bicycling.

    1. Wrong again, John. Look at Census data. People older and younger people are moving to central cities in droves. It’s only the 30 to 50 year-olds that still want to live in washed up cesspools of boredom and mediocrity. The suburb died in 2000.

      1. You posted another link to vacancy rates earlier too. During the recession these don’t really mean much in terms of city vs suburbs. When the economy picks up, if the downtowns are still vacant then you might have a point.

      2. I spent a weekend and a Monday Holiday once at a (I think the only) hotel in Downtown Albany. It was absolutely deserted (you know like where you hear the churping crosswalk signals blocks away). It was also almost impossible to find a place open to eat dinner and I think I was like the only guest in the hotel. I can most certainly affirm that Albany is not a good example of an urban city.

        BTW check out ‘Empire State Plaza’ in Albany for a postcard perfect example of a city-annihilating urban renewal megaproject.

      3. This is anecdotal information. The worldwide movement into cities not only in the states, but also all over the world, is the largest mass migration in the history of human kind.

        urban populations are growing, rural populations are not. In about 10 year more than half the population on earth will live in cities for the first time.

      4. The statistics you are quoting do not differentiate between urban and suburban. They simply compare rural to “urban” which in this context means just about anything denser than 2 housing units per acre.

    2. Bailo: you have never cited any evidence that Puget Sound cities are depopulating. It flatly contradicts King County’s prediction. Seattle’s population low was 440,000 in the 1980s; it’s now 5-something,000 and climbing. Rust Belt cities and those destroyed by freeways in the 60s are not recovering, but that situation is peculiar to those cities and not to cities in general.

      Amtrak Cascades should be hourly commuter rail. There should be several speeds of rail between here and the rest of the country. Any town it revives will be welcome. (That’s “town”, not exurb. If people want to live in rural areas, they should take up farming.)

      Stephen Fesler: “It’s only the 30 to 50 year-olds that still want to live in washed up cesspools of boredom and mediocrity.”

      Which is just another way of saying it’s parents and children that are most missing from the city.

      And 30-50 singles and DINKs are moving to the city.

      “The suburb died in 2000.”

      Bedroom communities, McMansions, and exurbs have no future, and their real estate values will fall increasingly faster. But all the Puget Sound suburbs are desperately densifying their downtowns and upgrading transit to those centers. (Bailo himself has said this about Kent.) In that, the “suburbs” are becoming cities in their core.

      1. For the time being, that’s the demographic missing! But I have a suspicion that will change. Especially with regulations and housing built like the VanCan example.

        Some are trying to densify (Redmond, Renton, Federal Way…). But some, like Kent, have been kicking and screaming “no, not here, never.”

      2. One of the observed realities in world cities as density increases so does the cost of living in those dense areas. The poor are pushed farther and farther out. This has NOT been the general pattern in the United States where the middle class and wealthy flew to the suburbs to escape their perceived fears of the city.

        In deed, at the recent Sound Transit board meeting, the mayor of Sumnermade the observation of future population trends by saying that they were the affordable housing market or Bellevue/Redmond.

        If you leave things up to the vaunted market economy, then the predictable behavior is skyrocketing prices for scarce goods e.g. quality housing close to work or cultural activities. We see this in all the world cities, London, New York, and now Beijing where it was recently reported that if you ever wanted the chance to attract the attention of a female to date or even marry, you had better have your apartment in the city now costing upwards of $1 million USD. Perhaps our resident economist might wish to comment on this?

      3. You asked for it…

        “now Beijing where it was recently reported that if you ever wanted the chance to attract the attention of a female to date or even marry, you had better have your apartment in the city now costing upwards of $1 million USD.”

        This has more to do with China’s one child policy and a sexist culture that leads millions of families to kill their female children (so that their “one child” can be male). The result is a significant “shortage” of females and extremely fierce competition.

        Regarding cost of living increasing with density:

        This a classic example of false causality. Density does not cause the cost of living to increase. The cost of housing is determined by supply and demand. Housing will be expensive in any instance where demand exceeds supply. The reason dense areas tend to be more expensive is that demand is very high. This drives up the market price of housing, which increases the quantity that is supplied (density). Price comes first, density comes second. Demand leads, supply follows.

        Demand is driven by many factors, but the most significant one is the speed of the transportation system. If transportation is slow, demand rises in the center city. Supply is fundamentally limited by the cost of land (which increase with scarcity) and construction (which increases with density). Thus, demand rises and supply can’t keep up. You reach equilibrium at a higher market price and make room for rich people by pushing poor people out.

        If, on the other hand, transportation is fast, demand falls in the center city. This was the case in the post-war freeway boom in the United States. We built so many freeways that capacity greatly exceeded demand (initially). As such, speed was incredibly fast and demand for central city housing cratered.

        An interesting thing happened at this point: The supply of housing in central cities was already very high, having been built up over half a century or more. As demand fell (due to freeways), housing supply remained fixed (you can’t move buildings), as such, supply greatly exceeded demand causing prices in the inner city to fall precipitously. This attracted low income individuals to move into the center cities, which in turn drove the rich out even faster (rich people don’t like living near poor people).

        Why the unique American experience?

        Decentralization occurred in every industrialized country. What made the U.S. experience unique was the rate of decentralization. Rapid decentralization led to the price crash that created the slums.

        The U.S. decentralized more rapidly for a confluence of reasons:

        1.) Greater per capita income resulted in higher rates of car ownership early on
        2.) We built much more freeways per capita than any other country
        3.) We built freeways directly into downtown, while other countries did not
        4.) Federal policy heavily subsidized suburban home ownership
        5.) Racism
        6.) The unique funding mechanism for American public schools
        7.) Cultural differences (frontier spirit)
        8.) A freer regulatory environment made it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses in the suburbs and for developers to build housing in the suburbs, thus accelerating the rate of decentralization
        9.) A decision not to invest in public transit, thus eliminating one of the major advantages that cities had over the suburbs.

        Essentially, these factors conspired to make american decentralization occur so quickly that population growth was not sufficient to prop up demand for central city housing, thus leading to a price crash and the creation of the American inner city slums.

        Barriers to recentralization

        Then, in the 1970s we basically stopped building freeways. Things went okay for a while because we had overbuilt them so much that they could easily absorb new demand, but as population continued to grow and freeway capacity did not, congestion increased. This decreased the speed of transportation and thus shifted demand back to the center city. However, by this point, the inner cities had become repulsive slums due to a generation’s worth of divestment.

        There were four major factors that kept the middle class at bay despite rising congestion:

        1.) It was, until the 1970s impossible to own a unit in a multifamily building. One could only rent. The legal concept of “condominium” did not exist. This barrier has now been removed.

        2.) High crime.

        3.) Poor schools.

        4.) Racism.

        Falling barriers and the threat of rapid recentralization

        Crime fell precipitously in the 1990s. There remains a fair amount of debate as to why this occurred, but no one disputes that it did occur. Crime also rose in the suburbs, essentially equalizing the crime rates in the city and suburbs (in most cities; there are definitely exceptions), and thus removing that barrier. It is no coincidence that demand for urban housing rose steeply in the 1990s.

        A demographic shift has taken care of 3 and 4. The generation that grew up in a post-civil rights world harbors less aversion to living near people of color than their parents did. Furthermore, this same generation has significantly delayed childbirth (often by 10 to 15 years). Thus, poor inner city schools are less of a concern.

        Poor schools do eventually push people out of the city though, and they are willing to put up with congestion for the good of their children’s education. God help us if we actually fix inner city schools. The result will be the collapse of the last barrier to dense, urban living and the middle class will flood into the center city driving up housing prices and pushing the poor to the fringe, just like cities in every other country on earth.

        What can be done?

        There are two things that can be done to mitigate a massive price spike in central Seattle:

        1.) Reduce demand.

        This can be done either by making the city a miserable place to live or by substantially increasing the speed of the transportation system, thus facilitating more sprawl and decreasing the pressure of central city housing. Neither of these is terribly desirable.

        Another solution might be to try to push job growth into the suburbs in order to achieve a job-housing balance. Unfortunately, this creates other undesirable side effects, but these can be mitigated if we build out Light Rail and concentrate suburban job growth in TODs. In order for this scheme to work though, we would also have to decentralize cultural and recreational activities in addition to jobs.

        2.) Increase the supply of housing sufficiently to match demand.

        The key word here is sufficiently.

        How much is sufficient? Well, it has to be at least enough to achieve a job-housing balance within the city limits. As of 2004, the City had a job surplus of about 160,000. Given job growth projections, we would need about 200,000 new housing units by 2030. Given an average of 2.0 people per housing unit, that amount to a population increase of 400,000, putting out total population at over 1 million by 2030.

        This greatly exceeds anything we are currently planning for. Our current zoning cannot come even close to handling that kind of growth, and remember: this is the 20-year projection. We will likely continue to add more jobs (and thus require more housing to stay in balance) after 2030.

        A couple other issues:

        Highrise is not likely to be the answer. Highrise buildings are much more expensive to construct that lowrise and midrise buildings (more difficult engineering, more expensive materials, etc.) If your goal is to make housing affordable, then you can’t do it with a construction type that can never be affordable due to construction costs. Some highrise will probably be a part of the solution (essentially capturing the high end of the market), but it can only be a minority player.

        Townhouses are also not the answer. Townhouses and rowhouses would be great if we were building a city from scratch, but as of now, there is virtually no vacant land in Seattle. Nearly all new construction requires the demolition of an existing structure (most likely a single family house or one-story commercial structure). As such, the opportunity cost of the existing structure must be factored in to the cost of the land. Townhouses simply do not provide enough units to spread out that opportunity cost, making them nearly as expensive as highrise would be.

        Lowrise and midrise stacked flats (4 to 6 stories, 2.0 to 3.0 FAR) are the sweet spot: dense enough to justify demolishing an existing structure and cheap enough to construct that they can actually be affordable.

        Increasing supply sufficiently to balance demand (200,000 new housing units by 2030) using affordable construction types would generally require rezoning about half of the single family neighborhoods in the city.

        Good luck with that.

  5. Light Rail News: they’re starting testing of my birth-home area’s light rail system: The Tide

    Already, “The Usuals” are complaining (and fail to see what Starter Line means): http://pilotonline.com/2010/07/lightrail-trains-will-be-motion-its-too-early-hop-aboard

    People say it should be extended to the Naval Station and the Oceanfront (the main beach there) when those extensions are already being studied – it would be like people complaining our Link doesn’t go to Northgate or Redmond when they’re already being looked at

    1. That kind of talk is how you get a line like Central Link. If I were planning an urban rail system for Seattle, the line to Sea-Tac and eventually down 99 would serve Georgetown and Boeing Field first, and the line through the Rainier Valley would continue to Renton, Kent, and Auburn. How will the latter three places be served now, and will Georgetown EVER get light rail now???

  6. Sometimes I don’t think Seattlites understand what living in a “city” actually means.

    Compared to places like San Francisco and Vancouver Seattle is a suburban town with a decent sized downtown area superimposed onto it. Not that I don’t love its small neighborhood centers and strong communities, but I dont see how increased density and connectivity, and a true city feel, would hurt that.

    1. Huh? Seattle’s not a city compared to Vancouver, BC? Both Vancouver and Seattle are both around 600,000 in the city proper, and Seattle’s metro area is about 50% larger than Vancouver’s.

      If density is your only criterion for a city then I suppose LA isn’t a real city, because its density is similar to Seattle’s.

      1. According to Wikipedia, the density of the LA metro area is 7,068 people per square mile, and the density of the “central area” (1) is over 13,500 people per square mile. In contrast, the density of Seattle city is only 6,717 people per square mile, and the metro area has only 2,844 people per square mile.

        The census tract data is even more revealing. Compare this study of NYC/LA density (2) with this map of Seattle density (3). The study notes that LA’s highest-density areas have about 90,000 people per square mile. In contrast, Seattle’s highest density is about 44,000 people per square mile. This is, of course, a maximum; even somewhere like Fremont/Wallingford caps out at about 20,000 people per square mile. Excluding Belltown and First Hill, the density of “downtown” is no higher than 11,000 people per square mile.

        I can’t find any good numbers for Vancouver, but it looks like Vancouver has very high density in the central downtown area, and much lower density outside (though still comparable to the middle-red neighborhoods on the Seattle map). This matches my impressions from visiting.

        The real difference, though, is that Seattle has very few mixed-use neighborhoods and streets. In New York/San Francisco/Vancouver, it’s routine to see three streets side-by-side, each with apartment buildings and restaurants and stores. In Seattle, one of those streets will have commercial buildings and maybe a 6-story luxury condo/apartment building, and the others will be completely residential.

        Many “neighborhood” or “streetcar suburb”-type areas have this problem: they have some of the highest residential densities in a region, but that’s because there’s nothing there but housing! So the numbers obscure the fact that the neighborhood is rarely a destination for anyone who doesn’t live there.

        I’ll try to see if I can find mixed-use density numbers. If not, I may make my own. Once I figure out what metric to use, anyway :)

        (1) Including the following areas: Northeast Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Southeast Los Angeles, West Adams-Baldwin Hills-Leimert Park, South Central Los Angeles, Wilshire, Hollywood, Silverlake-Echo Park, Westlake, Central City, Central City North. See http://www.demographia.com/db-la-area.htm for more info.

        (2) http://www.lewis.ucla.edu/GIScontest/OsgoogEtAl_LANYDensity_report.pdf

        (3) https://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cms/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpds_006728.pdf (Multiply the numbers by 640 to get square miles.)

      2. Metro areas (both CMSA and MSA) include entire counties. For Seattle MSA this would include King, Snohomish and Pierce counties all the way to the eastern line–i.e. if you are standing on the west side of Stevens Pass or at the Mount Rainier gate at Longmire you are in the Seattle metro area. There’s obviously a lot of space there with few or no inhabitants (even more if Kitsap is counted as in the CMSA). The ST boundary area would delineate a more interesting comparison of urban densities.

        I don’t know if the Census Bureau takes into account the land area of a county or the total area (i.e. the Puget Sound counties extend to the middle of the Sound).

        Thanks for the links, Aleks–your city map in note 3 is almost 10 years old, and it would be interesting to see how much it may have changed in the intervening period. Based on estimated 2010 number of around 610,000, pop/sq mi in the city would now be about 7,260.

      3. The numbers Aleks is quoting appear to correspond to the U.S. census bureau’s definition of Urban Area.

        From Wikipedia

        Urban areas in the United States are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as contiguous census block groups with a population density of at least 1,000 inhabitants per square mile (386.1 /km2) with any census block groups around this core having a density of at least 500 inhabitants per square mile (193.1 /km2).

        Urban area refers to the built up area and ignores political boundaries. It is often referred to as the “physical city”. So it is in fact a real comparison. Yes, LA is denser than Seattle and the LA urban area is denser than the NYC urban area.

        We don’t pay much attention to it, but NYC is a hyper-dense core surrounded by thousands of square miles of fairly low-density suburbs. These suburbs, incidentally, are enabled by NYC’s extensive commuter rail system. LA’s suburbs are much denser owing to two major factors:

        1.) Mountains. LA ran out of room to expand while NYC did not.

        2.) No transit. The fact that LA does not have NYC’s commuter rail system means people have to drive, and people are willing to spend more time on a commuter rail line than they are in highly congested traffic. As such, NYC has been able to sprawl more than LA has.

        LA is considered sprawling nightmare and an urban planning disaster because it is sitting in a horrible middle ground: not dense enough to support truly high quality transit and walkability like NYC proper, but too dense to be well served by the automobile.

      4. There’s an article somewhere that LA has high-ish density uniformly throughout the city. What it doesn’t have is areas of hyperdensity like NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, or Capitol Hill/First Hill. That’s because of LA’s minimum parking requirements for buildings even downtown.

        “The real difference, though, [with SF and NYC] is that Seattle has very few mixed-use neighborhoods and streets.”

        Unfortunately. But it did. Woodland Park Avenue used to be commercial, as we learned in the streetcar tour. But Seattle applied the residential-zoning whip too strongly.

      5. So the numbers obscure the fact that the neighborhood is rarely a destination for anyone who doesn’t live there.

        Remember, lots of people like it like that. They don’t want strangers in their neighborhoods.

        The battle to encourage density in intelligent ways is to change the American culture radically. You’re going to have to challenge prejudice based on class, race, religion and nationality if you want people to live in proximity to each other. It doesn’t go away over night. These will be generational changes. At some point more of the United States will start to look like the demographics of Chicagoland which has many fascinating observations of cultural homogenization but still significant pockets of tension and separate enclaves.

      6. Per Wikipedia, the population density of the City of Vancouver (2006) is 13,818 ppl/sq mi. This is about twice the population density of Seattle (7,361). Seattle and Vancouver cities have similar populations, but Vancouver packs it in in half the land area. Therein lies may of Vancouver’s urbanist advantages.

    2. Seattle is one of the best, most thriving urban cities in the US. I dont know what you are talking about.

      1. Seattle is a great city, but it is definitely not one of the most urban or thriving cities in the country. NYC, Chicago, San Franciso, Boston, Philly, LA, Washington DC, are all MUCH more urban.

        And Seattle is also a sleepy town. It has some happening neighborhoods, but it is far from bustling and vibrant for the most part. Spend some time in NYC, Chicago, or SF and you’ll notice a dramatic difference. Outside of the downtown core Seattle is mostly residential, and much of it is single family homes. Most neighborhoods only have one “commercial” street, with the rest being just houses. Seattle’s “big city” feel is fairly limited geographically. In SF, for example, you can be halfway across the city, far from downtown, and you’re still surrounded by dense commericial development, crunched together rowhouses, and very pedestrian-crowded streets.

      2. Yeah, San Francisco is much more urban and dense than us, but I would say that on the scale of vibrancy we would fall at least around 5th or 6th in the country. New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, LA would probably come in front of us in that order, but I don’t think we’re less vibrant than Philly or DC. Sure, San Francisco is far more dense and vibrant than Seattle, but it’s not a good example to say “Seattle isn’t that dense and vibrant” since SF is the second densest city in the country.

      3. DC, Philly, Baltimore, etc all have a much more consistant urban fabric than Seattle. Seattle’s urbanity is patchy *at best* once you get out of downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

      4. Seattle’s downtown is much healthier than DC, Philly and Baltimore’s. Those cities are quite heavily overshadowed by suburbs that have stolen their office, retail and residents. Baltimore has no downtown retail and is completely dead nights and weekends.

      5. Seattle’s walkscore is sixth in the country. Only SF, NYC, Boston, Chicago, and Philly are ahead of it. DC and Portland are behind. So we’re doing something right.

      6. I didn’t say those cities have a healthier downtown than Seattle, I said they have a much stronger urban fabric overall.

        The neighborhoods in those cities tend to be denser, have more rowhouses/apartments (as opposed to single family separated homes), more expansive commercial districts (not just 1 or 2 main streets per neighborhood), etc. This creates a more urban, vibrant feel.

        Think about Seattle neighborhoods like Fremont, Ballard, Greenlake, Rainier Valley, Mt. Baker, etc. These are more like compact suburbs than truly urban neighborhoods.

      7. I think you seem to be saying that single-family=suburb. This is certainly not so. Those single-family neighborhoods that you listed are far different from suburbs because they are oriented towards walking and transit rather than cars. For instance, Green Lake has lots of single-family homes, but almost all are within a few blocks of a business district, and it has a dense, very walkable urban village in the center. When you get out to the suburbs, you have cul-de-sacs and no sidewalks and you have to drive to get to businesses in strip malls.

      8. The reason that I would call Green Lake a suburb is that, if you walked from Green Lake to downtown, the majority of the areas in between would be single-family residential. Green Lake is effectively isolated from downtown. The same goes for pretty much everything north of the ship canal.

        In Boston or New York or San Francisco, you can walk in any direction from downtown for miles and still be somewhere that feels like a city. In Seattle, once you walk north of LQA, or east of Capitol Hill/First Hill/CD, or south of the ID, you very quickly hit residential areas.

        When tourist guidebooks praise Seattle for being a “city of neighborhoods”, this is what they’re talking about. But really, there’s nothing that distinguishes these neighborhoods from suburbs other than the fact that they’re in city limits, and that their streets were laid out before car dominance. (Even now, you can’t objectively say that all of Green Lake is more walkable. Bellevue Square has a walk score of 98. Redmond Town Center is 95. Kirkland is 92. Green Lake is 84…)

        Suburb shouldn’t be a dirty word! Green Lake and Fremont and Ballard are perfectly great places to live, and perfectly sustainable even if we ran out of oil tomorrow. But they’re certainly not part of the city in the way that First Hill is.

      9. there’s nothing that distinguishes these neighborhoods from suburbs other than the fact that they’re in city limits,

        Higher taxes?

      10. yes there are more urban cities than seattle, as you listed, but i would still lump seattle into that crowd. i would say there are only 8-10 vibrant urban cities in the US (seattle being one of them), i.e downtowns that are alive with a collection of busy neighborhood walkable commerical streets just outside downtown. by far the majority of cities in the US resemble Tacoma and i would not put seattle in that group.

      11. You keep referring to downtown, but as I mentioned in my previous post, Im talking about outside of downtown. Those cities all have a much stronger urban fabric outside of downtown (and adjacent to downtown neighborhoods) than Seattle.

      12. yeah i’m not catching you. so youre talking about urban form? i dont see how that matters as much as vibrancy of a group of neighborhoods or the whole city.

        re: urban fabric, then what about new orleans?

      13. Basically, instead of comparing downtown to downtown to downtown, compare Fremont to Georgetown to Greenwich Village (or Harlem, if you prefer).

      14. Exactly, compare Fremont to Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich, Ballard to the Mission District or Park Slope, etc. etc. There is no comparison.

        Outside of downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, Seattle is not an urban city.

      15. Aaron

        Late to this post, but let me take issue with your concept of “urban”. It’s more than size.

        I lived in northern Virginia and DC for 5 years. There are more people in the DC metro region. There subway is impressive in its coverage (although suffers from terrible management). There are a lot of things to do by virtue of being the nation’s capital. And yes, you can go longer distances and find relatively dense development. You can go longer distances and find development in general. Your notion of what is urban sounds a good deal like what also constitutes sprawl in its focus on breadth. And make no mistake, DC is sprawl.

        For me, quality also comes into what defines “urban”. A lot of that dense development in DC involves the slums (ditto with Baltimore). Housing stock so run down you wouldn’t step out on the balcony for fear of it coming down on your head. This is located in neighborhoods where you don’t want to step outdoors after dark. This hurts the vibrancy you’re going for. Seattle really does not have many problem areas like that. And the “vibrancy” of the night life? Hardly. “Downtown” DC, which feels like nothing of the sort due to building height restrictions, shuts down early. On a weekend it’s hard to find restaurants open in the downtown, a problem I’ve never had in Seattle. There are some fun neighborhoods, but I wouldn’t rank Adams Morgan ahead of say Fremont. It’s also relatively soulless in being a transitory stop for a lot of folks (me included). Give me New York or Seattle neighborhoods any day.

        How long have you lived in Seattle? Growing up in Seattle proper it is amazing to me the development changes over the past 30 years. We’ve gone from a DC downtown that shuts its doors early as folks flee for the suburbs to having people move back in, along with the businesses. Urban villages, while mocked early on, are concentrating density in designated spots, often heavily correlated with transit. Even concrete deserts like Northgate are densifying with new developments and more and more subdivisions on existing properties. Meanwhile satellite cities are developing their own identity and while I wouldn’t look to Kenmore as a model for urban living anytime soon, planning changes will make it look more urban and less bedroom community in coming years.

        We will never be as big geographically as DC under your definition of urban form. Why not? We have the urban growth boundary. Our future looks more like Vancouver or Hong Kong or San Francisco in increasing our density, but remaining relatively compact. The density will change, the size not so much, if by no other reason than geography (all of that water around us that you’ve probably seen).

      16. I think youre missing my point about urban form. And its the central point here. Fremont, Greenlake, etc are primarily single-family homes with nice commercial districts, but typically limited to one or 2 streets. (Ballard is the only exception, really). No highrises and very few lowrises, no urban grid. And the areas between these neihgborhoods (which are substantial) often are very desolate (Freelard, 80th Street between Greenwood and Roosevelt, etc) And then there are plenty of huge chunks of Seattle like Wedgewood, Mount Baker, Magnolia, etc which are entirely suburban and have very little commercial at all.

        In summation, Seattle has made huge strides but many portions of the city range from compact/walkable suburb to relatively spread out residential. Huge chunks outside of the downtown core and adjacent neighborhoods fit into the above categories. This is in stark contrast to DC, where there is a much more consistant *urban* fabric.

        Perhapds vibrant was the wrong word to use in some cases, but I do think typically a stronger urban fabric means a more vibrant city.

  7. Why does LA Metro have turnstiles on their rail lines? I read about it somewhere but don’t remember where.

    The turnstiles don’t prevent you from entering or exiting without a ticket, and at every station I was at, there was at least one turnstile that was wider and didn’t have a bar, which made it even easier to walk through.

    1. Politicians pandering to the “anti fare-dodging” lobby and the “turnstyle machine” lobbyists?
      A horrendous waste of money that I surely hope we can avoid here.

      1. So far Link’s spot enforcement seems to be working well during the day. Does anyone know if there is high evasion at night? Do they have the inspectors at night? Anecdotally, I’ve never been checked at night, but I’ve been checked probably 1/3 of the time during the day.

      2. I was not checked on the 4:40am trip two Saturdays ago. I don’t know if that meets your definition of “night”.

      3. They were busy last Saturday night and are even showing up more often on the later evening trips.

    2. There was a study that showed that once you get to a certain level of ridership, it becomes cost-effective to put in turnstiles, and I believe LA had reached this level. I think that it would make sense to put in turnstiles that require inserting your ticket as you enter and as you leave at several stations that get the most ridership and not at the ones that would be harder to do that at. That way, even if you were going from a Rainier Valley station, say, to Downtown, you would still have to put in your card as you exited.

  8. Vancouver may routinely ranked as the best city in the world to live but I think you will find that Curitiba, Brazil has been ranked as the most innovative.

    1. As I understand it, Vancouver, BC routinely ranks as one of the best cities by some sort of criteria that is supposed to be relevant to wealthy business elites living abroad, as determined by some elite consulting firm. Frankly, making claims that a city is the “best” or most “livable” is pretty silly, as if there is some objective definition of an ideal city.

      Most people would generally agree on certain things:

      Less pollution is better
      Less crime is better
      All things being equal, lower taxes and costs of living is better

      Beyond that, you’re in the realm of subjectivity. If cross-country skiing is your top priority, Anchorage might be one of the best cities in the world in which to live. If it’s downhill skiing, Vancouver, BC might rank high. If it’s surfing, maybe somewhere in Australia, California, or Hawaii.

      If you have kids, your criteria will be different than if you are a young, single metrosexual. For many people, jobs are important, and Vancouver, BC doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of them, beyond entry level service jobs.

      Vancouver, BC is a nice city, and has many virtues, but this “world class” stuff smacks of an inferiority complex. Seattle suffers from this to a lesser extent. It’s like calling your tourist attraction or key lime pie “world famous.” Things that are really famous don’t advertise themselves as such. No one introduces Bill Clinton as a “world famous” politician. Portland, OR is probably the only big PacNW city that seems comfortable in its skin. Neither Vancouver, BC nor Seattle hold a candle to places like New York, Tokyo or London for shear excitement, vibrancy, scale and urbanity, despite pretensions.

      That said, this post is a good one because Vancouver, BC demonstrates how a city can add density without destroying the nature of the Northwest surroundings that attract many people to the region in the first place. And it is certainly a good counterpoint to why we don’t absolutely NEED two highways going through the center of our city!

      1. Yes, exactly. BC is extremely beautiful, I just wish they would tone down the hyperbole. I prefer “Beautiful British Columbia,” personally. Although where else can you sit on a rock with Sarah McLaughlin?

      2. Or Vancouver’s closest suburb to the south, Richmond, whose motto is “Better in Every Way.”

      3. Best city slogan ever (painted in the Metrodome in the mid-80’s): “Minneapolis: We Like It Here.”

      4. >>For many people, jobs are important, and Vancouver, BC doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of them, beyond entry level service jobs.<<

        Nonsense. Vancouver has a very low unemployment rate. So there goes your theory that there aren't many jobs. And Vancouver has EXTREMELY expensive housing. If there were nothing but low-level service jobs, that wouldn't be possible, as no one could afford such expensive housing.

        The fact is Vancouver has very high averages wages and salaries. I don't know where you're getting your "facts" from (I'd like to see your source), but someone is lying to you.

      5. http://www.bcbusinessonline.ca/bcb/business-sense/2010/03/03/parsing-bc039s-jobless-rate

        What I’ve seen while looking for jobs in my field, protein engineering, is that wages in Vancouver are about 25% lower than they are here in Seattle for jobs with similar levels of experience. There were also fewer jobs overall in life science in Vancouver. Couple that with a higher cost of living and higher taxes and Vancouver never looked like an attractive place to live from my standpoint. The minimum wage in BC is also lower than in Washington.

      6. And there are many professions that pay higher in BC than Washington (teachers, nurses, etc.). That doesn’t change the fact that Vancouver has a very strong economy with low unemployment and high salaries/wages.

      7. It doesn’t change the fact that Vancouver’s full of hosers either, eh. Which is actually the first reason that I wouldn’t live there, regardless of wages!

      8. First off, it’s Canada. Canada has a lower GDP per capita than the U.S. as does almost every other European City. However, this does not necessarily translate into lower quality of life. Canadians are much healthier than Americans and they are generally happier as well. Money isn’t everything.

        Second point, any city that has an abnormally high quality of life is almost always going to have lower wages and more expensive housing. In fact, the “affordability gap” or percentage of income spent on housing is a fairly good proxy for quality of life. Why? Because it’s such a great place to live that people are willing to work for lower wages and they are willing to pay a higher percentage of their income for housing, all else being equal. Quality of life increases labor supply and housing demand. If a city were a lousy place to live, the only way to get people to live there would be to offer higher wages and cheaper housing.

        Note that it is not the wages or the housing alone that is correlated with quality of life, but the gap between the two. Detroit has low wages, but it also has really, really cheap housing. Washington D.C. has very expensive housing, but it also has very high wages.

        Portland and Vancouver both have higher affordability gaps than Seattle does, and this is an indication that they are both more desirable places to live.

      9. I haven’t cited any statistics; neither have you. We’re apparently both relying on largely anecdotal evidence. Here’s one article that is related to the difficulty in finding good paying jobs:


        As for the high real estate prices, many people think Vancouver is a Canada’s Miami, with lots of foreign speculators bidding up prices:


        You’ll notice I didn’t say that jobs were scarce, but that good-paying ones are scarce. I haven’t been able to find the relevant statistics, but I suspect that few cities in North America have such a gap between median wages of residents and housing prices.

      10. “As for the high real estate prices, many people think Vancouver is a Canada’s Miami, with lots of foreign speculators bidding up prices”

        That may be true for downtown and a couple other select areas, but prices are high for THE METRO AREA AS A WHOLE. Median price for a single family house in the metro area exceeded $1 million several years ago.

        Your comments about poor economy and low paying jobs are wrong. Someone lied to you. Whoever it was, I suggest not listening to them again.

      11. My understanding is that the Canadian system provides for a lower level of personal wealth creation than the U.S. system in exchange for a higher quality of public life. Wages are lower, taxes are higher, but public services are much better. Some of the urban advantages of Canadian cities are due to relative poverty compared to the US.

        The federal government never had the trillions (in current dollars) to invest in an Interstate highway system, local governments sensibly restrict urban growth to those areas where they can afford to provide utilites and transportation, and individuals choose to live in areas that allow for one car per family (since many can’t afford two cars).

        U.S. cities received “free” freeways from the federal government, (hence the I-5 based sprawl in Marysville) and feel wealthy enough subsidize roads and utilities in widely scattered development patterns. However, at $5.00/gallon gas that won’t continue to add up, and the U.S. will have to downsize our suburbs.

      12. Places like New York or Tokyo may be “exciting” or “vibrant” but they are very dense – to the point of being stressful. Fighting just to walk on the sidewalks particularly at rush hour in New York can be a harrowing experience. To say nothing of the car gridlock that is routine.

        And quite frankly, I don’t see why you are advocating that kind of density. New York is a crumbling, smelly old place that unless you are extraordinarily wealthy, your standard of living will be quite low. I have some friends that moved from a quite nice townhouse in Houston to a substandard apartment in Washington Heights. I don’t know if they could afford anything better but it is a substantial reduction in their accustomed standard of living. I’m not even talking about differences in size I’m talking about an old smelly, ratty building for which they pay large sums of rent. Rent because even with one being a doctor and the other a corp manager, they couldn’t even dream of buying something in the city. New York is a fun, vibrant place to VISIT. I just sure as heck wouldn’t want to live there. Besides, you’d end up doing what most of the other 12 million people who live outside the city do, they commute from their suburban existence.

        In encouraging density, planning should have the objective of maintaining affordability, and livability with regards to sufficient living spaces for families and not just singles. For example, New York City had a “low income” homeowners purchase assistance program but the minimum income was $60,000 to qualify for these loans. When you have libertarians complaining about bus drivers making anything close to that amount, what then is a middle class existence?

      13. I didn’t say New York was ideal, or a better place to raise a family than Seattle or Vancouver, BC. One of my points was how subjective a ranking of “best” or most “livable” is. For me, I’d rather live in the Northwest.

        My point with reference to New York was how Seattle and Vancouver seem to have an inferiority complex due to their desire to be seen as a “world-class city.” For Seattle, this has been with us from the beginning, since New York Alki earlier settler ambitions. It has fueled the mega-skyscrapers downtown, too. In my experience, Vancouver folks often seem insecure about their city’s status and seem to desperate to proclaim it as “world class” and such, as if it were remotely comparable to some of the major world cities like New York, London, and Tokyo.

        For some people, Houston may beat the pants off of Seattle, Vancouver, or New York in the “most livable” category–if you value lots of garage space to park your pickup trucks, for example.

      14. hmmm. I think Seattle’s paranoia is perhaps fueled by legitimate observation of ignorance on the part of friends on the east coast some who have no idea that you can travel from Spokane to Seattle by road.

        On the other hand, anecdotally, friends from Europe consider Vancouver a place to aspire to move to. So it is perhaps with some inflated ego on Vancouver’s part that thoughts of Vancouver as a “world class” city is justified.

      15. Vancouver needs to do something about its drug riddled lunatic homeless and vicious streetkids. As a group, they probably cause more harm to the city center than any urban freeway or suburban megamall.

  9. I really like the bicycle parking version of the barrier. Seattle needs more designated bicycle parking.

  10. Question for the bus drivers and/or transit experts: I’ve seen some buses with the route 661 on them but the destination board reads “661 North Base.” Why is the number used versus just “North Base”? Thanks!

    1. As I recall,(but its been 10 years since I worked out of there) it’s the driver shuttle between Central and North Base. AM peak buses terminating in Seattle are left there for the start of the PM peak return runs. Just the drivers are returned ‘en mass’ to north base to save on operating costs. Same idea in the PM.

      1. Thanks, Mike! That explains why I recently saw a 661 which said Central Base in the afternoon.

    2. 661 is an actual route. Operators have to/get to pick this route along with other work. They also have to wait for employees to board and such–they can’t just leave the terminal and head straight to base.

      The “North Base” and “Central Base” signs are only supposed to be used when deadheading to base.

    1. The entire point of the above video is to show how Vancouver is addressing the complaints listed in the article you linked to. Which, by the way, is not a rebuttal of vehicular cycling, but rather an analysis of why current vehicular cycling infrastructure alone does not motivate many people to choose cycling as a mode of transportation.

  11. Why not do this on Third Ave right now? It is incredibly under utilized being bus only for much of the day (not that is should be opened to cars) and would make a great place to try this out and show people its not the end of the world. Doesn’t seem like it would cost that much either.

    The fact that people have to cross the bike lane to get to buses seems less than ideal though…

    1. I don’t think there is enough room. The buses need to be able to pass each other thus the 4 lane configuration.

  12. Martin,

    thanks for the Dunsmuir Bike cycle track video. It seems well done. Its seems wide enough, has buffers, and turning restrictions. The buses stop in lane and the bus patrons have a good crossing the bike lanes. note that the vehicular traffic was one-way and that reduces the turning hazards.

    Vancouver proper also has a good and expanded electric trolleybus fleet with off-wire capability, frequency, and low floors. SkyTrain is excellent. The zoning is brave and effective. some of their bus routes have off-street turn around loops. The 99 B line BRT is very good and uses POP fare collection. Many major arterials provide transit with in-lane stops.

    I like the way Vancouver places overhead utilities in alleys. the library is great. I found no two-way left turn lanes in the central city. The parks and the markets were fun too.

  13. Several years ago, I took a little vacation to Vancouver. We rented bikes for the day and had a marvelous excursion seeing things we would have never seen from a car including the interior of Stanley park and a Capoeira festival in a park on the pedestrian path near False Creek.

    It was a bike friendly town then and the improvements they’re making can only continue to make it an even more amazing place.

  14. funny all the thriving downtowns have good transit, are pedestrian friendly, and are “difficult” and “expensive” to park. the downtowns that self-mutilated themselves with extensive freeways, urban renewal, excessive parking, poor streetscapes and poor transit have no retail, no residents, almost no hotels and only a small percent of the regions office supply. coincidence, i think not.

  15. I just went to Vancouver with my bike two weeks ago and got to ride on the Dunsmuir cycletrack, along with on the Carrall St. buffered bike lanes and a couple trails. The cycletrack was really just incredible. It was a great feeling not to have to be constantly on your guard for cars all around you, and to just be able to shoot down that path. The section along the viaduct was cool too, they just took one lane of the Dunsmuir viaduct and put a jersey barrier between it and the next lane, and designated it for bikes. I can’t wait until we have those here in Seattle. I think we should look seriously at putting one in on the left side of Fourth Ave. That would be incredible for cyclists going downtown.

    1. It was a great feeling not to have to be constantly on your guard for cars all around you…

      Maybe that’s why facilities like this increase the accident rate between cyclists and cars. But, hey, you feel safer, so it’s all good.

      1. Facilities like this increase accidents because they get more cyclists who are much less experienced to ride their bikes. But if you somehow got all those people who right now rarely ride their bikes to ride vehicularly, you would see a huge spike in accidents (see the LA Mayor who just got on his bike for the first time in years and biked down a street to promptly get into an accident with a taxi pulling out in front of him. He broke his elbow and had he not beem wearing a helmet he may have been killed). Physical separation does, in fact, make things safer.

      2. I agree that these facilities are likely to bring out more people who don’t cycle regularly. I think that is great. However, Andreas does bring up a good point regarding the safety (sarcasm aside). The reason why cycle tracks have a not-so-great safety record (at least in the US) is due to their design. When a motorist is turning, their attention is on the turn and not looking back for a cyclist traveling at 15, 10, or even 7 mph. This situation is only amplified when the cycle track is two-way on one-side and one direction of motor vehicles need to turn left. As an example, there are more angle collisions with cyclists using sidewalks at driveways and side streets than rear-end collisions.

        With that being said, maybe the safety record of cycle tracks will change as people cycle more and more people get used to seeing these in operation (“safety in numbers” concept). Right now, though, I don’t think I would be comfortable leading a novice rider to an unsafe facility to try to get motorists used to more cyclists. Seems like a sacrificial lamb.

        In this case, I think that Seattle should continue its development of bike boulevards for those novice riders and continue to use bike lanes on arterial streets for those who are comfortable in traffic.

      3. Could you please cite some links to actual empirical studies that show cycle tracks have higher accident rates per bicycle miles traveled than regular bike lanes?

        I’m honestly curious. Everything I have heard comes from engineering models that predict that cycle tracks will be more dangerous precisely for the reasons you point out, but models can be wrong. Only empirical data can tell us for sure.

      4. Here‘s a paper looking at cycle track safety in Copenhagen. It shows a 9-10% decrease in car traffic, an 18-10% increase in bicycle/moped traffic, and a 9-10% increase in accidents: a 10% decrease in accidents between intersections, but an 18% increase in accidents at intersections, precisely as the models predict.

        Also of note from that study was data showing that reducing parking on roads with cycletracks led to sharp increases in accidents, as this increased the number of cars turning on and off side-streets to find parking.

        A while back I tried to find data comparing the safety of cycling versus other modes of transport. We easily compare cars to trains to planes because we can easily figure the fatalities per mile traveled. But no one has a damn idea how many miles people bike (or walk) in the US, so no one knows the accident rates per mile traveled for these modes. The closest I was able to find was a study that looked at per-trip accident rates which found, as I vaguely recall, that compared to a trip by car, a trip by foot was 3.5x more likely to end in an accident, by bike 13x, by motorcycle 50x. Which, considering how many fewer miles the average ped or bike trip is compared to the average car trip, is damn scary.

  16. Two things unrelated to Vancouver:

    1. Returning to the topic of Metro maps we talked about a month or two back, I found another confusing map, screwed up by the snow route: http://metro.kingcounty.gov/cftemplates/show_map.cfm?BUS_ROUTE=252&DAY_NAV=W The “snow shuttle” is actually part of the regular route, not that this is obvious on the map without looking at the timetable.

    2. I was on the bus today and someone tapped in their ORCA card and the machine read “OWE $0.25”. But the machine made the same beep it always makes as though nothing was wrong, the person went on their merry way, and the driver had to clear the machine before anyone else could use it. I’m guessing it read “OWE $0.25” and not “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS” because it was a pass and not an e-purse, but they should both have the same not-normal beeps that tell whoever’s paying, “Hey! Pay attention!”

  17. Interesting study from Portland. It categorizes types of bike riders according to their “Fear Factor” or willingness to ride in traffic.

    Most telling is that the Silent Majority are non-vehicular cyclists who bike, and want to bike more, but don’t want to be anywhere near a car or riding in a bike lane.

    This is 60 percent of the population compared to the 8 percent who are vehicular cyclists.

    Unless plans address this majority groups, all your “infrastructures” are elitist!


    A much larger demographic, representing the vast majority of Portland’s citizens, are the “interested but concerned.” These residents are curious about bicycling. They are hearing messages from a wide variety of sources about how easy it is to ride a bicycle in Portland, about how bicycling is booming in the city, about “bicycle culture” in Portland, about Portland being a “bicycle-friendly” city, and about the need for people to lead more active lives. They like riding a bicycle, remembering back to their youths, or to the ride they took last summer on the Springwater, or in the BridgePedal, or at Sun River, and they would like to ride more. But, they are afraid to ride. They don’t like the cars speeding down their streets. They get nervous thinking about what would happen to them on a bicycle when a driver runs a red light, or guns their cars around them, or passes too closely and too fast. Very few of these people regularly ride bicycles—perhaps 2,000 who will ride through their neighborhoods to the local park or coffee shop, but who will not venture out onto the arterials to the major commercial and employment destinations they frequent. There are probably 300,000 in this group, representing 60% of the city’s population. They would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.

Comments are closed.