Inspired by Roger’s post, I thought I’d look at whether downtown makes sense from a pedestrian standpoint.  Here’s the map:

1/2 mile and 1 mile radius from 3rd and Spring

Green Circle: 1/2 mile radius.

Using 3rd and Spring as roughly the center of the city, I first drew the green circle.  I consider 1/2 mile the distance a person would walk rather than look for alternate transportation.  You can see immediately why downtown works so well.  All of downtown fits in this circle, making it easy to hop between offices for meetings or to head out for lunch.  The waterfront is in this circle, as is Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, the Convention Center, the ferry dock, and many large hotels, which make this also a great place for tourists.  There is that pesky I-5 cutting through the right side, which cuts off most of what’s east of there from easy walking.  But luckily 99 is above ground within this circle, so it doesn’t get in the way too much.

Yellow Circle: 1 mile radius.

Although a 1 mile trip generally makes more sense on a bus, it’s certainly a distance that’s enjoyably walkable on a nice day.  It’s also a likely distance someone might walk when a bus is infrequent, there’s traffic, or a bus route is out of your way.  The yellow stripe is out of the core of downtown, but still walkable to it.  Notice Belltown is in this zone, as is the International District, Yesler Terrace, Seattle U, several hospitals, and the Pike/Pine section of Capital Hill.  Again, these are great locations for these uses – they’re all dense enough and have enough activity to be worth walking from and to.  But there’s also some less useful parts in this yellow stripe.  The industrial section of the waterfront is unfortunate, but there’s nowhere else to put it.  I might not have put the stadiums in this circle, but that’s debatable.  But check out the impact of I-5 – it’s practially cutting through the middle of the circle, killing pedestrian connections across it.  And look at the SE edge – that’s a massive road interchange, and just outside the circle you have the huge Atlantic Base bus parking lot and a two-highway-adjacent park.

I think the lessons I’d take from the yellow zone aren’t new: I-5 needs more lids, we need to develop SoDo, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move the Atlantic base further from the city.  One new argument I’d propose would be to do something about the I-90/I-5 interchange.  Look at that mess of concrete, eating up some of our most valuable urban space:

I-5, I-90 Interchange


David Marcus sent in this great map of 10-minute and 20-minute walksheds.  This shows how far you can walk in, 10 or 20 minutes using our current street grid, factoring in hills.

10 and 20 minute walksheds, David Marcus

Update 2: I was recently pointed to a nice feature of WalkScore, that allows you to measure a walking commute from a given address.  Check out the tool, it’s really fun.

10 minute walk, WalkScore
20 minute walk, WalkScore

54 Replies to “Downtown Walkable Radius”

  1. I think there is an important note to include here. Most normal folks, locals as well as visitors, probably perceive distances downtown differently than elsewhere. Example If you asked most people working downtown if they would rather walk, bus, or drive (assuming they have a vehicle downtown) 1/2 a mile, they would probably say “walk” because of the time savings compared to other modes. Now if you asked someone if they would walk bus or drive to the library from westlake i think you would get a significantly different percentage of folks saying they would walk. It’s only 1/2 a mile BUT it is commonly perceived to be much longer…and there’s somewhat of a hill. Just something to think about.

    1. The length of the downtown walk (perception) will be changed considerably when the ride free area is eliminated. Right now I regard the ID as a walkable area because of the bus tunnel (I live at the north end of B’way) but when the RFA goes, so do a lot of my downtown trips as well.

  2. The hills are surely a factor in people’s decision making. How would you like to go from the ferry terminal to Harborview? Walk, drive, bus, ambulance? How about ferry terminal to the sculpture park?

    I don’t think it’s necessarily unfortunate that a large chunk of the waterfront is industrial or that we have stadiums bordering downtown. Industrial jobs are grittier than the nice, clean, “have a nice day” jobs we have downtown, but SODO Station could someday be the hub for a lot of people earning their money the hard way. Maybe we should install signs at SODO Station reminding workers to clean their shoes before boarding our shiny trains?

    There does seem to be an exodus of the industrial/warehouse type of business from SODO. I wonder if it’s due to rising rents or a consequence of the city’s square footage tax?

    1. Agree. While its nice to have a sense of the scale of downtown, a circle radius really tells us very little about the pedestrian environment. A topomap, or even a map of lot sizes would be more valuable.
      Also, in my opinion, SODO is far more interesting to walk than major stretches of downtown. (I’m looking at you 2nd and 3rd).
      Why not sell the air rights above Atlantic Base, its all electric trolleys. Put them in the basement of a 300 foot mixed use tower. And Yes! I’ll tear I5 and I90 out of Seattle if you will. Lets get our sledgehammers…

      1. When I go downtown to see a symphony at Benaroya, I try and do a bit of walking. Last time I was there, I got off Sounder, hopped a link to University and started walking. First to 4th and Westlake where there’s always some activity. Then I go by Top Pot on 5th because it’s a nice place to surf and drink coffee. Alternatively I continue into Belltown.

        Belltown puzzles me, because I think of it as Seattle’s Upper Eastside. It seems like it should be a whole lot more lively especially after work. There are some lit up places along 4th and 3rd, but far apart. And the street lights are so dim I keep expecting to hear screams in the alley way as another “moll” is attacked by a Jack The Ripper. (I’ve heard Seattle is testing new LED street lights…). The thing is its such a hodge podge. A few nice places…and a bunch of social services outlets with street people lined up all day.

        I really think that Seattle needs to take a long look in the mirror and think about all its done in the last 20 years and all the money that’s been spent and wonder if it’s on the wrong direction or not.

    2. I’m a fan of gritty jobs. Without the port, Seattle would be much smaller and poorer. But low density industry makes for poorly walkable areas, and hence it would be nice if they were a bit further from our dense downtown. That said, I don’t see any way to make that happen. I’m not proposing we remove industry from around the port.

      1. Salon had an interesting article about ports, especially port of Seattle.

        I like the port, but I see no reason we should be subsidizing them beyond what the feds give for the airport. The port’s property tax level is $73 million a year for a group with a $722 million in expenses. I can see so many better uses for that $73 million for our county rather than subsidizing the port.

    3. walking up James is horrible … especially between 4th and 5th aves.

      I try to walk 10-15 miles a day across First Hill/Capital Hill … that includes walking up Madison from 12th to 18th and John St. from Broadway to 15th … but even I take the bus up James from 3rd to Harborview (though usually I take the 12 to 6th ave and walk from there up Madison).

  3. Not to mention how the circle would change if you just measured an actual 1/2-mile walk which would take into account the limited ways to cross the freeway. It would also be interesting to include the walking paths available on the downtown accessibility map. Some walk paths allow diagonal movements through the middle of the block which could extend the 1/2-mile radius by a few hundred feet. One example is using the escalator from 3rd Avenue to 2nd Avenue in the Wells Fargo building.

    1. When the President had an event at the Paramount, all the Pike/Pine buses were re-routed. Ours ended up parked north of Olive with the driver unclear of the rest of the re-route. We decided to walk but the police were not allowing pedestrians over the Olive overpass. I asked about alternatives and he said the convention center pedestrian path might be open. Considering how far likely open overpasses were (I though the Lakeview or Yesler ones might since they were much further fromtthe Paramount), we gave up and changed our plans.

      Hills near downtown (and even the ones in dowtown) greatly affect perceived distance. All the I-5 overpasses are a bit steep to get to. Instead of a circle, maybe each block or half-block could be labeled with a weight representing perceived distance. E.g. the steep blocks sometimes between 2nd and 3rd Ave might count as 1.5 or even 2 blocks. The overpass itself might be “double” long just because they feel like they take forever to cross (especially the more steep ones) . Then draw a loop thru the places within half a mile (using weighted blocks). I suspect it would look a lot different than this. There’s a reason people get on and off RFA buses while still downtown.

    2. [J.] Check out David’s map. It does exactly that.

      Although walkshed maps are valuable, they use the actual built environment. I wanted to remove that bias, which frees us to talk about what could happen. That said, factoring in hills would have been useful (if I knew how).

      1. And lights. Twenty minutes from 3rd and Spring to the Denny Whole Foods is possible assuming you either jaywalk or hit the lights just right. Obviously those are changeable too, but I find this updated 10/20 minute walkshed map somewhat unbelievable because I know how far I can get downtown and some of those linesdon’t make sense to me. I’m glad you got one. It’s an interesting comparison to the strict circles.

      2. I in fact got to time it today. From Fifth Ave and Pine to Denny and Westlake (walking along Westlake because the SLUT was ten minutes out), it took us twelve minutes. We did not jaywalk however and if we had it would have been a lot faster — there were at least six lights we got stopped at, most of which had no cross traffic for most of the time we waited.

  4. Just curious if the “do something about the I-90/I-5 interchange” is just wishful thinking, tongue-in-cheek or there have been viable alternatives to it that don’t involve razing it to the ground.

    1. There is a plan to re-configure I-5 through downtown that would involve closing the Seneca St. off-ramp (and I presume the Spring St. on-ramp). Try to imagine downtown Seattle without all the cars lined up to get on at Spring and coming off at Seneca.

      1. Guy: Do you have a link to that plan? That would be very interesting to see, and could have major ramifications for the 2/12 issue (since suddenly, Spring/Seneca could become a bus-priority street and skip the freeway traffic entirely).

        John: We have it; it’s called 405. I continue to advocate for 405 being turned into mainline 5.

    2. If I were Road Czar, I’d remove the onramps and offramps and just have some clean connections between 90 and 5. Then I’d lid I-5. The result would be a connected environment with just a mildly annoying 90 in the sky. Though I’d consider killing that as well, and just ending 90 at 5.

      So yes, mostly wishfull thinking.

      1. @Matt

        Yup — totally agree; just get rid of the on-ramps and off-ramps for the entire downtown stretch and lid the dang thing. Although, if we have to keep the car ferry, then you want that I-90 ramp to somehow directly take cars off the ferry and let them get outta town (since, presumably anyone taking their car on the ferry to Seattle has no intention of actually staying downtown). I suppose I’d rather just make the ferry passenger only.

      2. they’d have to keep the James St. on/off ramps because there needs to be access to the hospitals

      3. WSDOT has floated plans to remove one of the DT exits. I forget which one. Anyone know where that stands? Unfunded?

      4. There is talk of widening I-5 between Olive and Seneca in downtown Seattle to allow one more lane of traffic northbound. Go dig through PSRC documents for more details. The plan would require closing the Seneca St. off-ramp and the University St. on-ramp, but there’s no money available to fund a feasibility study. See pdf pg. 70 in this document.

      5. If I were road czar, I’d re-route I-5 through the DBT :-D I know, I know, not remotely possible.

  5. What I find frustrating about walking through downtown is that, at least on the avenues, the pedestrian lights are timed such that if you start crossing the street right when you get the walk signal, you have to run to catch the signal at the next block. Walking at a normal pace means one block, wait, one block, wait, etc.

    Not sure the engineering decisions behind this – I imagine it favors vehicle traffic flow on the streets – but if feasible a pedestrian ‘green wave’ would really change the character of downtown.

    1. Westlake (along the SLU trolley route) is similarly awful, but made worse because even during commute hours you can get stuck waiting for a light to change and there be no cross traffic for much of the wait. Way to emphasize how unimportant pedestrians are!

      So I jaywalk a lot.

      1. And there are several points with no crosswalk along Westlake. You are forced to reroute onto a numbered street and cross it.

      2. “no crosswalks” You don’t have to have a crosswalk to cross a street. You can cross at any intersection that’s streets or alleys. Westlake has plenty of those.

    2. And beware the courteous and attentive car drivers who are happy to yield at intersections.

      The viaduct is a nightmare to walk near: a sonic atrocity, plus air that is not really safe to breathe. Unfortunately, the replacement above-ground roadway for it looks to lack walls and a roof to contain the pollution, so no improvements there.

    3. A lot of pedestrian traffic signals, all across the city, are timed to allow only 5 – 7 seconds of legal “walk” time. Out of a typical signal on an 80-second cycle time, it means that most pedestrians have lengthy waits most of the time to legally cross an intersection.

      Imagine if vehicular traffic were subjected to similar restrictions.

    4. Quote:
      “What I find frustrating about walking through downtown is that, at least on the avenues, the pedestrian lights are timed such that if you start crossing the street right when you get the walk signal, you have to run to catch the signal at the next block. Walking at a normal pace means one block, wait, one block, wait, etc.”

      I find this enormously frustrating as well. So what I do is stop mid-block for, say, a minute or so, then start walking again. That way I am in sync with the green lights for the next three or four blocks before I once more get out of sync–then repeat.

  6. The walks shed map is nice, but I think it’s wrong, as in too small along the parallel of the hills. If you can walk a mile in 15 minutes, then you should be able to walk 2/3 mile in 10 minutes which traveling down third would put you at Blanchard, not Stewart. Even if you missed 1/2 of the lights (4 waits of 30 seconds) or 2 minutes loss, you’d be able to walk a 1/2 mile or Virgina.

    1. Rule-of-thumb human walking speed is 3 mph.

      4 mph is a brisk or purposeful walk.

      And as Rachael says, that presumes a cavalier attitude toward jaywalking laws (which, fortunately, most habitual walkers will eventually develop).

      1. ” (which, fortunately, most habitual walkers will eventually develop).”

        Unless they are in Downtown Seattle, where they wait patiently at empty intersections. The ones who do jaywalk are called “tourists”

      2. I wish people walked at 3mph … when I walk around Seattle on my daily walks I always get stuck behind people going about 2mph or slower … usually walking side by side and blocking the whole sidewalk.

      3. People who “walk around a little” while downtown, or who “walk around a little” between the car and the restaurant and the movie, are not habitual walkers. They’re strollers — they don’t consider it a mode a transportation like they do the car or the bus, and therefore they’re much more concerned with rule adherence than achieving maximum efficiency.

        But anyone who walks from destination to destination on a regular basis — they don’t even have to be long walks; the 3/4 mile up Westlake that Rachael describes will suffice — will eventually learn to jaywalk, as it can easily cut your journey time by 2/3.

      4. I find that at “purposeful” walk allows me to avoid all the street people panning for money and the “save the …” types asking for my time.

        If you notice the above comment by Rachel, she manages to walk a near 4mph pace even with lights down Westlake.

        3mph is a stroll in the park with my SO. 2mph is with a toddler, or lost tourist.

        Thing is, with the Downtown Tunnel, one rarely starts from 3rd and Spring to go anywhere. Yes, the map gives us a sense of that the city is compact, but in reality, what matters is where you start your walk from, ie at lunch it’s from your office, Traveling to Seattle via bus, it’s from your stop.

        To me, what matters is how far can you get in 10 minutes from the last convenient place that you would park/get off the bus from. That’s a bigger zone than either of these maps.

      5. Gary- I managed 4mph because we walk fast and did not dawdle (because I was going to intentionally not jaywalk). However, if you look at that walkshed (the updated one), it’s pretty clear that it should have only been around 10 minutes. I managed 4 mph, was stopped at almost all the lights and couldn’t even manage 10 minutes. Now imagine someone who walks a bit slower and hits those lights.

        The best part was that I was actually walked to work (at a large Seattle employer) and the SLU trolley caught up to us and passed us before I reached my building (which is right by a stop). I’d always thought that if the trolley was more more than five or so minutes, it wasn’t worth waiting. But apparently it can be *ten* minutes out and still worth waiting for!

      6. Actually, I didn’t realize you were starting on 5th and going only as far as Denny. Precisely 1/2 mile.

        So at 10 minutes, that’s 3 mph! At 12 minutes (which only happened because you were testing the light cycles obediently), it’s only 2.5 mph.

        3 mph really is the standard for urban walking, Gary. Unless I’m really late and (will thus be pushing the standard), I absolutely measure distances in 20 minutes/mile. In Boston, that would be the average pace of those around me. In Seattle (surrounded by “strollers”), that usually makes me the fastest-moving person around.

      7. I’m not trying to razz you, Gary. But you do make a habit on this blog of thinking that you’re faster than you actually are and making fun of those you see as inferior.

        Rachael, I presume, didn’t realize the distance was only 0.5 miles and therefore made a miscalculation.

        Sorry, but 3 mph is not slowpoke. It’s quite a decent pace of movement over any significant distance. 4 mph is pretty much a speed-walk.

      8. 5-6 mph is a jog.
        7-8 mph is a run.
        Anything faster than that an you’re probably a competitive athlete.

      9. I’m in good shape, but walking from 3rd and Spring to Madison and Broadway seems like a chore too much; that’s a steep hill. I’d get on a bus and save my exercise for designated times.

        I find that at “purposeful” walk allows me to avoid all the street people panning for money and the “save the …” types asking for my time.

        This reminds me of that awesome scene in Airplane!

      10. “In the absence of significant external factors, humans tend to walk at approximately 1.4 m/s (5.0 km/h; 3.1 mph). Although humans are capable of walking at speeds from nearly 0 m/s to upwards of 2.5 m/s (9.0 km/h; 5.6 mph), humans typically choose to use only a small range within these speeds…”

        And here’s the key line: “The preferred walking speed of healthy humans is normally distributed with a standard deviation of 0.1 m/s (0.36 km/h; 0.22 mph).”

        Meaning that the next standard deviation above the mean — a minority but not insignificant portion of the population — is walking at 3.32 mph.

        But two standard deviations above the mean — by that point a very small group of outliers — is still only walking at 3.54 mph!

        There is essentially no one on this planet with a default walking pace of 4 mph. Not even you, Gary!

      11. d.p.: I honestly didn’t calculate it. I took Gary at face value in saying it was 4 mph given my start and end points and the time I reported. I was specifically comparing to the highlighted section in the updated walk shed which seemed to suggest that it should have taken about 10 minutes or less. For me that’s reasonable. For someone with kids in tow? Forget it.

      12. The updated map does seem to be based on the 3 mph standard, showing 0.5 miles as precisely ten minutes — your walk was from just inside the dark green to just inside the light green.

        You are correct that this metric would presume no (small) children and a healthy disregard for twiddling your thumbs on the edge of a curb just because a little red man tells you to do so.

  7. The north end of Downtown proper does well in part because it’s easy to cross I-5 at the convention center (escalators) and at gentler slopes like Pike/Pine, and the crossing is reasonably pleasant. Even as a militant pedestrian I tend to avoid hills like Cherry due to both slope and the freeway. Certainly many others do too, hence the lesser connection between First Hill and the south half of the CBD.

    Regarding walking speed, I must be a really fast walker, because I do Broad to Spring in 15 minutes routinely. Jaywalking as necessary of course.

  8. One problem with the walkshed maps: most people not named Jesus would have trouble walking on Elliot Bay. :)

  9. Capping more of I-5 downtown would be great. I would start by extending Freeway Park north, to Pine. This would be relatively cheap, but would really do a good job of connecting downtown with Capitol Hill. Yes, it is steep, but I’ve seen lots of people walk that road, despite the unpleasant nature of it. After that, I would continue to cap the freeway north and south.

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