San Francisco and East Bay (Satellite)
San Francisco and East Bay, taken around 1975. From flickr user Roger Wollstadt.

At the Atlantic Cities, Gabriel Metcalf has a thought-provoking article about affordable housing in the Bay Area. The whole thing is really interesting and highly recommended reading, but I want to highlight one particular section of the article, particularly how affordability interplays with walkability.

Whether the gentrification process is good or bad for neighborhoods, and for the lower-income people who live there, is something that can be debated endlessly. But what is strikingly different about the Bay Area in contrast to a place like New York is the fact that New York has so many more walkable, pre-war neighborhoods located on rail transit, within easy commuting distance of Manhattan. When New York neighborhoods like Soho and the Village got too expensive, for example, the Lower East Side became a major center for artists and other members of the cultural avant-garde. When the Lower East Side got too expensive, people went across the East River to Williamsburg. Next came Fort Green, Dumbo, Red Hook and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were still cheap. But as every spot in Brooklyn with a good rail connection to the city gets more expensive, there still is Queens, the Bronx, Newark, the towns up the Hudson — walkable neighborhoods in every direction.

As expensive as Manhattan is, and as far along into the gentrification process as the many surrounding communities are, there are still many places to go within the New York orbit to have an affordable, urban way of life.

We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.

In the Bay Area, there are far fewer options that fit the criteria of walkable, transit-proximate and affordable. For many of my friends, there is just one: Oakland. This is what people mean when they say Oakland is the Brooklyn of the Bay Area. It’s the next stop on the train, it’s cool, it’s where young people go now.

The affordability issue isn’t as acute in Seattle as it is in San Francisco or Manhattan, but the lack of a “safety valve” like Brooklyn or Oakland is even worse. Really, outside of a few neighborhoods in Seattle and possibly some small parts of other cities, there are no walkable neighborhoods. As people who want an urban lifestyle get priced out of those neighborhoods, there’s really no where else to go.

78 Replies to “Affordability and Walkability”

    1. It could be – Columbia City is certainly on the walkable end of the spectrum – but I really don’t think the Rainer Valley is there yet as a whole.

      Not knowing the history of the development of most of the area, but having just moved deeper into it (from North Beacon Hill to Othello), it seems to me that much of it developed more in line with Post-WWII patterns. The grid is often incomplete, though certainly not as bad as 1980s cul-de-sac neighborhoods, and sidewalks are occasionally missing. Likewise, the road grid is entirely car dominated, there are parking lots everywhere, and density is wastefully low in many areas. To say that walking is comfortable there would be a joke: outside of a few areas it’s not. Sometimes that’s because it’s just boring (a plague that even dense areas in Seattle often suffer from), but often because it feels dangerous and unwelcome. Rainier and MLK are both designed to be little more than shunts for cars coming from South Seattle or south-of-Seattle into the central districts of the city, and the lack of care for walking or biking shows.

      Still, there’s definitely some potential but also lots of work that would need to happen first. Work takes time, and requires neighborhoods that don’t toss up roadblocks every time you try and change anything: Seattle has a poor track record on that front. Frankly, I imagine that any attempts to densify or improve Rainier Vally neighborhoods will be met with opposition against ‘gentrification’ and driving out poorer residents, regardless of merit. The class-based ‘us versus them’ attitude, though sometimes warranted (and certainly understandable), wouldn’t help those conversations either.

      1. The changes required will not doubt lead those who leave and return to espouse words similar to Gertrude Stein, should the happen. But they need to happen, I think, if Seattle is to avoid San Francisco’s fate – or that of any large, housing constrained city.

        Like I said, the Rainier Valley has potential. The question, as it almost always tends to be, is one of political will. Same as any other neighborhood in Seattle.

      2. Oh boy… where to begin?

        My parents moved into Rainier Valley before the 1962 World’s Fair and I’ve seen plenty of changes in the area in my lifetime. I guess my first question would be: what is the meaning of “there”?

        One surprising fact about Rainier Valley and much of Beacon Hill is that home ownership levels are very high. The housing in those neighborhoods isn’t dominated by avaricious slum lords squeezing renters out of their last bucks. Much of the housing is owned by its occupants. But for years the real estate market has undervalued houses in the south end compared to the more preferable north end neighborhoods. So, the south end has traditionally been more affordable for people who don’t have high paying jobs but still want to own their own homes. The fact that the light rail line has made Rainier Valley real estate more valuable is kind of a windfall for the south end. Maybe that’s the good side of gentrification. Think of a fictitious couple– Mr. and Ms. Nguyen–who have spent 30 years paying off the mortgage, maintaining their property and putting their kids through school and now it’s time for them to downsize because the kids are out of the house and the house is too big. They put the house up for sale and the newly married Mr. and Mr. Garcia-Williams family want to move in and raise their family. The Garcia-Williams will bitch about real estate prices and how they both have to work full-time just to pay the mortgage; the Nguyens will remember those days and reap their reward for their time and investment in the neighborhood.

        So, back to my original question: What is the meaning of “there”? What needs to be present for there to be a “there” there?

        But if you’d prefer to about gentrification more lightly, check out W. Kamau Bell’s interview with Colin Quinn: http://vod.fxnetworks.com/watch/totallybiased
        (At about the 4:50 mark there’s a segment about gentrification in Brooklyn that’s pretty funny.)

      3. to get the video you will have to scroll down into the “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (8) Selected Scenes – Latest Episodes” section

      4. Except that the Rainier Valley resembles Hayward-Union City-Fremont, CA more than it does Oakland. It’s a strip, not a town. and what’s happening in Oakland is definitely not happening in Fremont.

      1. Downtown Renton and Skyway are absolutely aching to get the artists, musicians and bohemians that rescued neighborhoods like Georgetown, Beacon Hill and a long time ago Fremont and Capitol Hill. Burien might also be ripe for Mimi’s rasping cough.

      2. Bremerton and it’s only a ferry ride away. Ok, it’s a long ferry ride away, but commuters manage to do it 5 days a week, so it can’t be that tough.

    2. Tacoma and Everett are the equivalents, with Sounder being the crucial link that makes this possible. Both are walkable cities with affordable housing options for people working in Seattle. And it’s a reason why the critics of Sounder North are so deeply misguided. That rail service has to be in place first before Everett can become a safety valve for Seattle. It’s well-positioned to play that role as long as Sounder North is maintained, which it should be.

      1. I agree with you that the equivalents are Everett and Tacoma. Even though they’re further away from Seattle than Oakland is from SF, they have the same feel. They’re both the blue collar to Seattle’s white one. Though I’m tempted to say it’s more Tacoma than Everett. I’ll even say that the Sounder does play a pretty critical role for Tacoma-Seattle commuters.

        However, I have to disagree with you on Sounder North. Even though Sounder North does provide a link, what good is a link if it isn’t used and if it isn’t reliable? The winter landslides kill Sounder North’s reliability. You can only have something cancelled on you for so long before you just give up on it. Sounder North also has much more competition from CT’s commuter buses, and there is an argument to be made that they are better because they serve more of the populace between Everett and Seattle. South Sounder is a link between Tacoma and Seattle, but it also serves Puyallup, Auburn, and Kent, gaining riders in those places. You can’t say the same on the North Sounder about intermediate population centers in Snohomish. Also, I-5 doesn’t get shut down in the winter that often, which means that the buses are also more reliable than the train, even with horrible interstate traffic. I’m not saying that Sounder North doesn’t connect Everett to Seattle. I’m just saying that it doesn’t do this job well, so it can’t really play the role you lay out.

      2. Tacoma and Everett are the equivalents,

        I agree with this.

        with Sounder being the crucial link that makes this possible.

        I disagree. Sounder is not, and will never be, robust enough for us to link Everett and Tacoma to Seattle in the same way. For these cities to truly be a “safety valve”, Sounder would have to be running all day, bidirectionally. That’s not happening, ever.

        Our best hope is to wait for Link to reach Tacoma.

        Or hope that downtown Lynnwood develops walkably.

      3. Equivalents to Oakland would have to be closer than Tacoma and Everett. Part of what makes Oakland effective is that it’s 20 minutes from San Francisco on BART. Tacoma and Everett are an hour from Seattle by transit (and Link will not improve this), so they’re more like San Jose. It’s hard to envision a major arts scene developing so far out, although hopefully small ones will. So places like Lake City and Burien really have to be part of the solution.

      4. Except that downtown Tacoma is dying (again), and the walkable neighborhood is 6th, way up the hill, unserved by Sounder or any other kind of rail, probably forever.

        Everett could become that kind of place, and I know some artist types who moved there after being priced out of Seattle. It has the right kind of building stock, though it’s still incredibly sparse. Both Tacoma and Everett are really un-dense; not like Oakland at all, even the “bad old Oakland” I lived in for a year back in the 80s.

        I would nominate Burien, myself. It’s a small downtown, but it works. Again, density is a problem: outside of the shopping area the housing is just so, so sparse.

        The elephant in the room is Bellevue, which can never become a dense walkable place due to how it’s laid out. You can build in density, but it’s the wrong kind — high-rises full of rich people. Which seems to be the only kind of building that anyone knows how to build now. I could add “Seattle” to that list, because outside of a few central neighborhoods Seattle is just as bland and pedestrianally uninteresting as any suburb. The problem always seems to be the death of retail, because there is no foot traffic, because the housing is so sparse and so expensive that young people can’t even dream of living there. Wallingford? Forget it. Building expensive highrise units isn’t the answer — look at the horrorzone of South Lake Union. Lake City? You’re joking. Lake City decided a long time ago it wanted to drive hip young people out, not attract them.

        Unfortunately no one knows how to turn auto suburbia into places that are “cool”. It probably can’t be done. And if you can’t hook into cool, your pedestrianized area is going to fail. The only other base to start from is immigrants, which is a mark in favor of Burien.

      5. Bellevue would be ideal; it’s the geographical equivalent of Oakland. The problem is there are so many people with six- and seven-figure salaries bidding up the housing prices there.

        Lynnwood and Everett are the potential heroes in this, if they ever get their act together. Lynnwood is as close as Kent and has a long tradition of all-day express transit (and Link will be 28 minutes to Seattle). And Lynnwood has been at least saying it wants a walkable downtown and TOD nodes around Swift stations, and has actually put its zoning where its mouth is. Although I’m still afraid it will be large buildings rather than human-scaled. But at least it’ll be better than what we have now.

        Everett is distance-wise like Federal Way. Unfortunately it has almost completely eliminated its pre-WWII buildings downtown and on Broadway. So it would have to recreate that to be a truly walkable area. But given that it’s inexpensive and still gridded, it could become a good escape valve even at its large scale, and even now lower-income people are moving to Everett because it’s affordable. But it’s still 60 minutes from Seattle on ST Express and Sounder and a future Link (well, maybe Link could bring it down to 45 minutes), so that will prevent it from really integrating with it.

      6. Forgot to say, superblocks are not related to affordability. Bellevue is not expensive because it has superblock apartments; its expensive because a lot of high-salaried people live near there and find Bellevue desirable. A gridded, small-lot Bellevue would be as expensive or probably more.

        And superblocks are not the end of the world. I lived in downtown Bellevue in the 80s when it was all 1-2 story. I could still walk to the supermarket and Bellevue Square and the library and the record shop and movie theater and the place where my friends played D&D and Traveller. My fast-food job was at the other end of downtown so I bused or biked but I could have walked. Now with all the tall buildings, there are even more things to walk to. So superblocks are not the end of the world, and we shouldn’t give up on making them into more walkable neighborhoods. But we should also encourage the city councils to at least put walking paths where the missing streets are, or even to recreate the streets and alleys. (Not that Bellevue had alleys, but in general.)

      7. Unfortunately no one knows how to turn auto suburbia into places that are “cool”. It probably can’t be done.

        Forget about “cool”. Just start with “walkable”.

        In many east coast cities, most of the suburbs were built well before most people owned cars. Boston is the ultimate example — virtually all of Boston’s suburbs started out as self-contained small cities or towns, and it’s just an accident of history that Salem or Gloucester or Plymouth didn’t become the “big city”. So for the cities and towns that want to become more walkable, it’s as simple as upzoning and trying to attract some development.

        At the opposite extreme is the “Sun Belt”. Palm Beach County in Florida is a great example. The street layout consists of 6-8 lane arterials, spaced a mile apart. Inside these superblocks are several residential developments, each of which has exactly one outlet to the street (sometimes with a gate), and no connections to each other. Commercial buildings, where they exist, sit directly on the arterials, fronted by large parking lots.

        When the vast majority of your urban area is laid out in this way, improving walkability basically isn’t possible. You essentially need to start from scratch: shrink blocks, create new streets, put the arterials on a diet, etc. Some places, like Tysons Corner, VA, are willing to do this, but they’re the exception.

        Seattle is kind of in an intermediate place. On the one hand, we have lots of suburbs like Bellevue and Redmond, where outside of a tiny walkable downtown, most of the development follows the Sun Belt superblock model. On the other hand, we have lots of “old world” developments like Lake City and Shoreline and Burien — places that were laid out before cars and superblocks, even though they haven’t really taken off yet. And yes, we have Everett and Tacoma, but they’re both *really far away*, and I can’t fathom why someone who works in Seattle would choose to live in Everett instead of Shoreline, or Tacoma instead of Burien.

        Say what you will about South Lake Union, but I actually think it’s a fantastic example of how much street layout matters. SLU may not have a soul, but it definitely has tons of residents and workers and shoppers. Over time, as its existing buildings age, it will start to become more affordable. In contrast, there’s no reason you’d ever want to go to Overlake/Redmond if you weren’t going to visit Microsoft. Amazon and Vulcan and Seattle have been able to achieve in 5 years what Microsoft and Redmond haven’t been able to do in 30.

      8. And superblocks are not the end of the world.

        Downtown Bellevue’s “superblocks” barely deserve the name. If you want to see real superblocks, look no further than Boca Raton. Here’s a block that’s 1.8 miles long. That’s pretty typical.

        The problem with Bellevue is not the downtown; it’s everywhere else. Most of Bellevue is laid out with the same “street hierarchy” pattern; a few huge arterials, and a pile of twisty little streets that don’t actually connect to anything. There’s pretty much no way to make those areas walkable; you’d have to knock down buildings and create tons of new streets.

      9. Say what you will about South Lake Union, but I actually think it’s a fantastic example of how much street layout matters

        Well, we disagree. I think it’s as bad as anyplace you could mention. It LOOKS like a properly laid-out place, but if examine it closely, it’s not. There’s only one or two shops per block — and even blocks with none, even in new buildings. The places that are there are flat, useless places. The other night we ate at Shanik, which I’d been looking forward to for some time (and it was very good) but there was no one around — the neighborhood was as deserted as it was in 1995, despite all the building. I’ve been to Paddy Coyne’s several times, meeting a friend who works in the area; it is an AWFUL street.

        SLU reminds me of the Pearl District in Portland, another place that’s touted as the new way to do things, but which strikes me as similarly soulless, with similarly mile-apart retail presences.

        I think what makes it impossible is not just the building infrastructure but the total abscence of poor people. SLU seems like a college campus for young Amazonians. They don’t buy things in shops. And if you’re not one of them, there’s nothing there for you. You won’t feel welcome. It’s really no different than Bellevue.

      10. I think what makes it impossible is not just the building infrastructure but the total absence of poor people.

        Fast forward 30 years. Today’s luxury apartments in SLU will become tomorrow’s low-rent buildings. That’s not because they’re built badly; that’s just how real estate works. There are plenty of examples of Seattle buildings that were really fancy when they were built in 1930 or 1950 or 1970, but are in much worse shape now.

        When that happens, SLU will have the socioeconomic diversity that is needed to give it some of the soul that it’s currently lacking.

        Overlake, on the other hand? Or Bellevue (excluding downtown)? Even 30 years from now, they still won’t have a soul, because the street layout makes it structurally impossible.

      11. “most of the development follows the Sun Belt superblock model”

        The Eastside’s superblocks are just under a half mile. I also walked them while I was growing up, both between stores at Overlake (Village) and to various destinations on 8th, 20th, and 68th. Again, they’re not the end of the world. But Sun Belt superblocks may be the end of the world, from your description. And I saw something similar in Santa Clara, where it takes a full ten minutes to walk from one intersection to the next, with only one office building in between. And in Rancho Santa Fe, omg, the local arterials are 55 mph! And Dallas has six-lane boulevards every mile, although there are smaller streets in between.

      12. “It’s hard to envision a major arts scene developing so far out,”

        The reason access to Seattle is important, and why a satellite hip-spot 30 minutes out is better than one 60 minutes out is, Seattle is the largest destination for work and for everything else, and it’s the key to getting many other places, especially if you’re on transit. If you’re starting from Lynnwood or Everett and you’re going to SeaTac airport, Amtrak, BoltBus, Tacoma, Burien, or Kent, you have to go through Seattle even if your destination isn’t there. If you’re going to the Eastside you can go directly on the 535, but the number of people doing that is far fewer, the destinations are fewer and more scattered, and it’s not the gateway to anywhere. When people say most trips nowadays are suburb-to-suburb, that’s in a scattered peanut-butter way, not to any one city. So the vast majority of trips to/from any single city are to Seattle, and that’s why an artsy hip-spot in some place like Burien or Lake City would be more successful and bigger than one in Everett or Tacoma.

        However, on the other hand, there are a lot of people who don’t care where they live, and don’t travel much outside a 5-mile radius of wherever they live. These people would be equally happy in Lake City or Tacoma, and they don’t care if their satellite scene is separate from the main one and it’s hard to get to the other one. So they would be the ones most able to pull off a successful hip-spot in Tacoma or Everett.

    1. No, quite the opposite. This is talking about taking close-in suburbs, with fast, frequent, and comfortable transit access, and densifying them. You argue for building a never-ending succession of new low-density suburbs on the fringes.

      1. He’s changed his tune in recent months. It used to be “more Kent East Hill.” Now it’s “more outer Seattle neighborhoods.” It’s a positive change even though it doesn’t quite go far enough.

    1. http://www.walkscore.com/walkable-neighborhoods.shtml

      What makes a neighborhood walkable?
      A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a center, whether it’s a main street or a public space.
      People: Enough people for businesses to flourish and for public transit to run frequently.
      Mixed income, mixed use: Affordable housing located near businesses.
      Parks and public space: Plenty of public places to gather and play.
      Pedestrian design: Buildings are close to the street, parking lots are relegated to the back.
      Schools and workplaces: Close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.
      Complete streets: Streets designed for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit.

      1. Not sure what mixed income and mixed use have to do with walkability. It’s more of a social engineering goal.

      2. Because destinations matter, and the soullessness Fnarf is alluding to in SLU is definitely related to a lack of mixed incomes. You need folks on different points on the income scale to provide diversity in destinations. Mixed use matters because juxtapositions of different destinations make a neighborhood interesting to walk through; walkability can’t be just about safety.

    2. Flat horizontal ground to walk on, in spades.

      Georgetown seems pretty flat and walkable, as long as you watch out for the tractor trailers.

    3. “Walkable” refers to the layout of the buildings and things. *What* is within a 5-20 minute walk circle, and what is the *scale* of the buildings? If you can walk from a typical house/apartment to a supermarket, drugstore, library, school, transit stop, community center, park, and friends’ houses, then you don’t have to get in a bus/car/bike for these trips. And these are the kinds of trips people do several times per week, so it really adds up. If the neighborhood also has a variety of employment opportunities, then maybe you can walk to work too.

      The second part gets into the size of the buildings and the beauty of the streetscape. Are there a lot of boring large buildings that it takes five minutes to walk past? Bad. Are there pleasant ground-level walls, windows, artwork, and open spaces that were designed for pedestrians to enjoy? Good.

    4. Shorter answer to these others: shops.

      Lots of shops, close together, which means smaller shops, with more frequent doors. Shops geared towards daily needs of local residents, not fancy uses for distant car-arrivers.

      In order to support these, you need a lot of demographically mixed people living in close proximity.

      That’s where Seattle falls apart: big houses on bigger lots, all too often filled with people who are constitutionally opposed to smaller-scale retail. I have never understood why this is, but it’s true. Most Seattleites WANT to shop exclusively at big box stores out on the highway strip. You see this everywhere, in sign ordinances, in the liquor bill that mandated 10,000 square feet minimums. You can see the results everywhere in town, with empty storefronts.

      Not very many people available for walking + not very many places to walk to = non-walkable neighborhoods.

      Transit is a necessary adjunct but does not create these spaces. Not since the 1920s, at least. That, unfortunately, is what you want in a walkable neighborhood — a center built in the 1920s or before.

      1. The liquor bill was not related to that. It mandated 10,000 sq ft minimums because the big retailers wrote that bill and promoted it to exclude competition from small retailers. The public had a choice between that bill which was more free-liberties overall, and the other bill which would have continued the distributor monopoly. Freedom-loving people chose the first bill, in spite of the 10,000 sq ft minimum rather than because of it. Because it will be possible to eliminate that minimum later. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

      2. It will never be possible to remove the 10,000 sq ft minimum. The bluenoses will be on that immediately, complaining that people will be able to buy liquor in small shops (like convenience stores). That is big-box bias in a nutshell –it’s not explicit, but it favors policies that shut down small stores before they even open. They’re doing it again with the pot stores — state-run, located essentially nowhere, existing successful retail forcibly shut down. This city hates shops.

        In Wallingford, the battle now is over what goes in where the Moon Temple is. CVS wants to build a (horrible) drugstore there. People are upset — but what do they want instead? Cutesy boutiques. Wallingford is hopelessly out of touch with retail reality, which is why Wallingford retail is dying. Neither transit nor density are going to fix that, because (a) the bulidings they build are wrong and (b) there are no poor people, only rich people, and the only businesses that will survive in that environment are bars (if the rich people are young) or nothing (if they are old, as they mostly are in Wallingford).

      3. You don’t need shops. You just need people who enjoy walking. Walking is free, anywhere, for anyone.

        I grew up in Europe and we went out walking for the sake of walking (often we never sat down at a restaurant or coffee shop or used any retail) – we just went to walk next to other people walking on a pedestrian street. I still enjoy it and happily do it in a neighborhood even if there are no people – just seeing the different architecture is fun enough.

        Now if there is retail I can afford, however little of it, I am extremely happy, but I pretty happy even without it.

      4. As many mixed use promoters fail to acknowledge, Amazon provides all of this. As a consequence, most non food retail will die out unless it is of an uber luxury brand. It’s quite interesting to see that Seattlites just won’t acknowledge that their homegrown business – which enables a bunch of local folks to afford uber luxury – is outcompeting what they love.

      5. butch,

        Restaurants and cafes aren’t the only sort of retail that can’t be delivered. Personal care (e.g. hairdressers, nail salons, tanning salons, massage therapists) also falls into that category. So does most medical care; it’ll be a long time before a nurse can give you an injection over the internet.

        What’s common about all of these establishments is that you’re paying for an *experience* as much as for a product.

        The other thing is that Amazon does best when it competes with stores that provide a bad shopping experience. There’s no reason to go to RadioShack when you can buy the same thing on Amazon for cheaper, and when you can read customer reviews instead of getting harassed by an aggressive salesperson. But Amazon isn’t replacing furniture stores, even though most furniture is already delivered. It turns out that people want to sit on their couch before they buy it.

        I’m not denying that Amazon will put a lot of stores out of business. Of course it will. But I don’t think those storefronts will just sit vacant. There are lots of other businesses that will do just fine.

  1. Let me see if I have this right … We’re told to move out of the suburbs and into the cities because it’s what’s best for mother earth, and it’s in our best interest, too. But then whatever urban neighborhood we move into will eventually become too expensive, so we’ll have to move to a more affordable neighborhood further away. Over time, that neighborhood, also, will become too expensive for us, so we’ll have to move again. And so on, and so on, until we are eventually … pushed back out into the un-walkable suburbs, from where we originally came. And then we are told the solution to that problem is we have to turn the suburbs into walkable cities, which will eventually become too expensive to live in … and the bizarre, paradoxical cycle continues.

    Am I getting this wrong? Someone, please, set me straight! Educate me! I’m so confused! Should I just stay in the evil suburbs because I’ll eventually be forced back out here??

    1. Nobody is telling you to move to the city. Lots of people want to move to the city on their own accord. That’s why housing prices are so high. If you don’t want to live here, no one will miss you.

      Hopefully we will be able to build lots of walkable urban neighborhoods so that everyone who wants to live in the city will be able to get a place for an affordable price, and not be forced to the exurbs.

      The cycle will only continue if we continue to have population growth that we can’t build for. Luckily, by increasing density in our cities and close-in suburbs, we should be able to absorb a lot of people into the urban fabric still.

      1. Thank you for educating me. Another dumb question. Doesn’t density cause sprawl? And isn’t it true that there no connection between walkability and affordability? If anything, the greater the walkability, the less affordable a neighborhood becomes, as people flock there.

        I’m reading the quoted article in the post, and isn’t it talking about people being pushed further and further out? When Soho and the Village became too expensive, people were forced to the more affordable Lower East Side. When that area became too expensive, people were forced to move to Williamsburg. When Williamsburg became too expensive, people had to move even further out to Red Hook. Then Red Hook to Queens, Queens to the Bronx, the Bronx to Newark, then to towns further up the Hudson.

        If a person is thinking about moving from a town up the Hudson to Soho, shouldn’t he just stay in that town in the Hudson, because eventually that’s where he’ll be economically forced out to anyway?

      2. “Doesn’t density cause sprawl?” Of course not. Every home built in an urban area is one fewer home built in sprawl.

        ” the greater the walkability, the less affordable a neighborhood becomes, as people flock there” First, let’s ignore the fact you’re looking only at housing prices, not affordability*. Next, let’s take a step back and think about our goals. We should be maximizing the life experience for everyone, letting everyone experience maximum happiness. If you want low housing prices, it’s as easy as shutting off all the streetlights and prohibiting garbage collection. But what we want is affordable housing for the largest number of people while increasing the things they want. If walkability increases prices, that means it’s something people want. How do we maximize the number of people that get what they want? We can either build up, keeping housing prices relatively low through increased supply, or we can create more walkable places – also increasing the supply.

        This article focuses on the second strategy – making sure there’s plenty of supply of walkable areas commutable to jobs. But the implication is that this is a second-best solution – everyone that moves outward really would prefer to move inward but prices are increasing. In NYC the argument could be made they’re running out of building capacity in the close-in areas, though the limited supply is really caused by the same zoning and NIMBY issues we deal with. In SF and Seattle we have plenty of room to build up and in, but our processes are broken. The option of moving outward to walkable neighborhoods is a second-best solution.

        * cities are productivity machines, and the median wage is higher at any income level in cities compared to out in sprawl, so a higher housing price doesn’t necessarily lead to lower affordability – but we’re getting off topic

      3. the greater the walkability, the less affordable a neighborhood becomes, as people flock there.

        Careful, you’ve fallen into the trap of arguing for shitty, undesirable neighborhoods as an affordable housing policy.

        If a person is thinking about moving from a town up the Hudson to Soho, shouldn’t he just stay in that town in the Hudson, because eventually that’s where he’ll be economically forced out to anyway?

        Only if he plans on renting in perpetuity. If he buys now he doesn’t have to worry about getting forced out by rising rents. And then, only if he places zero value on his travel time.

      4. Most sprawl is caused by zoning laws, grants, and tax incentives that promote sprawl or prohibit compact mixed-use development. Roughly a third of Americans want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods; a third want to live in low-density houses like central Bellevue or Lake Meridian; and a third could go either way. But 90% of our housing over the past six decades has been the low-density type or non-walkable “garden apartment” type. That’s why prices in compact neighborhoods rise: 33% of the population is trying to live in 10% of the housing stock. Therefore we need much more compact housing and walkable neighborhoods in both Seattle and the suburbs, until the price premium disappears.

        Prestigious walkable neighborhoods will always have a price premium, but there should be enough non-prestigious walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods that everyone can afford to live in one.

    2. Meanwhile you can’t be for population or immigration control.

      And you can’t advocate fast wide regional transit because that’s urban sprawl.

      And you can’t say why not Spokane, or Tri-Cities where land is cheap and plentiful because you’ll get hit over the head by all the Urban Elites about how those places aren’t good enough.

      You basically can only move to areas once the developers have bought all the land and the bureaucrats have monopolized transportation to the point that you can have no independence of action whatsoever.

      1. I would imagine that a lot of urbanists are pro-population control. We tend to be less religious, advocating for birth control and smaller families. If you are upset about the taboo-ness of population control measures, you should probably start complaining at your local church, not on a transit blog.

      2. You can be for whatever the hell you want, JB — you always have been and you always will be. It’s what makes you great. I’m not sure why you suddenly care what your projected notion of “Urban Elites” think about your personal choices.

        I don’t know why you equate skepticism (on the part of no greater authority than blog commenters) that US immigration control would amount to a hill of beans against global population trends with, “You can’t be for …”

      3. Well, again, Al, I tent to carry forward arguments since I’ve been on STB for a while and maybe I have a longer memory (or maybe you guys just causally drop arguments when the times change).

        But it’s pretty much been established in the past that when someone (me) has brought up the idea of doing what Seattle does…but in other locations…cheaper, and linked together with transit, it’s been lambasted and shot down!

        So, ok, now STB is promoting the idea!

        Hey, I know. I should stop being a Sore Winner! I get it!

        I’ll shut up now!

      4. JB, nobody here thinks it would be a bad idea for the Tri-Cities (not to mention Tacoma, Kent, Renton, Bellevue, Shoreline, and much of Seattle) to improve their walkability, to increase their use mixture, or any of that, and to be connected by excellent transit. But there may be a question of priorities.

        I think a lot of people here get frustrated to see areas that are already quite walkable and close to other walkable areas like First Hill and Ballard passed over for high-quality transit connections. A lot of people here think if we don’t get comprehensive transit and walkability on this distance scale (the scale that’s really most plausible for everyday trips, the scale that’s a proven success for urban rapid transit) working effectively and reliably, transit on the greater distance scale will be neutered.

      5. And you can’t say why not Spokane, or Tri-Cities where land is cheap and plentiful because you’ll get hit over the head by all the Urban Elites about how those places aren’t good enough.

        You basically can only move to areas once the developers have bought all the land and the bureaucrats have monopolized transportation to the point that you can have no independence of action whatsoever.

        John, you are free to move there right now, as is everyone else! I hope they densify and become vibrant centers of urban life in the 21st century.

        Right now, though, and for the foreseeable future, employers and employees seem to prefer to move to Seattle in large numbers. Massive social engineering projects to force people to move to underpopulated places against their will is the sort of policy I don’t really associate with a free society, though, so I’m not sure why you’d advocate for such a thing. Letting suppliers meet market demand for desirable goods is a thing free societies ought to do.

      6. Meanwhile you can’t be for population or immigration control.

        I’m for population control, but recognize that it’s both questionable on a human-rights level, and an obvious political impossibility. As for immigration control, I believe it to be fundamentally unamerican, but that’s a discussion beyond the scope of this blog.

        And you can’t advocate fast wide regional transit because that’s urban sprawl.

        When getting cross-town takes as long as going to Tacoma and back, I can reasonably say that local transit should be a higher priority. After all, what good is that “fast wide regional transit”, if you can’t get anywhere from the stations?

        And you can’t say why not Spokane, or Tri-Cities where land is cheap and plentiful because you’ll get hit over the head by all the Urban Elites about how those places aren’t good enough.

        The market is ignoring Spokane and the Tri-Cites, not the Urban Elites. I do wish them the best, but the jobs just aren’t coming to them the way they are around the sound.

        You basically can only move to areas once the developers have bought all the land and the bureaucrats have monopolized transportation to the point that you can have no independence of action whatsoever.

        That holds true just as much for the suburbs and exurbs as the cities. Developers buy all the land whether it is for subdivisions in the exurbs or condo towers in the city center. Transportation is “monopolized” by the “bureaucrats” whether it is in the form of boulevards or rail lines. The only true transportation independence comes from your own two feet, and well-rounded walkable neighborhoods.

      7. Nice one JB. You forgot that the greatest threat to the environment is more people. But without more people you can’t build political support… Interesting how population control faded from the fore

    3. The answer is to have enough walkable neighborhoods in both the city and the suburbs that everyone can find a place in one without paying 50% or 110% of their income in rent.

      Cities get the most attention because they’re the ones most ready, willing, and able to do it.

  2. Is walkable or dense a chicken and egg situation in Seattle?

    Seattle might not be dense enough for the type of transit we want. But building the transit first is a great idea. Seattle’s biggest issues are traffic choke points and hills. Vast, flat swaths of Seattle are zoned for 8 dwellings/acre. I’d argue we should try to increase density, because then services (like rail) are more efficient. Neighborhood retail clusters become more possible then and walkability increases. And, if we locate development near transit and increase supply *a lot*, we can have enough new places to live to keep everything relatively affordable.

    1. I’m basically for this, as in the sense that any transit stop can be a “mini Seattle”…however, we still have to build a lot of transit stops.

      I think we need to do this on a much broader scale, like Sounder and even using MSR (Medium Speed Rail) across the whole state of Washington, East to West, North to South.

      1. I agree. But the dense parts of Seattle get first priority, because people are already there.

        This isn’t saying, John, that your scheme of quickly building cheap surface rail to suburbs that promise to densify shouldn’t happen; I’m saying that if it comes down to that or the Seattle tunnels, the tunnels win. If there’s a ballot measure to do both, though, I’m all for that. Horray East Link!

      2. William,

        You mention “suburbs that promise to densify” and there’s the rub. Look at Puyallup. It has a fantastic opportunity to become the hub of the area southeast of Tacoma. Certainly it already is to some degree, but if it would allow the area around the station to grow upward and provide transit links from there to the smaller towns around, it would become like Kent, a center in its own right.

        Instead, Puyallup wants to build another station between it and Sumner in order to keep cars out of the central area. Essentially they’re saying “build more SFH and have people drive to Sounder” instead of creating a neighborhood that can fill a couple of trains itself.

        Short sighted to say the least.

      3. Yes, that is the rub. If they don’t promise to densify, or if they look like they won’t keep their promises, then we need to judge whether they’re worth it anyway. Pullayup, as it is now, is definitely worth Sounder South service. Link, though? I don’t think so.

        Of course, we should hesitate before calling Pullayup stupid, because it’s at the edge of the Pierce Transit death spiral.

    2. We have to start somewhere, and walkability seems like the best and easiest place. It’s the most universal and least controversial. Everybody walks, even if it’s just to their car. Walkable infrastructure is less expensive than transit projects. Walkability would make places like Kent East Hill more viable for people without cars to live in. Walkability can be done anywhere: Capitol Hill, Rainier Valley, downtown Renton, the Issaquah Highlands (which already has it :), etc. A walkable Southcenter is better than a non-walkable Southcenter, even if you have to take a 150 bus to get to it.

      1. I think the issue is that walkability requires both density of uses AND mix of uses, and the density of dwelling units to support them. Density sucks without better mobility choices, like Link or Seattle Subway… Or ‘medium speed rail’. I’d like if it was electric and didn’t have at grade crossings, but the real world happens to the best ideals.

      2. Full walkability — a “walker’s paradise” — requires that, but even a few improvements in a lower-density area are better than nothing. Take a suburban neighborhood with a standalone Safeway with a large parking lot in front. Replace the Safeway with another Safeway with apartments on top, a library and post office in the corner, the parking behind the building, and a pretty mural on the wall. Suddenly more people can walk to the Safeway, they can walk to more destinations than before, and it’s a more pleasant walk. All within the same footprint as before.

      3. There are also “levels” of walkable neighborhoods in relationship to their context. The highest is a large rectangular area, multiple square miles like Chicago’s north side or Seattle’s Center City. Second would be small islands of walkability like Roosevelt — that’s more typical of Seattle. Third would be linear walkability, like Aurora and Pacific Highway might become someday. Fourth would be a walkable island not near transit but near your house. Then you can walk to the destinations around your house but you have to drive to anywhere further. Fifth would be a walkable island not near transit nor your house, like a lifestyle center (i.e., a dense shopping center with housing). You have to drive to it but once you’re there you can walk around to different places. (Of course, it can be hard to distinguish this from a mall; the difference is that it’s more modern and hopefully mixed-use.)

    3. Vast, flat swaths of Seattle are zoned for 8 dwellings/acre. I’d argue we should try to increase density, because then services (like rail) are more efficient. Neighborhood retail clusters become more possible then and walkability increases.

      I’d agree with this. Every thing with a 5 minute walk of one of the all-day frequent services should be allowed to grow to at least LR2 – we should leverage our existing service first. We’re wasting resources serving SF7200 lots with 15-minute service. Loosen the restriction and let it develop organically. Neighborhood “retail clusters” will emerge in the popular neighborhoods, and whatever thrives we can serve with proper rail.

    4. As I see it, the zoning created the problem, but that is far from saying that changing the zoning automatically fixes it. If the zoning changes, someone still has to build usable buildings, and I am skeptical that anyone can. The new mixed-use buildings in Seattle are not successful. Maybe they will be in fifty years when they are run down, I dunno, but even then, I’m not seeing the kind of spaces that new growth can really blow up in.

      Instead, you see new cultural and economic expression growing up in inappropriate places but at least affordable ones. Aurora Avenue is an engine of growth. Crappy tumbledown buildings in Burien and White Center are an engine of growth. Strip malls are probably the greatest engine of growth in the area, not because they’re well-suited — they aren’t — but because all the cool storefronts are too expensive, and/or segregated into rich neighborhoods. Attempts to create new examples have failed abysmally, I think because developers understand the idea of encouraging retail but not the practice.

      Another factor: some of the small towns in the area with possibly adaptable downtowns, are kind of right-wing, anti-artist and anti-immigrant. Puyallup’s downtown could be cute — but who’s going to want to move there? And they’re really isolated. Transit doesn’t really make sense because they’re so far away with so few intermediate spots. Even Link — that gap between the end of Seattle and the Tukwila/Airport stations is embarrassing. That International Boulevard station is embarrassing and unrepairable. Build a hundred apartment towers around it and it won’t be any better.

  3. And this is why we need rezones and new pedestrian/bike infrastructure in the few places where we are actually going to have HCT in the near future. Today there is no escape valve. Tomorrow, Rainier/Henderson or Northgate could be an escape valve. Give it a few more years and rail lines, and White Center or Burien could play that role too. Just not places like Lynnwood or Int’l Blvd that are built on a superblock model.

    1. The Rise of the Bicycle-Friendly Suburb

      Increasingly, Nesper says, suburban leaders are seeking out a “bicycle friendly” designation because they think it makes their communities more attractive to new businesses and residents. He cites Greenville, South Carolina, as another unexpected place that earned a bronze designation this year. Amenities like good bike infrastructure can help set a suburb or small city apart from its sprawling counterparts.

      http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/10/rise-bicycle-friendly-suburb/7290/

      1. Yaay bicycle-friendly suburbs. And closer to home, Kirkland has had bicycle lanes on arterials for several years now, and I think (I can’t quite remember) I saw some in Bellevue. Silicon Valley has been enthusiastic about bicycles. Apparently, where density and high transit investments are taboo, bicycles have less opposition.

      2. Bike infrastructure is a key part of the equation.

        But it only works if the area is dense and mixed-use enough to have the common needs – work/shop/live/play – within a comfortable casual biking distance.

        The suburbs we have been developing around here don’t pass that test. We build single-use subdivisions and sprawling multi-acre low-density apartment complexes in areas where it’s a 2 mile drive just to get to a convenience store. That issue has to be tackled first. The more forward-thinking suburbs are starting to come around, and are testing the waters with their own tiny urban villages (Renton Landing, Burien Town Square, etc.) but there’s not nearly enough of them, and they aren’t being much mixed into existing employment centers, where they would do the most good.

      3. People in Silicon Valley love to spend money funding transit. But their problem is land use, and they’re not doing a thing about that. Silicon Valley is built about as densely as it can be without bringing different land uses closer together instead of the same ones. It’s crowded without being dense because parking sucks up so much space everywhere. And its towns still seem to channel most of their growth near freeway interchanges instead of any place that could plausibly develop a public realm. The real bike-friendliness of Silicon Valley is neutered by the distance you must travel, and the interchanges you must cross, to make routine trips. Land use changes have the biggest potential for positive impact there. Kirkland is trying to turn itself into this exact thing by channeling development to Totem Lake (the hardest place in town to make walkable) but it hasn’t succeeded yet. It’s doing a pretty good job with its bike network, but you have to question to what effect.

        Bellevue is doing something way cooler by bringing its various components together downtown. It’s had some hits and misses. One of its misses is its bike network. There are a few lanes and a few paths (mostly in terrible condition and often with insulting layouts), but the key transportation corridors are for cars to the near exclusion of all else. There are a few plans for improvements like Northup Way, but even the planned bike network has more gaps than connections. But, of course, if downtown Bellevue lives up to its potential otherwise, it will eventually have to shoehorn in some bike routes, a day late and a dollar short, like Seattle is doing.

      4. Kirkland’s downtown and waterfront is actually surpisingly dense; it puts other suburbs to shame. And when you look at how early it started it, back in the late 80s, it was really a pioneer of new urbanism. The problem is nobody can afford those million-dollar condos. If Kirkland succeeds in doing a more moderately-priced thing in Totem Lake, that may be the best we can expect from the north Eastside.

      5. “People in Silicon Valley love to spend money funding transit.”

        Where’s BART then? Why is VTA rail on the surface downtown? Why are most bus routes half-hourly?

      6. Greenville, SC is an interesting choice to be mentioned in their thesis (I live in Greenville part of the time and have been in and out of that area for more than a decade now). It’s a small, pleasant Southern city with a very nice walkable downtown extending for a couple of miles; over the past decade run-down old storefronts have become revitalized due in no small part to a minor-league baseball stadium being constructed on the south edge of downtown. The remainder of the area, which is a metro with a bigger population than, say, Oklahoma City, consists of the very typical American pattern of big boxes and sprawl, and the horrible traffic that goes with it.

        To bring people to downtown in a region that shuns public transportation, the city constructed several parking structures around the periphery of the CBD. These garages are either free or extremely low-cost depending on when you use them; they were obviously constructed as a loss-leader much as the ones at Northgate or U Village have been. Unfortunately the transit system is severely underfunded and consists of several routes on hourly headways that wind in an out of malls, hospitals and the like. It is predominantly meant to serve the poor elderly and “minorities;” there is a stigma still very evident even in the New South as to who rides transit. It is not usable as a commuter system for any but a tiny number of potential riders as it exists today. The baseball team in conjunction with the transit authority does provide a free “trolley” shuttle from the residential neighborhood on the north edge of downtown through the CBD to the stadium area. It has been popular enough that it now runs year-round on evenings and weekends.

        Greenville has only in the last several years started to embrace cycling, due in no small part to former professional cyclist George Hincapie being a local resident and cycling booster. The city has hosted the US road racing championships for the past five or so years and the community has been very supportive of the event. The amount of money and visibility this event brings to the city seems to have translated directly into a growing pro-cycling base and the city has responded by building a regional trail analogous to the Burke-Gilman as well as sharrows and a downtown bike-sharing program. The city is somewhat hilly but the weather is pleasant much of the year and the cachet of being a “bike-friendly” community is hoped by many community leaders to offset the fact that the city is also the home of Bob Jones University…which leaves a distinctly different impression of the city to many.

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