King County Transit, due to declining sales tax revenue, is faced with 17% system-wide cuts over the next 2 years, unless the County Council passes a temporary $20 car tab fee.  My rationale for why this budget-saver should be passed is posted over at the citytank: Dynamic Metropolitan Areas Depend on Transit, So Pass the Congestion Reduction Charge, Please.


In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona.  All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates.  It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post.  So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.

First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture.  True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers.  The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco.  Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s.  Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design.  The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s.  In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices.  European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly.  It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.

Paris versus Barcelona:  These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish.  Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks.  There is never a break in central paris:  no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way.  The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.

Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category.  The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm.  People, people everywhere.  Shops, shops everywhere.  Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices.  Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment.  The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?”  Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight.  Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments.  The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away.  Basically, no privacy, no quiet.  But urban energy everywhere.  I loved it. 

Typical Barcelona street

Prague versus Vienna:  These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver.   Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona.  Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks.  Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards. 

An intersection in Prague New Town

The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars.  On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses.  On quieter streets retail is more rare.  The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris.  Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit.  Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle  infrastructure.  The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.

Vienna is still under construction

I have an article up at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association, a trade newsletter for the wastewater utility business (my day job).  The article summarizes the big sustainability challenges we face, and some steps utilities can make to become more sustainable and resilient.  The article can be found here, beginning on Page 18.

In previous posts I have mapped the population density and household density of the City of Seattle.  The difference between the two maps is household size.  So I also created a map of average household size in the City of Seattle, based on the U.S. Census 2010 data, which I have guest-posted on the  Seattle’s Land Use Code blog.   Go read about it there, but I have included the map below for reference.

Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, WSDOT

It’s been a bit quiet over here at Build the City lately. I ran into trouble with an open-source GIS program, then got busy at work, and then took a two-week vacation to Europe. I will write some observations about the cities I visited in Europe (eventually), but today I saw an article in the Oregonian that caught my attention.

The census tract with the highest population density in the City of Portland shifted between the 2000 and 2010 censuses from NW 21st to the area around PSU.  What is notable is the population density cited for this census tract.  The article uses the strange metric of people/10,000 square feet, but when I do the math it comes out to around 27,000 people/square mile. 

For comparison, Seattle has two entire neighborhoods (Belltown and Capitol Hill) and five census tracts  that exceed this population density.  Seattle’s densest five census tracts are in Capitol Hill (45,000/sq. mi.), Belltown, the U_District and First Hill. 

This article about Portland is typical, because among the three big cities in the Pacific Northwest, Portland is by far the most spread out.   Below is a table that compares the city size and population density among four neighboring cities.

 Notice how the City of Portland takes up almost four times as much space as the cities of San Francisco or Vancouver, yet has a lower population.  Resulting in an average population density less than many suburbs.

Population density of northwest cities over the past 50 years (people/square mile)

Population density matters for Portland, because more people on a given block lead to more customers, which leads to more variety in local services, which leads to a convenient lifestyle on foot or on transit, which leads to building a city.  Portland has only a few neighborhoods where this dynamic has progressed, and therefore many residents find the need to use bicycles to reach daily destinations (2-mile radius).  Portland has the advantage of a consensus around progressive transportation, but it has a long uphill road to sufficiently populate its city.  The City of Portland could house 2,060,000 people at the City of Vancouver’s current density.

Martin Duke at the Seattle Transit Blog posted a reminder today about Metro Transit Route 50, a historic east-west route between West Seattle and Columbia City. It was proposed to be restored when routes were rearranged for the opening of Link light rail.  It didn’t make the cut.  But there is a detail of Route 50’s routing that stood out to me today.

Instead of following Avalon Way to Spokane Street and crossing the lower bridge, Route 50 would turn down Genesee Street to Delridge Way, then travel north to Spokane.  This slight re-route down is an important concept, as Derek at the Delridge Grassroots Leadership Blog noted.  There would be a minor increase in travel time, for a vast improvement in connectivity.  The North Delridge neighborhood would be directly connected to the Junction, with its supermarkets and wide variety of shops.  Residents from further south on Delridge could transfer to the Junction at shared stops between the 120, 125 and 50.   The Delridge corridor is a virtual retail desert, and transit users in the area find it easier to travel downtown for basic services than to go up to the West Seattle Junction.  They are only one mile apart, but the steep hill and lack of transit routing results in an extreme level of disconnection.

In fact, I have previously dreamed about this same routing for the 22 between the West Seattle Junction and downtown.  I was unsure whether Metro buses could handle Genesee Street’s steep slope, but it must be possible if it made it into Metro’s proposed routing.  Regardless of what happens with Route 50, this Delridge routing should be implemented on Route 22 when routes are revised for Rapid Ride “C.”

I have created another map of Seattle’s population density, using units of gross households/acre.  This a measure of the built environment rather than of population, since household sizes can vary with time and between neighborhoods (maybe I’ll make a map of that also).  Net housing units/acre is a commonly used measure in land use planning and zoning, which excludes roadways and non-developable land from the area calculation.  This map is of gross density, incorporating all land, resulting in at least 40% lower density values.   

Only a few hotspots, such as Capitol Hill and Belltown, exhibit greater than 50 units/acre gross (red on the map).  At this level of household density most trips can be taken on foot or via mass transit.  The controversial state bill promoted by Futurewise would have mandated zoning average >50 units/acre net around high capacity transit stations.   A broader section of Seattle’s core has a continuous household density greater than 10 units/acre.  This level of households is associated with robust local bus transit combined with lots of trips via foot or bicycle.  In fact, the orange area on this map corresponds well with my personal experience of the zone in which you can catch a bus on a moment’s notice to go to the next neighborhood, without extensive pre-planning or OneBusAway use.  You are always within two blocks of a bus stop, and a bus is usually coming within a few minutes.

There is a wider swathe of Seattle with 5 to 10 units/acre gross, which generally represent the portions of the city with sidewalks.  While predominately single family homes, these neighborhoods were developed in an era of streetcars and small lots.  Unlike central and north Seattle, the south half of the city is rather inconsistently developed, with a patchwork of low, medium and highly developed areas.

Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, WSDOT