The Grid vs. the Curve

Seattle's streets are not only too grid-like; they clash and create our traffic woes. Instead, we should follow the lead of the Olmsteds, winding along nature's contours.
Seattle marks Olmsted boulevards with brown street signs.

Seattle marks Olmsted boulevards with brown street signs. Allie Gerlach, Seattle Department of Transportation/Flickr

The Olmsted plan created Lake Washington Boulevard

The Olmsted plan created Lake Washington Boulevard Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

Instead of embracing order, Seattle should learn to emulate our more organic Olmsted boulevard system, replacing graph-paper order and embracing natural terrain and creating more interesting streets.

A few years ago I was talking with an engineer for the Washington Department of Transportation about removing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and he declared that the rewiring of Seattle's waterfront was a great chance to do some things that would "fix The Grid."

Few engineers look at a map of Seattle and see anything but a broken mess. Fly over the Midwest, and you see manmade land patterns from geometry class: perfect squares, circles and huge rectangles of corn and wheat, big flat places — seemingly whole states — sectioned-off by ruler and compass.

In comparison, Seattle is like a messy bedspread. Attempts to lay down The Grid were derailed from the very beginning, partly because the men who founded the city had different ideas about which direction the grid ought to go (along the shore of Elliott Bay, or north and south by the compass, per Doc Maynard). As a result, downtown is like a three-car crash as the Belltown, Central Business District, and Pioneer Square grids collide and buckle. Other communities that were gobbled by annexation such as Ballard and Georgetown added their own grids, complicating matters.

Why is traffic so sucky? Well, blame passive-aggressive drivers, righteous pedestrians, and risk-taking cyclists, but it's also tough to drive on streets that jog spastically or end unexpectedly. In her new Seattle novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple has her main character, a migrant from Los Angeles, rant about Seattle. At one point, she complains "Whoever laid out this city never met a four-way intersection they didn't turn into a five-way intersection. They never met a two-way street that didn't suddenly and for no reason turn into a one-way street." I'm sure we all have our favorite five-way, and none better than one blocked by a misshapen, view-obliterating traffic circle on steroids.

Our city of hills and water is also a city of broken streets. We're engaged in an endless process to make transportation work, by any means necessary. Currently, we're building more light rail, streetcar lines, digging a deep-bore downtown tunnel, fixing the "Mercer Mess," tearing down the Viaduct, building new highway ramps, and widening a floating bridge to carry cars, pedestrians, bikes, and buses. We've got foot and car ferries, heavy rail, bikes paths and sharrows, foot bridges, sky bridges, stairways, public and private bus systems, taxis and unofficial taxis for hire.

Talk never dies of expanding the monorail or possibly installing a waterfront tram. We're less multi-modal than we are modal-maniacs. We've never met a mode of transportation we don't believe will free us from the challenges of being gridlocked in a landscape that was never flat, never open, and never dry.

The explorers and pioneers who imagined The Grid here were, in short, madmen, or drunks, bless them. When I hear phrases like "fix The Grid," I remember that it's important not to let the grid-fixers determine everything. If you listened to the debate this year over a possible new basketball arena in SoDo, you would have thought that the city had no other value than "freight mobility." Fortunately, we do. Important as they are, life is more than where the Port wants to ship containers from China. And those values have left their mark on our streets.

Another grid fixer is Kemper Freeman, Jr., the Bellevue developer, who once told me that instead of spending money on light rail, we should be fixing The Grid on the Eastside, a landscape clogged with lakes, hills, and cul de sacs.

The Olmsteds were not grid guys. At the beginning of the 20th century, they began designing many of our major parks, but also the roads that connected them. If Seattle has incredible green spaces, wonderful oases of nature with living old growth within the city limits, it's due to their vision and the public's support. They created a system of boulevards to connect these parks. Their roadways followed the contours of the land in curvilinear ways.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece Knute. You have a wonderful talent for finding interest in seemingly anything. While I do like the grid system for the order, when I allow my mind to relax and drift, I must agree that following the natural path is a much more pleasant experience and better long term memory.

This article immediately made me think of driving along the meandering state highway of 513 aka Sand Point Way N.E. Although not the most beautiful drive, consider no stoplights from 125th n.e. until 75th n.e. and nothing really until you reach the congested 5 way stop that is NE 45th St./NE 45th Pl./Mary Gates/Union Bay Place. The ride allows a glimpse to fern filled gullies, beaches access, Lake Washington with Cascade Views, several parks and green trees the entire length. Drive it like a Sunday driver on a nice day if you ever have the chance for a pleasant experience.

A westbound turn on NE 95th and a certain left turn/right turn combo leads one to one of the more interesting hidden streets that I won't reveal for the sake of local matthew beach residents. But this is a short cut through PNW style overgrowth similar to Interlaken Boulevard, Cheasty Blvd, Monster/Beacon Coal Mine Rd, 42nd Ave. S., Bonair. Dr., Carkeek and so on. If you ever have the chance to walk these streets following the snow it's quite the experience.

Thanks for being a writer and sharing you talent with us mossback.

uncletim

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

There's a move on now to build a walking trail through that "PNW style overgrowth". Carsten Lien and Bob Cram lived in the area and each owned more than one undeveloped lot and each deeded much of what they owned to the City of Seattle which kept it from ever being developed.

s_calvert

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Another nice street piece. I know what you mean when you talk about Lake Washington Boulevard — I grew up two blocks away from the street and only a few blocks more from the Arboretum. And since 2001 I have lived a block from Ravenna Boulevard. I'll be moving soon, but still won't be too terribly far from a brown-signed thoroughfare. I do wonder what it would be like to live in a perfectly gridded part of town.

When I was a little kid, I used to wish my street was more than two and a half blocks long. Sure, there were hills on both ends, but the street was platted through, and there were stairs on the west end. "Connect the grid!" was essentially what I was thinking. Now, of course, I'm glad they didn't.

I suppose our last big chance to break up the Grid was the Commons project. I like the idea of more "ground-level irregularity," but I'm having a hard time figuring out how we could do so. It's not like folks are going to accept new diagonals running through their neighborhoods...

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Ben: Last I looked, Vulcan's Stack House development in South Lake Union/Cascade features of new pedestrian alley that will run through the site partially at an angle off an interior courtyard. One of the buildings will also be off-kilter, which adds a lot.

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm glad to hear that!

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

I loved the article, too, for the nostalgia it triggered in me for Dad's Sunday drives. Regrettably, those in the "You Can't Get There from Here" department are hard at work making even the simplest of trips impossible, with, as the write mentioned, two way streets that abruptly become one way, sudden dead ends, brand new signs directing no turns this way or that way, and anything else they can dream up to attempt to justify their overpaid computer-jockey jobs. Would that we could have the Olmsteads plan things!

There used to be parts of Seattle that were a real pleasure to drive, and there may still be some, like Lake Washington Blvd., that remain beautiful. The problem has become how to get there without having such a hellish trip that it spoils any pleasure to be taken upon arrival. A big, sad loss. There's transit of some kind all over the place, but it never goes where and when I need it, yet it, along with the crazy street decisions, ruins every pleasure trip I attempt.

mspat

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Frederick Law Olmstead also came up with a street plan for Tacoma in the 1870s. There's a picture of it here:

http://pauldorpat.com/rke/books/BWT/T03.pdf

It seems that an economic panic prevented it from being fulfilled. It was easier to sell corner lots than sweeping vistas.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

"...the Eastside, a landscape clogged with lakes, hills, and cul de sacs."

I didn't grow up in Bellevue, but a similar suburb out East. The streets were typically laid out in a North-South grid, with the occasional road meandering along a stream or such.

The true bane of these neighborhoods was the cul de sac. Streets that you thought might connect to an arterial would end in giant round pools of asphalt. The may have been safe to play in, and were certainly used in this manner, but they disconnected neighborhoods.

Although Bellevue is a 'city' and not a suburb, wouldn't it be well served to shed those cul-de-sacs, and 'finish the grid' as Kemper says? Maybe throw in some of those roundabouts that are so trendy.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Also speaking of Lake Washington Boulevard, I notice speed bumps have been installed in the Arboretum. That plus the impending closure of the 520 offramps look to mean that for the first time in decades the road won't be a speedway!

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: The Arboretum speed limit is 25 mph, but I don't recommend going over the speed bumps at that speed, if you're driving an older Toyota anyway!

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I have no idea what traffic engineers mean now that have finally tumbled to the wide interest in reclaiming walkable urban grids. What I do know is where the term spent the last decades— with urban designers and ecologists who have bitched for years about lame-brained renting apart the "urban fabric" with traffic engineering auto focus— one-way couples, speedways and asssociated under/over passes.

The priorities of urban design and traffic design are counterposed: to one the "grid" is effective use of the blocks created, and to the other, efficient passage through them. As if to make peace, there is the fortuitous work of the unitarians— the Olmsteds, Alan B. Jacobs (Great Streets, 1993; The Boulevard Book, 2002), Donald Appleyard (Livable Streets, 1981), and Ian McHarg (Design with Nature, 1969).

afreeman

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Lots here to ponder on and agree with. Can we blame Rene Descartes for the grids? For the imposition of rectilinearity on a very non-rectilinear world? Seems like about the only U.S. city to predate the grid is Boston, and even there it rears its head in the Back Bay. But mostly, streets meander, and blocks are not blocky.

About the only thing I like about the grid is the way one can tell time from shadows on N-S streets. Or maybe it is best expressed in a house that is laid out "on axis." Every shadow is a sundial, which somehow feels right, even if the larger grid itself is taking things too far.

Another good thing about the grid is that it almost always means that when biking one can follow side streets to most destinations, only occasionally neding to cross arterials. I see "sharrows" mentioned in this article, those crazy painted things that are supposed to keep cars away from bikes on death-trap arterials. Can someone tell me why on Earth the city keeps putting those things on arterials instead of laying out bikeways on sidestreets? I shudder when I see riders duking it out with the traffic on arterials. No "sharrow" is going to affect the laws of physics as they relate to differences in mass and speed between bikes and cars. I can't be the only person out there to wonder why, why, why do they persist in this folly of directing bikes out into heavily trafficked arterials, especially when there is almost always a nearby alternative, thanks to old Rene.

Why?

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that we could benefit from more irregular streets, especially around water, but the large, planned boulevards of the Olmsteads are not the best model--we shouldn't build our city with an eye towards pleasant Sunday drives, and boulevards take up too much space (especially on the waterfront!). Your nod to Tuscan and Indian towns is closer to the Hayekian mark. Small, irregular streets promote fine-grained, pedestrian-friendly development. Pike Place Market is the obvious example. A more recent one is Melrose Market. The small streets and odd intersection where that building sits contributes to its success.

Maureen Boyle wrote a wonderful paper on the problems with the grid in New Haven, CT--the first planned city in America. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1057&context;=ylsspps_papers. She argues that New Haven would have been better following the model of Boston, where streets developed without a plan, following animal paths and a series of distinct decisions by builders.

As always, a balance is necessary. A city full of narrow, confusing streets would reduce the value of the land and prevent reasonable access. But a city of wide, straight streets discourages pedestrians. That is why the Village is so well loved in NYC.

EarlMerle

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Earlmerle and afreeman point towards the essential distinction, of which grids versus curves is only moderately important: connected versus disconnected networks.

Urban areas thrive with an interlocking network of paths/roads, whether they are gridded or curved or webbed. Between any two points, there are a myriad of potential routes. The Bellevue cul-de-sacs mentioned above, or urban superblocks, break up this network and funnel travellers onto a few high-traffic roads.

If the network is connected at a fine-grained level, then I appreciate the aesthetic appeal of curves and odd angles. However, when manmade barriers,such as freeways, cul-de-sacs or superblocks, break too many connections, "completing the grid" can in fact be the best solution.

chadnewt

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Nature's "contours" are more like the cul de sacs of suburbia.

Look at the patterns of veins on a leaf.

What do you see?

Yep...Issaquah.

jabailo

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

I wondered why the discordant brown and green street signs. This unaesthetic mix, apparently intended to designate Olmsted Boulevards in brown, adds nothing.

debgreen

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Debgreen: I wrote in Crosscut about the brown street signs a few years ago: http://goo.gl/PRMJx

It's not just Olmsted boulevards but streets with honorary designations that receive brown signs instead of green. Examples: Dave Niehaus Way S. (still officially First Avenue S.), Gerard Schwarz Place (still officially University Street), and the Jeanette Williams Bridge (still officially the West Seattle Bridge).

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

chadnewt: Great point. I completely agree--connectivity is important. The Olmsted boulevards were designed to connect parks and neighborhoods.

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Never take the opinions and advice of Crosscut cronies seriously. The grid isn't the problem. The problem is more related to the form in which Seattle DOT planners design road & highway infrastructure to serve automobiles only and as such becomes a detriment to other fundamental modes urban travel - mass transit, walking & bicycling. The end result of this shortsighted planning has made driving chaotic as well. "As long as it sells cars, who cares?" is the masters' motto.

Seattle topography requires a mass transit system designed for steep hills, but Metro & Sound Transit likewise practice a planning philosophy that cannot serve the need. Automobile related business interest moguls own Seattle and its people as playthings to be exploited and discarded. Crosscut writers are republican, therefore like the people of Sodom & Gomorrah, they have no concern for anyone but themselves. God despises self-centered 'individualist' republicans and libertarians.

Wells

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Having driven after driving more than 500 miles to Seattle this past weekend, I found it -- as always -- full of life, bends in the road to nowhere and an endearing teacher of patience. The parks, paths and residential zones invite full-time tenancy. However, the social engineering, perpetual taxes and fees for everything toss a wetter blanket on the town than any cloud. Seattle is a great place to bike, if you desire a short life span. It's a great place to walk -- I love Queen Anne, the Arboretum, the U district and waterfront, but one needs to earn Bill Gates or Felix Rodriguez money to really experience the town. Social engineering is most obvious when driving downtown. No turn signs on many blocks, force one farther and farther away from desired destinations. (If you don't know the ins and outs you pray you won't get T-boned or rear-ended by impatient locals.) I remember the Kingdome days when you could find free parking beneath the elevated roads near the waterfront. That made it possible to leisurely walk and explore without worrying about how much it was costing to walk about town.
One thing I appreciated on this trip, however, was the diligent efforts by the police working the jammed intersections. They seemed to be up for challenge and I even saw a few smiles.

greglyman

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

While Knute writes favorably about contour streets, the authors of the San Francisco Urban Design Plan years ago (Kevin Lynch, et. al.) reached different conclusions. They argued that the grid streets of San Francisco were an effective pattern that tended to emphasize the topography due to the way the grid laid over the hills, and they argued that contour streets tended to visually conceal or lessen the topography.

There are a few neighborhoods in Seattle, such as parts of Mount Baker that have curvilinear streets. The model was likely F.L. Olmsted's Riverside, a suburb of Chicago. I think it's fairly evident that curvilinear street patterns tend to be found in suburban single-family residential areas.

Places like Pike Place Market work for a variety of reasons. One of them likely is the relatively small blocks which promote pedestrian activity--a point made fifty years ago by Jane Jacobs. The issue is not whether there is a precise grid, but relationships of scale, use, pedestrian-friendliness, etc.

Recently New urbanists and others have argued in favor of the grid (in contrast to suburban cul-de-sacs) because the interconnected grid promotes walking, density, etc., and is better at distributing traffic than a pattern made up of cul-de-sacs and arterials.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 11:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Would you have a specific reference to where new urbanists argue in favor of the grid, since it promotes cycling and higher density?

I would disagree, since from a psychological viewpoint, humans are enticed into the natural world into natural areas with curves. Landscapes with "curved" edges extending into the distance appear larger, under certain circumstances. They are more "inviting" since the person is amused by the view, and wishes to "explore" an abstract space that extends into "unfamiliar" territory.

For example if you look at any park, whether it's a public park, HOA park, or golf course, the pathways are in a curved fashion, such as the Washington Park Arboretum.

I would prefer riding a bike on a slightly curved trail or road, compared to a street that continues in the same direction for miles.

Of course, a slightly curved route may add more distance to the route. However, the aesthetic benefit of curved streets, as nicely explained by Knute Berger, might actually cause more people to cycle or walk to work ... compared to the grid system.

The Burke Gilman trail is curved and people really enjoy it !

Another really nice curved trail is the walking / bike path in Roegner Park in Auburn near Auburn HS and the Lakeland Hills HOA. From a design standpoint along the white river, this park and trails system, and series of grass mounds, is my favorite park anywhere. (Please observe dawn to dusk hours if you visit.)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom9/sets/72157626356582269/

TomLane

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 1:07 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree, the curved streets are very nice. In general, newer low density master planned developments often feature curved streets that are often wider, with wider bike lanes and sidewalks. In contrast, older neighborhoods from before WWII feature the grid system, but not all of them.

Low density residential suburbs of Seattle (including many HOA's) often have very nice curved streets, such as -

1. Somerset in Bellevue
2. Mirrormont, High Valley, Sunset Valley Farms, and other areas in May Valley near SR-900
3. Maple Valley
4. Normandy Park
5. Lakeland Hills in Auburn
6. Bonney Lake
7. Issaquah

Looking around the West, in Oregon, Northwest Crossing in Bend has curved streets with roundabouts. North Rim in Bend is also very nice. Corvallis has nice curved streets in the newer NW part of town, although most of the town has a grid system since it's an agricultural (and, now a college) town. Likewise with Eugene, Oregon.

Further south, many of the newer areas of Reno have curving streets with roundabouts. Some California suburbs, even many older ones, feature curved streets, such as Orinda, Moraga, and Mill Valley.

And, the Del Webb communities of the Southwest have curved streets, generally always with roundabouts - i.e. Sun City Lincoln (near Sacramento), Somersett in Reno, Summerlinn in Vegas, Sun City Phoenix, etc.

Lake Tahoe cities such as South Lake Tahoe (31,000 persons) are older, and have a grid system. However, nearby Truckee, California and other mountain towns have areas with curved streets.

Paradise Valley, the most expensive area of Phoenix next to Scottsdale, has curved streets. Tempe (Arizona State University) is very high density and on a tight grid system with smart growth, mass transit, and terrible traffic. (Whereas Scottsdale is less dense than Tempe, and Northern Arizona Univ in Flagstaff is better for traffic and congestion, and Flagstaff features nice neighborhoods with curved streets.)

Scottsdale is a mix, although many of the newer HOA's feature curved streets, such as near Frank Lloyd Wright and Thompson Peak parkways.

Palm Springs is mostly in a grid, following the mid century modern pattern of quarter acre lots on very wide streets. However, nearby Palm Desert has some HOA's with curved streets.

Albuquerque is mostly on a grid system, except for the newer west side. Rio Rancho, NM was planned as a grid city for over 100,000 homes although some developments have curved streets.

Santa Fe, New Mexico features something entirely different and unique. The streets follow the traditional Hispanic planning pattern, and are neither grid like nor in the curved Olmstead fashion described by Knute Berger. Likewise, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque and Albuquerque's south valley feature this same arrangement.

Salt Lake City and its suburbs also features something unique, the grid system designed by Brigham Young with half acre lots and 132' wide streets with very wide bike lanes. You also find this in Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, California and other towns founded by the LDS. However, newer subdivisions in any LDS settlement may feature homes on smaller lots.

TomLane

Posted Thu, Aug 30, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Palm Springs itself is a grid, with alternating squares of tribal and non-tribal land laid out like a checkerboard. It's not surprising that the streets would follow suit.

dbreneman

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