Matt Lerner: Walking the walk on urban livability
For Walk Score founder Matt Lerner, the key to urban sanity is affordable housing and nonmotorized transport. As co-chair of this year’s Seattle Design Festival, he’s hoping to showcase both.
Seattle Times columnist
The Fastest Growing City in America has seemingly split its pants.
Roads torn up, cranes everywhere, entire blocks gutted or just razed. Congestion has made every outing feel like a fool’s errand, pedestrians often too smartphone-silly to look both ways.
Of course, I could just be losing my mind a little.
“Oh, no way!” Matt Lerner told me recently. “Seattle is changing so much, it’s scary.”
As the founder of Walk Score, Lerner keeps close track of what people endure through Seattle’s fevered growth. The traffic, the closed roads — but also where to live in order to avoid having to drive at all.
Walk Score provides an automated walkability rating for any address in the U.S. (and Canada, and New Zealand) by analyzing its proximity to restaurants, coffee shops, parks, libraries and other amenities. It also helps you find an apartment near your job, or a route to wherever you’re going on foot, bike or public transportation.
Lerner, 39, also manages (for the most part) without a car. And he thinks more people want, and need, to do the same.
So he was happy to sign on as co-chair (with Mayor Ed Murray) of The Seattle Design Festival (SDF), put on by Design in Public and AIA Seattle.
The festival, now in its fourth year, will put on 81 public programs across two weeks (Sept. 4-19) next month “to explore all the ways design makes life better in Seattle.”
There will be a “curated experiential marketplace” featuring Pacific Northwest designers; and an SDF Block Party at Occidental Plaza with design installations, demonstrations, activities and workshops “aimed at helping people understand how design is invisible, but impacts your whole life,” according to organizers.
And there will be an SDF Conference of 20 talks, workshops, films and more, aimed at engaging design luminaries with community leaders to discuss ways to make Seattle move more smoothly, without losing its character, quirks and, well, sanity.
Speaking of sanity, Lerner — who lives in Wallingford with his wife and two young children — thinks the solution to Seattle’s logjam hinges on two things: affordable housing and getting out of our cars.
He’s a big believer in backyard cottages, which would allow younger, lower-income people (think grad students and baristas) to live within walking distance of their jobs in the city, while diversifying housing, strengthening neighborhoods and saving homeowners from mortgage disaster.
One neighborhood in Vancouver, B.C. — where cottages are allowed — increased housing by 30 percent without changing its character, Lerner said. It put the brakes on growth by optimizing existing space, and in the process, preserved untouched land.
Lerner is inspired by the work of Alan Durning, the founder of a Seattle sustainability think tank called The Sightline Institute and the author of a book called “Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities.”
“We care about the city and the nature that surrounds it,” Lerner said. “How Seattle grows has a big impact on what happens around us. So we have to decide if we’re going to pave over more of the Puget Sound area, or create a place where you don’t have to drive.”
Which brings us to getting around — and bikes, specifically.
Lerner rides into his Capitol Hill office every day, zipping right past lines of idling cars. While we’re sitting and steaming, he’s smiling.
“When I’m on my bike,” he said, “it’s a beautiful thing to pass 50 parked cars waiting for the light to change.”
The average American spends $9,000 annually to own a car, Lerner said. Why not get rid of the car and ride a bike? Then maybe you can buy the condo you can’t afford.
There are more options than excuses he said. You can get an electric bike if you need some extra power. There are helmets that don’t mess up your hair. If you must drive or ride a car, there are Car2Go, Zipcar, Lyft and Über.
And as for the weather, consider that one-third of people in Copenhagen bike to work, “and they have crummy weather there, too,” Lerner said. “It rains all the time!
“Biking is the cheapest, healthiest, most affordable and enjoyable way to get long distances,” he said. “But so unsafe.”
And yet, he said, it is so easy to make a safe bike route by painting and curbing to make cycle tracks that are seven feet wide. (There’s already one on Broadway).
“People don’t take up that much space,” Lerner said. “It’s the cars that do.”
Don’t believe him? Mark your calendar for Sept. 19, for Park(ing) Day, when people build parks in Department of Transportation-approved parking spaces from 9 a.m., to 3 p.m. Lerner will be a judge this year.
“When you see this, you go, ‘Wow! We use a ton of public space for cars!’ It’s the most concrete demonstration of how much room we provide for cars, and how little we provide for walkers.”
But enough of him, he said. Come out to the Seattle Design Festival and talk with urban planners, real estate developers and others who all want a smooth, safe city.
“Seattle is growing,” Lerner said. “We can’t just put up a wall and stop people from moving here. So we have to think fast.”
Nicole Brodeur: email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published August 17, 2014, was corrected August 27, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that backyard cottages were illegal in Seattle. They are legal.
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