The Denny Hill regrade in progress at 3rd Avenue and Pine, taken 1908 or 1909. 
    Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon
The Denny Hill regrade in progress at 3rd Avenue and Pine, taken 1908 or 1909.
Credit: Courtesy of MOHAI

Why is Seattle's street grid such a disaster?

Seattle has a lot of great qualities, but having an easy-to-understand street grid is not one of them.

Wacky intersections, streets that turn into other streets without warning and nonstop construction add up to a confusing situation for drivers, cyclists, transit users and pedestrians alike.

There are culprits.

"If you want to blame somebody, first you have to blame the glaciers," said local historian and Crosscut writer Knute Berger.

"Because the glaciers retreated from the south to north, they gouged out the landscape and created a landscape where it’s really hard to travel east-west," he said.

In addition, two of Seattle's early founders, Doc Maynard and Arthur Denny, disagreed about how the city should be laid out, and they each built their own plan.

South of Yesler street in downtown is where you can see Maynard's grid, which was oriented to run north-south, and north of Yesler street is where you can see Denny's plan, which was designed to run along the waterfront.

Berger said this laid the groundwork for the broken grids you can find all across the city.

The area we now call Seattle was not ideal for building a city, especially one with a nice, flat coherent grid. We did it anyway.

David Williams is a geologist and the author of "Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle's Topography." He said city engineer R.H. Thomson went to great lengths to change the original landscape to make it more amenable to a grid. In other words: the city undertook big engineering projects that permanently altered Seattle's natural forms.

Williams said a good rule of thumb when you're in a flat area of downtown Seattle is to assume it's unnatural. "The landscapes that we think are good grids are completely artificial," he said.

Hills were removed or regraded. The Duwamish River was straightened. Tide flats were filled in with fake land.

It could have been a lot worse. But despite Seattle's glacier and engineering past, people still have to figure out how to navigate the city.

Born and raised in Seattle, Beverly Sims takes pride in her ability to find her way around Seattle's labyrinth of roads. From years of experience she's learned to avoid the major hills, give directions by situating places relative to local landmarks (libraries, fire houses, Uncle Ike's) instead of street names.

She also seeks out roads that are pleasant to drive on, even if they are slightly out of the way. Lake Washington Boulevard is one of her favorites.

"You put on some jazz, and the water is soothing. It's a nice way to go," she said.

Have a question about the Seattle region for us to answer? Drop it here:


Tell Us What You Think

We'd love to hear your thoughts