A discrete palette of stairway styles and materials tells something about life during various periods of Seattle stairway construction. For example, a lot of stairways in Queen Anne have an unusually classic look: they're much wider than elsewhere, with thick, low-slung concrete sides. These are deeply scored with decorative lines and topped with a broad, rounded cap that extends a couple of inches to either side, like cake icing or a muffin-top. These stairs reflect a "golden age" of stairway construction in the first decade of the 1900s in Queen Anne. This was one of Seattle's great boom periods - the Klondike Gold Rush era - when newly prosperous businessmen and civic leaders built grand homes on this hilltop suburb. With a little searching you can find one of the best examples, the "Grand Dame" stairs along Comstock Street, between 1st Avenue N and Queen Anne Avenue N.
Another kind of stairway construction became dominant in the early 1940s, when the last of the electric railcars in Seattle were replaced in favor of wheeled buses. The City Engineering Department pulled up the old streetcar rails, along with the concrete panels that sat between them. These surplus rails and concrete slabs were gradually recycled back into the city's infrastructure, in the form of new and refurbished stairways and retaining walls:
Nowadays not every new or refurbished stairway looks alike, though there is a standard plan intended to make stairways a bit more walkable for a wider range of people. Stair replacements, like the new stairs in Cedar Park, are significantly wider, with double handrails that add a relatively small, 1 1/2 inch "gripping pipe". Some stairways include runnels that allow riders to roll their bikes alongside.
Thanks to John Buswell and Ainalem Molla of SDOT's Roadway Structures Division for answering our questions and sending us helpful info!