Posted by & filed under Plans, Transportation.

For the past few years, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been working on a plan to extend the First Hill Streetcar northward. Terminus options explored were to Roy Street, Aloha Street, and Prospect Street (near Volunteer Park). Earlier in the process, the Aloha option had been eliminated. However, an extension toward Volunteer Park was always a long-shot. SDOT consistently referred to the project as the “Broadway Extension” and often indicated relative doubt of an extension beyond Roy Street.

This week, we learned for certain that the First Hill Streetcar extension had been curtailed to Roy Street. Cost and benefit were the primary cited reason for cutting the project scope down. With the current decision, an extension beyond Roy seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. But SDOT has indicated that an extension on 10th Avenue is possible. Conceivably, with a larger streetcar program, expansion far beyond Prospect would make the investment much more palatable.

For a comparison of the previous Prospect Street terminus and the now official Roy Street terminus preferred alternative, see the street configurations below.

While the streetcar extension beyond Roy Street is indeed an unfortunate casualty, it’s not the only one. The Broadway Bikeway (cycle track) is inexorably linked to the streetcar improvements. SDOT plans to extend the cycle track just beyond the Roy Street streetcar terminus. The cycle track will terminate at the intersection of Aloha Street and 10th Avenue, which is a managed intersection.

The good news here is that the cycle track will remain a cycle track the whole length as opposed to cycle lanes on both sides of 10th Avenue. So while this may be a disappointing outcome for streetcar supporters, it could be an even better outcome for cycle track supporters in the mid-term. Cycle track supporters eventually want to push the cycle track all the way to Roanoke Street (as detailed in my previous article). The Prospect Street streetcar terminus option not only split the cycle track in two, but this design precluded the ability to later realign to a two-lane cycle track if such a project was taken up as part of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan.

It is also important to note that the Roy Street terminus design does not specifically preclude the possibility of extending the streetcar further down 10th Avenue or a bike couplet of 10th Avenue and another parallel street at a future date, should funding and the desire to extend the line arise.

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Posted by & filed under Transportation.

A few simple onboard improvements to King County Metro buses could truly enhance the customer experience and increase their overall efficiency. Outfitting new and existing buses with the following feature enhancements would provide passengers more space, expedite the boarding and deboarding process, speed up overall bus service, reduce fuel consumption, and save service hours.

3 Ways to Make Improvements

Sound Transit Overhead Storage

Overhead storage areas on Sound Transit by Oran Viriyincy.

1. Overhead baggage storage. Bags blocking the aisles or placed on otherwise usable seats—it happens all the time. Space is necessarily limited on buses, especially in a city where many passengers carry backpacks, purses, and groceries during their daily commute. Many Metro passengers also use transit as a primary mode for leisure travel across the region or connecting services to travel outside the Puget Sound region. Needless to say, it’s unsurprising to see large suitcase and luggage on a normal bus trip.

Metro would be wise to deploy overhead baggage storage on all buses. Doing so would achieve greater capacity by reducing aisle blockage and seats filled with bags. Instead, more passengers could sit or stand aboard buses. Fewer obstacles in the aisles would reduce delays. Reasonably, fewer bags should be blocking aisles and passengers should become more mobile by “taking a load off.” This simple onboard feature also enhances passengers’ well-being and personal comfort.

Most of Sound Transit’s new fleet of New Flyer (and old Gilligs) buses are outfitted with overhead baggage storage—a great local example of how to implement storage racks without affecting aisle standing areas or passengers seated below.

Translink Rear Door

Touch-responsive rear door exiting on Translink by Oran Viriyincy.

2. Touch-responsive rear door sensors for exiting. “BACK DOOR!” A fellow passenger screams out to the driver—often to no avail—that they want to alight from the bus. Bus systems all over the United States have rear door technology that allows passengers to press their hands on the doors to exit (or some similar feature). Typically, a light or indicator becomes lit when the bus has come to a complete stop and the door is operable by pushing or touching it.

Implementing a touch-responsive rear door system would add convenience and a sense of freedom for passengers. There’s nothing worse than feeling trapped at the rear of the bus, and shouts of “back door” can be a nerve-racking and frustrating experience. Not only would this feature save fellow passengers from the disturbing shouts to exit, but it would allow bus operators to focus their attention to other customer service duties toward the front. Pierce Transit is the leading the way locally and has implemented the technology on all new buses.

3. Rear door boarding with ORCA readers. Passengers should not be limited only to front-door entry. By deploying ORCA readers, passengers could freely enter both front and rear doors. The key benefits are multiple entry options for riders, a faster boarding process, and drastically reduced bus dwell times. For instance, there are many times where a bus has to board or deboard a handicapped individual, a time consumptive process (even if there is passive restraint). Instead of all passengers waiting to board, they could simply board through an alternative door.

Metro mothballed rear door entry (if you discount the old Free Ride days) a few years ago because of implementation costs. ORCA readers don’t come cheap, and lack of a network-wide Proof of Payment (POP) system on regular bus routes poses a hurdle to implementation. Neither of these is insurmountable, but a cash-strapped Metro makes this a challenge for now. It is worth noting that RapidRide has been outfitted with POP. Fare enforcement officers are tasked with boarding buses to ensure that passengers have paid their fare.


The first two customer experience enhancements seem like fairly achievable goals. Overhead baggage storage racks aren’t cost prohibitive given that bus interiors are fairly flexible. Not every existing model is completely adaptable, but most of the recent buses types that Metro has acquired are. And, given that Metro has gone with New Flyer for essentially all new buses, the overhead baggage rack is a cheap and simple add-on. Touch-responsive rear door sensors for exiting is a bit more challenging. Depending upon bus type, this could be an easy retrofit (although not inexpensive) or a challenging one that requires significant new wiring and computer technology. Meanwhile, rear door boarding would require a policy change to allow rear door entry, significant capital expenditure to implement, and a more robust POP fare enforcement system. On the whole, though, each of these improvements would greatly improve the customer experience through faster buses, more space and comfort, and quicker boarding and deboarding.

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Posted by & filed under Homelessness, Housing, Policy.


Courtesy of HUD

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does a yearly analysis of homelessness in the US and released their research for 2013 in August. This report is largely based on a single night count of homelessness among participating Continuum of Care (CoC) organizations, local planning organizations that manage all aspects of homelessness from providing shelter to providing permanent housing. The federal government provides most of the funding for homeless services in the country and ties the use of that money to guidelines regarding those services. Among these guidelines are requirements regarding the structure and responsibilities of local organizations that want to be eligible for funds and these organizations are referred to as CoCs. In Seattle, there is a coordination of resources and organizations, referred to as the Seattle/King County CoC. (I will be publishing a series of posts about the data found in this report, focusing on the Seattle/King County CoC.)

To get a handle on the makeup and number of people experiencing homelessness, HUD attempts to collect accurate information on the entire homeless population without counting anyone twice. Data collection mostly depends on a ‘single night count.’ Organizations responsible for solving homelessness conduct a count of the population within their jurisdiction on a single night each year. The count usually takes place at the end of January, and the results from Seattle were widely published this year. This method isn’t perfect—it relies heavily on volunteers and possibly misses variations in homelessness during the year—but it is the best data available for understanding homelessness in the United States.

Important Findings

The scale and details of the homeless problem in the US can be very discouraging, but there are also reasons for hope. Some of the particularly stark findings from this year’s report include:

  • There are 610,042 homeless people in the US.
  • Nearly 35% were unsheltered. Unsheltered areas are defined as a location not ordinarily used for sleeping and can include ‘temporary shelters’ such as a car or abandoned building, but also areas such as tent cities.
  • 23% of all homeless people were under the age of 18.

While Seattle saw an increase in homelessness between 2013 and 2014, the region was growing. Additionally, there is good news on the federal level regarding homelessness:

  • Chronic homelessness of individuals decreased 7% since 2012 and 25% since 2007.
  • Homelessness among veterans declined 24% between 2009 and 2013.
  • Since 2007 there has been a 23% decline in unsheltered homelessness.
  • Those in shelters has increased 1% since 2007.
  • Homelessness overall declined 9% since 2007.
  • 61,846 fewer people are homeless since 2007.

Federal Homelessness Goals

The federal government has four primary goals regarding homelessness:

  • End chronic homelessness by 2015, defined as continuous homelessness for at least one year or four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.
  • End homelessness for veterans by 2015.
  • End homelessness for youth and families by 2020.
  • Make progress towards ending all homeless.

It’s not clear to me whether the federal goals are on track to be successful. The report notes that the progress towards ending homelessness of youth and families has seen small declines, suggesting that the goal is not on track. Additionally, the report’s stated goal of providing a “path” toward ending homelessness is not clear enough to understand what progress towards that goal might look like beyond a declining rate of homelessness.

Seattle and Washington

Some of the notable data from 2013 in Washington State includes:

  • 17,760 homeless people in 2013.
  • 4th largest decline in homelessness between 2007 and 2013, 5,619 (24%).
  • 3rd largest absolute decline in homeless families between 2012 and 2013: -2,088 (-22.6%); and the 4th largest between 2007 and 2013: -2,947 (-29.2%).
  • 2,196 chronically homeless people.
  • 1,136 unaccompanied homeless children and youth.

All the data for Seattle is a combination of Seattle and King County since there is a coordinated effort in this region. Some of the notable data in 2013 from the Seattle/King County CoC includes:

  • 3rd most homeless people (9,106) among participating CoCs.
  • 6th most homeless people in families (3,120) among participating CoCs.
  • 7th largest number (5,986) of homeless individuals among participating CoCs.
  • 7th largest number (533) of unaccompanied, homeless children and youth among participating CoCs.
  • 9th largest number (682) of homeless veterans among participating CoCs.

Courtesy of HUD

In future posts, I’ll expand further on the data for the Seattle/King County CoC since the national report does not discuss these numbers in detail.

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Posted by & filed under Culture, Events, Plans.


PARK(ing) Day is right around the corner, and that means our city streets will soon see an extra splash of vibrancy–even if only for a day. On September 19, Seattle will celebrate its eighth year of sponsoring PARK(ing) Day events across the city. PARK(ing) Day, for the unfamiliar, is an international event that confronts the issue of how we use our limited right-of-way spaces. PARK(ing) Day poses two simple questions: Do we need to allocate so much infrastructure to on-street parking? Or could we use that space for other things like more trees, street vendors, parks, bicycle racks, or other public space?

Nearly a decade ago, the first PARK(ing) Day event was born in San Francisco by local design firm Rebar. They recounted the why they embarked on an experiment to convert a parking space to a park in a very simple way:

Rebar’s original PARK(ing) project in 2005 transformed a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in an area of San Francisco that the city had designated as lacking public open space. The great majority of San Francisco’s downtown outdoor space is dedicated to movement and storage of private vehicles, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to serve a broader range of public needs. Paying the meter of a parking space enables one to lease precious urban real estate on a short-term basis. The PARK(ing) project was created to explore the the range of possible activities for this short-term lease, and to provoke a critical examination of the values that generate the form of urban public space.

Our original PARK stood in place for two hours–the term of the lease offered on the face of the parking meter. When the meter expired, we rolled up the sod, packed away the bench and the tree, and gave the block a good sweep, and left. A few weeks later, as a single iconic photo of the intervention traveled across the web, Rebar began receiving requests to create the PARK(ing) project in other cities. Rather than replicate the same installation, we decided to promote the project as an “open-source” project, and created a how-to manual to empower people to create their own parks without the active participation of Rebar. And thus “PARK(ing) Day” was born.

Last year, there were over 40 locations across the city that hosted a PARK(ing) Day event (many of which can be seen in the Flickr slideshow below). And this year, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) wants the program to be bigger and better than the last. There’s lots of ways to get involved in PARK(ing) Day to make it a huge success.

  1. Show up to any one of the many PARK(ing) Day events. It’s an easy way to show your support for these spaces, engage with other locals, and even encourage others to drop by and use the spaces just as they were intended. The event lats from 9am to 3pm, so there’s plenty of time to get out there.
  2. Help out one of the many local organizations that are sponsoring a PARK(ing) Day park. You can help them facilitate the space on the day of the event, assist in planning the space, and/or provide funding or furnishing.
  3. Sponsor your own PARK(ing) Day park. SDOT is keeping the program free this year. The application requirements are incredibly simple, but they are due by August 29.

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Posted by & filed under Culture, The View From Nathan's Bus, Transportation.

Picture 4

We’re headed out to the Valley. I pull up to Martin Luther King Way, across from Franklin. It’s a dingy gloom tonight. The dealers are on both sides of the street. Various shapes lumber about in the periphery, shifting figures in front of lights, signs of life at the laundromat and beneath the overpass. A small crowd is waiting at the bus stop, maybe five of them, dark shapes against the darker night. Looks like mostly younger guys, tall and lanky, post-high school or so.

Groups of kids are a strange animal. Some years ago on the 7 a cadre of thirty teens beat up a young couple, sending them both to the hospital. Older drivers will remember gang initiations in the back of the 106; the new member would be beat to a pulp, but had to remain silent. This is why some passengers will tell you they never sit behind the articulated section. When I first trained on the 7 I rode one of the late-night trips, and the driver flew past a stop with a crowd of teens waiting. “If you see a group,” he said, “don’t pick them up. Keep going.”

Pulling into MLK now, I take a deep breath.

As I open the front doors I’m still waving thanks to a person stepping out the back. “Thank you,” I yell back at them. Only takes a second. Then I turn my attention to the guys at front. As soon as they see me they all start laughing. I don’t know why, but they’re screaming with glee, one slapping his knees, another struggling to keep his food in his mouth.

“Come on in, gentlemen!” I say loudly, leaning back with a smile. When they hesitate: “don’t be shy!”

Bro Number One pimp rolls on board and offers me a handshake, one stroke and firm.
“Ey, one second,” says the second, reaching in his backpack for change.
“Aw, you’re cool,” I reply, meaning take your time.

It’s hitting me now: all of these guys know me already, and they’re happy to see me. Man Three is older, and I recognize his overjoyed face: “heeeyy,” we yell together, trying to ascertain the last time we saw each other. I feel like it’s been a while, but he reminds me of a moment just earlier this week. “I saw you runnin’ by the train station, it was your off day. You had tha shirt on.” He’s referring to an Others Like Us t-shirt I was wearing, which I learned about through Real Change; I found it fascinating that he noticed.

“Yeah, it was another lady driver there that day after you ran past, and we was talkin’ about you. She was sayin gooooooood things about you–” several octaves contained in that “good”– “you got respect, bro.”
“No way!”
“You should know it! People be lookin’ up to yo ass, dawg. Talkin ’bout yo’ attitude no matter who it is, you always polite and happy, no matter what the route, and, and,” more laughter, “she was like, da first time I saw him, is he even old enough to… can he shave? Does his mom know he’s out here???”

The remaining fellows board without incident. I remember a smile forming on one I didn’t recognize, his slitted eyes in a quiet grin, taking me in with newfound appreciation.

“I’m serious, dude,” Man Three continues. “She had good words for you, real good words. You’re always the best. Listen, I’ma stop blowin’ you up though!”
“No, man, comin’ from her, comin’ from you, that means a lot! ‘Cause you guys know how it is!”

We wrapped up the conversation and he went to the back to join his buddies. They’re hollering to the high heavens back there, but it’s okay. I feel safe. They know me. I’m among friends.
“Is this yo’ phone?” one yells to another, handing up a pink phone from the floor.
“This doan’ look like mah phone,” the other replies, as they all collapse in manly giggles.

A half hour or so later, at Holly, a man with a guitar and long silver dreads steps out, still wearing sunglasses at midnight. I’d seen him the night previous riding the bus back from my art show– the faces you get to know when you don’t use the car. This man plays at 88 Keys on Sundays and weeknights (“them comedians get the prime spots, Friday and Saturday”). As he leaves he says, “man, people really love you. Tha’s good. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”

Another man expresses largely the same sentiment later on, albeit in what practically sounds like a different language: “Ay yo. You da man, hannlin yo’ bidness on da 7. You got it goin’ on, bro. Respek.  Hannlin yo bidness on da 7 in the nighttime ow-ah, you be doin’ it like it weren’t no thang. Sheeeit. Dassit. You got mah respect.”

At Othello the boys in the back deboard, taking time to wave. “Thanks buddy! Love ya!” yells the older one.

There was nothing to worry about.

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Posted by & filed under What We're Reading.

Reduced fare program: King County Executive Dow Constantine released a plan this week for providing low-income individuals access to reduced fares on King County Metro.

Safety project for Dexter: The City is finally planning to provide safe bicycling facilities from Mercer to Denny on Dexter Ave.

Ditch the road centerline: Transport for London has experimented with removing the centerlines of roads and found that drivers dramatically reduce their speeds when they don’t know the extent of a lane.

Unappealing: A King County Superior Court judge has ruled that each dorm room constitutes a unit in microhousing, despite city code.

Backyard apartments: Council Member Mike O’Brien is championing a code update to encourage more detached accessory dwelling units, a very old planning idea to increase density on single-family properties.

Game of Thrones Railway: A clever map for all you Game of Thrones lovers that depicts Westeros (and more) through a railway network.

Charting the CVS evolution: A good chronicle of how CVS improved the design for their future Uptown location through design review and emergency minimum density requirements by Council. This project went from single-story, single-use to multi-story, multi-use.

Farewell Goran: Goran Sparrman, who had been Interim Director of SDOT, has decided to resign from his current post in the department after being knocked out of the running for Director.

Re-wild the urban: London plans to up its eco-cred by helping to establish some serious new wetlands in its Lea Valley, an area north and east of Central London.

The old 43: Capitol Hill Seattle Blog pays homage to the wonderful workhouse Metro 43.

Liberal-Conservative urban divide: One chart puts the top cities in perspective for their ideological leanings, no surprises here.

“Free” parking: It’s costing taxpayers a lot of money just to waste space on parking that no one, but everyone pays for.

Try the courts: Developers are suing the City of Seattle over incentive zoning fees, but their argument is pretty shaky.

Link transfers rehashed: A follow-up plea for Link transfers to reduce tunnel congestion and saving service hours.

Cyclist protest: Toronto wanted to remove Downtown bike lanes, but cyclists won to save them.

Urban canopy: Toronto also plans to dramatically improve its tree canopy from 28% to 40% by 2040.

1 million boardings: Link hit over 1,000,000 boardings in the month of June (a new record) while the system continues to see massive year-over-year growth.

Denver’s Union Station: A very good story about the renaissance of Denver’s Union Station–dilapidation to multi-modal hub.

America’s best neighborhood: Apparently for the urban dweller, Capitol Hill Seattle is where you must go if you want the best affordability, walkability, and opportunity.

Premiere on Pine: A look into the new 40-story building next to the Paramount Theatre.

Twitter fail: Governor Chris Christie pisses off his constituents over a transit tweet, they’re still bitter that he mothballed the ARC and is abysmal on transit.

Faceoff: Seattle voters will have to decide between one of two pre-school proposal in the General Election, or they could just say “no” to both, says a judge.

Bham pride: Bellingham has a plan to create the best bicycling system in the state.

Commutes are desirable: It may be surprising, but no commute isn’t preferred, some is.

Redesign urban parks: First Hill residents want to re-imagine urban parks so that they become better spaces for all.

Police militarization: A former Seattle police chief talks about police militarization.

High-speed rail’s challenge: Yonah Freemark argues that the delay of true high-speed rail in the US basically comes down to the failure of the Federal government to lead.

New microhousing rules on the way: Council Member Mike O’Brien wants to have permanent rules for microhousing come September, but no one is satisfied with the outcome of the draft rules.

Rails-to-trails redux: Cleveland is planning to convert old streetcar railway to superhighways for cyclists.

Retrofitting the suburbs: An interesting idea to use space above shopping center and strip mall retail to put in condos and apartments.

Affordable TOD: Council Member Mike O’Brien proposes the idea for a revolving fund for creating affordable units in new transit-oriented developments.

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Posted by & filed under Transportation.

Roundabout in Anacortes

3-way Roundabout in Anacortes at Commercial Avenue and SR 20. WSDOT Photo.

One of the classic games that I play with my family when I go to France is: where did they put in a new roundabout?

To American drivers, Europe is known for its numerous roundabouts. The invention has revolutionized driving through intersections and has made improvements in all domains, including accidents, gas consumption, the numbers of cars that get through or even pedestrian friendliness.

The invention has yet to come into full force on the other side of the Atlantic and Americans are reluctant to give up their less-efficient 4-way stops and traffic lights. The benefits are numerous though:

  • Roundabouts are part of the solution to America’s traffic violence problem as they reduce accidents by 40% and fatalities by a whooping 90% over 4-way stops or lights.
  • By not having cars idling as they wait their turn in a “traditional” intersection, roundabouts reduce gas consumption by 30% and make for less polluted cities
  • Roundabouts require much less maintenance (versus electrical maintenance in lights) and are much cheaper than any other type of intersections in the long run
  • Roundabouts make street crossing much safer for pedestrians in many ways. First, they split the crossing into two parts, already reducing crossing distance by half. They also eliminate the sometimes numerous turn lanes which can easily double the width of a street. This often leads to crossing distances being a forth shorter than previous intersections.
  • They also make cyclist’s lives easier by making left turns from the right lane possible. Reaching left turn lanes on busy streets often require crossing two lanes of fast-moving traffic, a stressful experience for bikers.
  • They provide more open space in the city, whether that would be used as green space or for public art.

In Seattle, roundabouts would be a welcome sight to streets that have enough capacity for cars to use them but not enough capacity at intersections. They would improve dangerous intersections for all modes of traffic. They are also the only intersection system that works well with 5 (or more)-way feeder roads, which are especially numerous with Seattle’s colliding grids.

5-way roundabout

5-way roundabout at SR 542 and Smith Road, East of Bellingham. The Roundabout’s ability to deal with 5+ way traffic is well captured here. WSDOT photo.

Roundabouts should be located throughout Seattle in various dangerous or congested intersections. Some suggested locations include:

  • Seattle Blvd/5th Ave/Dearborn St in the International District
  • 2nd Ave Ext/3rd Ave/Main St in Pioneer Square
  • Denny Way at:
  • Stewart St/Yale Ave
  • Wall St/Battery St/Aurora Ave/7th Ave
  • Westlake Ave/Nickerson St/Dexter Ave/Fremont St at the south end of the Fremont Bridge
  • Fremont Way/Fremont Ave/39th St
  • The Montlake Triangle
  • Rainier Ave/Hill St/23rd Ave
  • Rainier Ave and MLK Way
  • Marginal Way/Chelan Ave/Delridge St, at the west end of the West Seattle Bridge. This is a major intersection problem on the Alki bike trail.
  • Fauntleroy Way at 35th Ave, Avalon Way and Alaska St
  • California Ave/Edmunds St/Erskine Way
  • All over Madison Street from Broadway to Madison Park
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Posted by & filed under Culture, Transportation.



You can probably guess the degree to which I like talking to people. I love it. But we all have our quiet moments. There are certain cloudy days which have an indescribable air of melancholy. It’s almost comforting, walking under that grayish-white sky, green leaves and open roads in your periphery. I think it was a Sunday. No one in sight, and you’re ambling down a residential street. You feel that very specific sense of nostalgia which is both sad and oddly satisfying, walking around the white-gray-green world, looking at sidewalks and small trees. You see yourself as if from afar, ambling alone, letting yourself relax into completeness. Half your mind is in this zone of cloudy-day introspection, the other half self-aware, contemplating why and how this frame of mind surfaces. You are a character in a movie. A melancholy tune is playing. You put your hands in your pockets and walk like Gregory Peck, wishing the ground were metallic so your shoes could make those classy and authoritative clicking sounds with each step, but even if the ground were metal, you reflect your rubber-soled walking shoes wouldn’t make any sound anyway…. And there, before you know it, the nostalgic wholeness of being has vanished from you, fluttered away while you were thinking too much.

It was in such a headspace that I once got on a 41 some time ago. I was dressed incognito, on a day off: black hoodie sized small, dark blue jeans, and scuffed dress shoes. Walking about downtown I inevitably run into people I know, or they into me. That’s magical, but today I wanted some solitude. As much as our culture celebrates the active over the passive, there is a benefit to taking time to ponder. Reflection doesn’t happen when you’re being distracted by new stimuli. One of the great preoccupations of the twenty-first century is the distracting of ourselves out of the present, usually with technology; this is why I won’t get a smartphone. I try not to retreat into the cozy confines of diversion, that addictive place where I don’t have to confront my own thoughts. Let me rather take the dive, that I might feel something real.

I sat down next to an African man, first generation, neatly shaved and dressed. Leaning back into the seat, I enjoyed that wonderful sensation I imagine many operators feel when they board a bus they’re not driving– the bus is moving, but I’m not responsible!

“You’re not working today?”
It was the man next to me. Time to turn back on.
“Hey! You recognized me!” I said, with pleasure. Must be a passenger I didn’t remember. His gentle smile brought me right back to the excitement of hearing from others. How was his day going? How did he recognize me, though I was in my elaborate Nathan disguise? He responded by describing how memorable it is when I’m driving, and how could he forget such an experience? Naw, I said, trying not to blush. Yes, he replied, laughing. Don’t be silly! He expressed his appreciation for how I announce all the stops, how I’m patient with people, answering questions and the rest, but most of all he appreciated that I was kind to immigrants. It’s a big deal, he stressed, for people who are new here, because it’s hard to get around, confusing, and sometimes you need someone who won’t judge you, who will give you a few extra moments, as it can make all the difference in the world in feeling welcomed.

This led to me mentioning my own background, coming from parents who immigrated here and growing up in a home where multiple languages were spoken. It only seems natural to be kind to the folks on the street; I see echoes of those dear to me in their questioning eyes.

His name was Mesfin. Language is important, we agreed, noting our shared multilingualism and the value of such, how it expands one’s perceptions of ideas and people. I mentioned a friend of mine, Abiyu, also from Ethiopia, and how his three young sons were already studying their native language as well as English, French and Spanish.

“Does he live in Bellevue?” Mesfin asked.
“Oh my goodness!” Who could’ve guessed we had a mutual friend? Abiyu is one of the great bus drivers, in my opinion, one of those men you find in life whose every word you hang onto, because you know he thinks before he speaks. The quiet voice, eyes twinkling with verve and wisdom.

“Yes, language is important,” Mesfin said. At this point he began telling me a story, and the longer he spoke, the more rapt with attention I grew.

Some time before he was sitting next to me on a 41 in Seattle, Mesfin once lived in a village in rural Ethiopia. He spoke four languages: Amharic, two local dialects more specific to his village, and a fourth language nobody really used, but he knew it anyway. Being multilingual was not unusual, but not too many neighbors knew that fourth language. It was a remnant from his ancestry, relatives he hardly kept in touch with.

In the mornings Mesfin would rise early and walk alone on the dirt path to a nearby bridge. This bridge was special, because from it you could see the most spectacular sunrises. Never anyone else around. When you’re raising a family, time alone gains a different and specific value. Watching the predawn light come to blazing life was Mesfin’s way of carving out space for himself.

Word had gotten out from nearby villages that invaders were on the loose. A nomadic tribe was moving from here to there, killing the village residents as they went. Panic settled in: were they near? Were they far? Were they rumor?

They were real. There they were now, suddenly, black figures against the dirt path one morning, weapons on view, blocking the way to the bridge. The sky was just starting to lighten, when the leader of the bandit tribe spoke.

“Where are you going?”

It was the fourth language, the one nobody ever used.

Mesfin responded fluently, in the same tongue: “I’m going to watch the sunrise from a bridge that I like.”
“How do you know our language?” Confused and surprised. It’s from my relatives, Mesfin explained. An uncle, something, the
details of ancestry hazy but undeniable. There was a political figure of some repute Mesfin knew, whom the nomads knew too. Through further conversation Mesfin was able to prove it.

The leader stood there for a minute. Mesfin waited under the lightening sky. Life, and nothing less, was what hung in the balance.

“Okay,” the bandit said finally. “Because you know our language and because you know this man, we won’t kill you right now. Today you can watch the sunrise. But you cannot come back again. If you are here tomorrow, we will kill you.”

Mesfin recounted the man’s words as being spoken plainly, matter-of-fact, with the deadened flatness and ugly apathy you hear in
truly violent men. After that Mesfin never walked that path again.

I looked at the man in the seat next to me, struck like a thunderbolt by how little of this world I know. I was looking upon the same being who one morning wasn’t sure if he had seconds or minutes to live, couldn’t be sure if his family would ever know him again.

“Wow,” I said, at a stunned loss for words. “Wow. It is so great you knew that language, or else I would not be sitting next to you listening to this story on the bus right now!” He smiled. “I am so glad,” I continued, thrilled that he chose to speak to me. “That you knew that fourth language.”
“Yeah, it’s important,” he said.

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Posted by & filed under Culture, Land Use, Policy.


Last month, in Moustiers Sainte Marie, France, I watched several shopkeepers return a lost young bird to a part of town closer to its natural habitat.

This small drama was a play of few acts, but reflected a pattern of human conduct embedded in urban life. I was well-positioned to capture the moment with a Fuji XT1 camera, and was immediately reminded that the complex issues of wildlife in the cityare often first framed by common sense, ingrained patterns — a “let the bird go moment” — readily captured by watchful eyes.


I’ve made little secret in past writing of my strong belief that these simple, underlying patterns merit repeated attention and illustration as we attempt to set up best practices in the urban environment. Best practices often begin as first principles worth capturing, but the question remains how to recognize such “teaching moments” for use going forward.

I suggest that in many instances, these moments are obvious to the beholder, andessential to record and later evoke for illustration and discussion.

How we should capture such first principle, “teaching moments”? What tools should we use? What are the secrets of documenting compelling examples for posterity’s sake?

Below, I describe how to capture common sense portraits of the urban environments for later use, and why.
Read more below the jump »

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