At the end of Seattle’s Hack the Commute on Sunday night the judges selected three potentially game-changing software applications for further development. Over the weekend 14 volunteer teams of data scientists, transportation experts, designers, and software developers created prototypes of smartphone tools that could improve the travel experience across all modes in the city. While nearly all of the teams’ work was innovative, the top three discussed here will get additional support and will refine their presentations during a championship round next month.
Team Hackcessible was motivated by the information gap facing the 30 million Americans who have trouble walking, using stairs, or are confined to wheelchairs. They are severely hampered by broken elevators, sidewalk closures, steep hills, curbs, and cramped bus stops that do not enable lift ramp deployments. Hackcessible would help this undeserved community by identifying the easiest ways to get around on foot or with mobility devices. The app places layers of existing public datasets over a Google Maps background. It would also enable users to self report changes or problems they encounter on the streets.
The app by Geo Hackers for Good saw an opportunity in the 120,000 new residents Seattle is planning for over the next 20 years: Getting them to adopt sustainable commute patterns before they even move here. The app works by matching newcomers’ job locations with neighborhoods within their ideal commute distance and by mode of travel. If a new South Lake Union employee prefers a 30 minute or less bus commute, for instance, the app’s visualization might stretch north to Roosevelt and south to the International District. The team’s proposal also included driving and bicycling options. The success of this app could depend on the city partnering with businesses to share with employees.
Slugg could finally break through the considerable barriers to carpooling: lack of trust, convenience, and reliability. The app is based on current location and user profiles, which require real names and which company users work for. Drivers passively indicate when they’re leaving, where they’re going, and how many passengers they can take. Passengers actively browse a list of nearby drivers and sign up for a seat through the application. It would be geared toward people on the 9-5 schedule working within a few blocks of each other, but it could potentially be used by casual travelers. It might be improved by partnering with other car services like Uber and Lyft to offer ride guarantees. It could also list bus routes as alternatives if something doesn’t work out.
These top three apps could prove to be transformative for tech-savvy Seattlites, but it will be critical to also develop websites, phone lines, and other mediums for those without smartphone access. Hack the Commute’s impressive collaboration among multiple transportation agencies and technology companies will probably ensure all options are explored. And, perhaps more importantly, they are applicable outside of Seattle and could be useful for urbanites across the globe.
In no particular order, here are the other proposals that were developed. These teams were no less impressive and will also be encouraged to update their work over the next month. The championship round is April 29th at Seattle City Hall. Keep an eye on the project website for the registration link.
- Dokoji seeks to end the hassle of getting a group of friends together over text and finding a place to go. A combination of group messaging, local venue recommendations, and transportation directions would simplify social outings to restaurants, movies, and other events.
- Casual Carpool would be a sort of hybrid of Slugg and Dokoji, aiming to simplify carpool organization for big events like concerts and football games. The team pointed out that the city has over 3,700 such special events each year that draw 18.5 million drive-alone trips.
- Team Bikeraxx cobbled together a piece of hardware with off-the-shelf parts to report how many bikes are on loaded on buses. This would be especially useful to long distance bike commuters, such as those who need to cross the SR-520 bridge by loading on a bus. Rather than put three pressure sensors on all of Metro’s and Sound Transit’s bus-mounted bike racks, the hardware would be deployed at the busiest bus stops for bicyclists. A sonar device detects when a bus approaches, a camera snaps a picture and uploads it online, and the crowd is paid to identify how many bikes are loaded, along with the route and vehicle numbers. People waiting down the line would use the app to see how many bike spots are open.
- Team Kiosketeers want to make the OneBusAway pillars on 3rd Avenue more useful. All the pillars currently do is display the same bus arrival information that expert riders can get on their smartphones. The proposal here is to improve the visualization of arrival data and provide real-time maps of the area around the bus stops with other routes, incident information, points of interest, and events. It could also show Pronto bike stations and where car2go vehicles are located. This would be especially helpful for new transit system users and those without smartphones.
- OneBusAwaze would build on the popular OneBusAway transit app, which has 137,000 users in the Seattle area, with two new features: alerts from transit agencies on problems or changes and rider reports on overcrowded buses that may skip stops down the line. A dashboard for service operators would aggregate user reports to better inform system improvements.
- FairyTime would install hardware at ferry terminals to sense the number of cars passing through toll booths, compare that to the capacity of ferries on the routes, and make recommendations to drivers. It would include at least two weeks of historical data and show whether it might be best to catch a later sailing. Integrated Twitter feed and incident reporting would help boost reliability. It might be best combined with the state transportation department’s existing app that includes a plethora of similar real-time information.
- Meter Quest is a crowdsourced tool for finding on-street parking spaces, which could help reduce the circling that makes up 30-40 percent of downtown traffic. To encourage participation, users would actually earn pennies for their reports. The app would also show price information and how old the reports are. It’s an alluring idea if the city chooses not to expand it’s off-street e-Park program with sensors like in San Francisco.
- Safe Street Score would aggregate various datasets to report which streets are safest. Sidewalk conditions, collision rates, and speed limits would combine to give each street segment a score.
- Squeaky Wheels aims to improve the reporting of problems encountered by bicyclists, such as potholes or poor traffic signal detection. It might be a good add-on to the city’s existing Find It, Fix It customer service app.
- Blind Spot is for reporting the traffic issues not regularly recorded by the city: minor collisions, near misses, suggestions for improvements, and praise for good work. It would be applicable to all modes and be based on user location. Intriguingly, it would measure government accountability by tracking progress toward problem fixes and by forwarding weekly reports to city councilmembers in each district.
- Daniel Muldrew, a team of one, proposed a Google Maps add-on that would plot the best routes between Pronto bike share stations based on either time, distance, or elevation change. It would also show destinations of interest in-between. This might be most useful for casual riders or tourists.
Future updates will be posted on the progress of all of these ideas and the results of the championship round on April 29th.
Scott Bonjukian has degrees in architecture and planning, and his many interests include neighborhood design, public space and streets, transit systems, pedestrian and bicycle planning, local politics, and natural resource protection. He cross-posts from The Northwest Urbanist and leads the Seattle Lid I-5 effort. He served on The Urbanist board from 2015 to 2018.