Tuesday, 23 April, 2019

Will a New Innovation Advisory Council Result in Seattle Adopting More Smart City Technologies?

South Lake Union is the center of Seattle's tech boom. (Photo by Tim Eytan, Wikimedia Commons)

Mayor Durkan is looking to local tech talent to address pressing issues, but the City’s commitment to data privacy may limit the reach of technological innovation.

Technology’s influence on urban planning and city management is growing at light speed these days. Data collection, mapping and analysis tools, crowdsourcing platforms, and app-based services that track user trends are proliferating in number and scope. In the not-so-distant future such piecemeal technologies may all be stitched together by smart city frameworks. According to Technopedia, a smart city uses information and communication technologies to improve the performance of urban services with the goal of enhancing the quality of life for its residents. Worldwide investment on smart city initiatives has increased substantially in recent years and is estimated to grow to over 34 billion (USD) in 2020.

Despite being an international hub for big tech, Seattle has not received a smart city designation, nor does it appear to be in the running anytime soon. A review of several different rankings shows that Seattle routinely does not even make the top 10 for smart cities in the US. In fact, Seattle has has been outpaced in adopting technological innovations by not only the usual suspects, cities like Boston, San Francisco, Portland, but also surprise metros such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has gained national recognition for for its Urban Data Pioneer program.

Credit: City of Portland

Why is Seattle lagging behind other cities in adopting tech solutions?

At least one answer for this question can be found in the City’s commitment to data privacy. Seattle has made a name itself as a leader in the data privacy movement; in 2015, Seattle established an official privacy policy intended to ensure city government offices maintain “good data practices and data stewardship.” One of these practices is use of de-identification techniques, which scrub all personal information from open data released to the public. At the same time, even after data is scrubbed, the “mosaic effect” created by multiple overlapping data sets can still reveal private information unintentionally.

Bike Numbers Up: We Built It and They Came

The Second Avenue protected bike lane was extended to Denny Way in 2018. (SDOT)

Buried amongst the swirling controversies around the Bicycle Master Plan 2019 – 2024 Implementation Plan and major recent bike project cancellations (I’m looking at you 35th Ave NE and Mayor Jenny Durkan) that Seattle transportation advocates and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) employees have been discussing and debating is some of the best news for biking in several years: major growth in ridership.

Bike ridership increased by 12% from 2017 to 2018, based on SDOT’s fixed bike counters at five key locations throughout the city. Ridership on the 2nd Avenue Protected Bike Lane itself is up 32% with the completion of the extension to Denny Way and connections at Pike Street and Pine Street. The 2nd Avenue number is a testimony to the power of building a connected bike network.

As Seattle’s bike lanes grow and connect, it becomes possible to travel safely between more places and ridership grows. This is what was seen in Vancouver after a major expansion of protected bike lanes there, which led to 10% of all commuting being done by bike today, a 60% increase since 2013. And it rains there.

Jim Curtin, Vision Zero program manager for SDOT, said at a recent Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee meeting that bike ridership numbers increased during the Seattle Squeeze, enough to fill 30 King County Metro buses. And as he went on the say, downtown streets did not have space to accommodate those buses, but it did for people on bikes.

Record numbers of people biking were also seen at points throughout the city. This number is even more amazing given that the city did nothing to encourage bike ridership, squandering an opportunity to reimagine our downtown commuting patterns. The 4th Avenue bike lane was delayed and little effort was made to encourage a mode shift to biking.

As the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition said in a press release issued just before the start of the Seattle Squeeze, “This multi-year traffic crunch should be a catalyst to move rapidly towards the carbon-neutral, multimodal transportation system Seattle needs.”

The $70,000 Bike Lane Not Coming to Wallingford


With the news that the Move Seattle levy will only deliver half of the protected bike lanes that voters were promised, it’s worth reflecting on how we got to this point. In 2015, the cost estimates used to calculate goals for many of the programs in the levy were wildly inaccurate. The current administration cannot be saddled with the blame for overpromising, and the new implementation plan is an attempt to be transparent where the previous administration was not. But the Durkan Administration can be faulted for refusing to back up the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) when the decision to install bike lanes hits opposition. 35th Ave NE is a high profile example of this, but there is another one that illustrates the opportunities that are being left behind when that happens.

Late last year, SDOT announced it was “stepping back” from plans to install protected bicycle facilities on N 40th St in Wallingford as part of its planned repaving of the street “given concerns we heard from neighbors and businesses as well as from people who bike through the neighborhood.”

The project would have replaced a lane of on-street parking with a one-way protected bike lane heading uphill toward Wallingford Ave N. Since the design of the facility meant that people biking either heading west or east on N 40th St would need to exit the bike lane and merge back into traffic on the other side of Wallingford Ave N, many people who bike through the area were not ecstatic about it. This design was chosen by SDOT to provide the protection of the bike lane for those biking uphill; there wasn’t enough room for two one-way protected bike lanes on the street (and that would have required more on-street parking removal). However, that wasn’t the only option available: Seattle is constructing one-way bicycle facilities on one-way streets all over town. There is no reason why the bike lane couldn’t have been designed to run eastbound or westbound for the entire project area, providing a full all-ages and abilities facility for one direction.

Instead, the fact that the subpar design was hard to get excited about combined with opposition to parking removal in the area (topped off with a mayor going out of her way to ignore bicycle safety) led to the bike lanes getting dropped from the project entirely. But SDOT, in delivering the news, gave some hope for people who need to safely bike in Wallingford: “We’re looking at other improvements to east-west bike connections in the area. In the coming months, we’ll share more information” they wrote in their mailer.

A Conversation with Newly Retired Councilmember Rob Johnson

Rob Johnson speaks at the Mayor's signing of MHA legislation. Credit: CM Rob Johnson twitter

After ushering in the expansions of Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) to all of Seattle’s urban villages with a unanimous vote, District 4 Councilmember Rob Johnson left elected office early to pursue a new transportation advising position with the NHL Seattle. The group is bringing an National Hockey League expansion team to Seattle Center Arena that will play its inaugural season in 2021.

Johnson, who said he never planned to serve more than one term, held his last day in office on April 5th. The Council has 20 days to appoint someone to hold the District 4 seat until November 26th when the newly elected councilmember takes office. Meanwhile, 10 candidates have qualified to run in the primary for District 4, and even more candidates have filed and been denied or expressed intention to file for the primary, making it the most crowded district race in the upcoming election.

The Stranger might have dubbed him “Quittin’ Rob Johnson,” but it is undeniable that it has not been easy to be Rob Johnson in recent years. Johnson’s positions in favor of protected bike lanes, zoning for residential density, and public transit stoked the anger of the pro-car set both within and outside of his district. His support for protected bike lanes on 35th Avenue NE led to tweets that called him a “dead man walking.” Editorials, like this one published by KIRO, calling Rob Johnson a “soulless liar” show in vivid color the kind of vitriol he dealt with on a regular basis.

During his last hectic hours representing District 4, Johnson made time to speak to The Urbanist about what he learned during his time on the Council, what it was like to work with Mayor Jenny Durkan, and his hopes for Seattle’s housing and transportation future.

MHA: A hard won accomplishment with lessons learned along the way

Johnson remains proud of his leadership role in passing citywide implementation of MHA. “It was the first time since urban villages were adopted in the nineties that the city approved such a sweeping change,” Johnson said.

While many pro-density advocates were dismayed by the passage of amendments to MHA legislation that decreased upzones in specific areas, such as Johnson’s own Ravenna-Cowen neighborhood in District 4, Johnson stated that such compromise was worth it because it resulted in unanimous support for city-wide implementation of MHA among the nine councilmembers.

Kitsap Transit to Roll Out Summer Fast Ferry Schedule


In a few weeks, Kitsap Transit will improve their fast ferry and foot ferry services on Saturdays. King County Water Taxi has already gone to their summer schedule as part of the March service change. And Intercity Transit flew under the radar beefing up Sunday service immensely.

Kitsap Transit service change in May

In May, Kitsap Transit will roll out the summer sailing schedule for the transit agency’s fast ferry services. The fast ferries operate from Bremerton and Kingston to Seattle for walk-on passengers only. The summer sailings will bring the return of Saturday service to the Bremerton-Seattle route and commence for the first time Saturday service on the Kingston-Seattle route. Saturday service on the Bremerton-Port Orchard foot ferry will also be extended.

The service change starts on Saturday, May 4th. The Bremerton-Seattle fast ferry will provide service on Saturdays every 1.5 hours per direction. The first sailing will depart Bremerton at 9.20am and the last sailing will depart Seattle at 11.30pm. Crossings take approximately 30 minutes.

Likewise, the Kingston-Seattle fast ferry route will add Saturday service with sailings every 1.66 hours per direction. The first sailing will depart Kingston at 9.15am and the last sailing will depart Seattle at 11.25pm. Crossings take approximately 40 minutes. To support the new service, Kitsap Transit will operate Route 307 from the North Viking Park & Ride in Poulsbo to the Kingston Ferry Terminal. The last trip on this route, however, will be 6.56pm from the Kingston Ferry Terminal.

On Saturdays, Bremerton-Port Orchard foot ferry service will be extended until 11.45pm with the last departure from Bremerton.

Looking ahead, the Transit Development Plan for Kitsap Transit indicates that service on the fast ferry routes will increase by about another 50% by 2023. Ridership has grown rapid in the past few years, too. In 2017, Kitsap Transit reported ridership of 117,078 passengers on the fast ferry routes. Ridership topped 334,912 passengers last year, but that should rise significantly this year. By 2023, Kitsap Transit projects a conservative ridership of 500,000 passengers.

KOMO Demagoguery Piques Interest in Real Solutions for Homelessness

Tents in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

KOMO 4’s Seattle is Dying documentary hit Seattle like a giant stink-bombshell. Homelessness has been a big issue in Seattle for a while, but the documentary focused attention on particular elements of the crisis–spoiler alert: both the analysis and the proposed solutions were bad. Nonetheless, it got a lot of play.

And while the general rule is the fact check never receives as much attention as the falsehood, in this case rebuttals received a ton of attention. David Kroman said his article (which included an interview with the guy used as an exemplar hopeless addict in the special despite being housed now for several years) was his most-read Crosscut story ever by a wide margin. Gene Balk showed that crime stats are on a downward trend from highs in the 1980s and early 1990s–in spite of the assertions and doom and gloom framing of the special. For our part, we published a take by Professor Sara Rankin and Michael Maddux late in the news cycle and still it was our second most-widely-read story of the year so far.

For our coverage at least, this really marks a shift. We write about homelessness here and there, but generally those articles are not particularly widely read. Other urbanism topics generally get more attention. But, with the realization the Right-wing is on the march on the issue, interest is really growing in homelessness and progressive solutions to the underlying issues that are creating it–thorny issues like poverty, lack of affordable housing, rising health care costs, and neglect of the mental health system.

Eric Johnson and KOMO suggest rounding up homeless folks and taking them to a prison island off the coast for mandatory treatment–conveniently all the problem cases are assumed to be addicts. That this idea is brandied about and being taken seriously is waking a lot of folks up. This is good. We need to be awake to solve this crisis.

But let’s turn our attention to ideas more rooted in reality and compassion. How about building more supportive housing? How about a social housing building spree to ease displacement pressure? How about universal health care that doesn’t treat mental health as an afterthought? And as for funding, how about dedicating progressive revenue sources that serve the dual purpose of narrowing our gaping wealth inequality at the same time?

Advocates for homeless folks feel a sense of deja vu as the same ideas are debated. The City of Seattle and King County have been tussling with the issue for many decades.

Local Historical Context

In 1986, eight years in to his mayoral tenure, Charles Royer identified the social service system as overwhelmed and tried to diagnosis some fixes. The problem persisted. On the campaign trail in 1998, Mayor Paul Schell vowed to end homeless before the new millennium. He convened a regional homelessness task force but obviously failed to meet his ambitious goal. Ironically, the package of solutions the task force came up remain very similar to what every future task force has proposed–whether Mayor Ed Murray’s “Pathways Home” task force or Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “One Table”. Ideas are not in short supply, but implementation and follow through is.

Sunday Video: The Big Debate About the Future of Work, Explained


Vox looks at how the way we work may change in the future and what that means to society.

What We’re Reading: Pausing Outsourcing, Curb Space, and Piloting Solutions


Housing for all: Advocates are asking the Washington State Legislature for another $100 million to address homelessness.

Pausing a race to the bottom: Sound Transit is stepping back on outsourcing operations of bus services ($) to private companies.

The next governor: If Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington) successfully runs for president, who is in line to take his place?

Slowing rent increases: The rate of residential rent increases continues to slow in Seattle ($).

Approved in Mill Creek: In a split decision, the Mill Creek City Council approved a 350-unit urban apartment development ($).

Opposition to SB 50: Suburban single-family housing interests are very unhappy California State Senator Scott Weiner’s (D-San Francisco) newest land use and housing bill.

Wrath of bad McCleary decisions: Due to budget shortfall created by the Washington State Legislature, Seattle Public Schools could be forced to cut 24 full-time librarians to part-time.

Stop the violence: CityLab highlights three anti-gun violence laws that are working.

Code for curb space: How should cities manage their curb space when everyone wants a piece of it.

New versus old: The Guardian shared several historic transit system maps of cities versus their modern ones.

Refusing to support injustice: Seattle artists are rejecting the call to create public art for King County’s new youth jail.

Amazon in B’vue: Amazon plans to create several thousand jobs in Bellevue ($) in the next few years.

Piloting solutions: San Jose is America’s petri dish for trying out solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

SFR DC: Where are the single-family housing areas in Washington, D.C.?

Bringing cities back: How can America help bring back struggling cities?

Map of the Week: What areas in America are housing costs devouring peoples’ incomes?