Top Apps Emerge from Seattle’s Commute Hackathon

Candace Faber of Whoa Strategies emceed the event. Photo by the author.

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 embraced hacking’s physical tradition. Photo by the author.
  • 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.

This article is a cross-post from The Northwest Urbanist, the personal blog of Scott Bonjukian. He is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning.

CascadiaCast Episode 2: Cory Crocker


Podcast Logo_extended-01-01



cory-crockerThis week I’m joined by Cory Crocker, an active University District resident who helps head up U District Square. The group is working to secure parks and open space amenities as the neighborhood rapidly grows and faces a population boom with the arrival of a light rail station in only six short years. The U-District has a dearth of open space that the city is trying to address, and Cory is passionate about the option of a large central plaza. He’s also been working on a streetscape project with a new parklet and possible sidewalk cafes. We also discussed the medley of transportation and housing options in the neighborhood and recent trends in the design and management of public space.

I’m still learning as I go and it’s now much more obvious a noisy coffee shop isn’t the best location for recording audio; headphones may improve the listening experience this episode. But as promised, the series is now available on iTunes (search for “CascadiaCast”). You can also subscribe via RSS:

Episode 2 | 28 minutes | Download (16.3 MB) or stream below.

Cory’s model of a possible NE 43rd Street design. Photo courtesy of Cory Crocker.

Sunday Video: How Kids Would Redesign A Street


Apprentis urbanistes d’un jour! by Acces Transports on Youtube.
School children in Québec, Canada have some fun and design a play street for themselves, then they put their plan to work! Can we say woonerf?

What We’re Reading: Two Wheels, Fun For The Whole Family

Vancouver's Dunsmuir separated cycle track, courtesy of Paul Krueger.
Vancouver’s Dunsmuir separated cycle track, courtesy of Paul Krueger.

Fun for the whole family: Wonder what biking in Vancouver, BC is like? Sightline has a great photo essay on how wonderful it is to bike around the city.

Real-time arrival arriving: SDOT plans to install a bunch of real-time arrival displays along Route 44 (UW-Ballard).

Dubai of the Balkans: Belgrade, Serbia wants to spiff up their waterfront, and ambitious plans are in the work, but is it just for the foreign rich?

Criminal landlording: A San Francisco renter sees a rent hike of over $6k per month.

$15 Now: The fight for $15 per hour continues. Franchises get shot down on being exempt from higher minimum wage rules, and Washington Restaurant Association talks actual numbers for operating cost and wage changes.

The rent is too damn high: CHS takes a thorough look at all of the affordability issues in light of the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee.

Bike data: Seattle Bike Blog has the details on the initial numbers from the new bike counters in Bellevue.

Reinventing the carpool: Since the 1980s, carpooling has dropping nationally as a real mode share. But, with new options out there through app services, maybe it can make a comeback.

Car-free PDX: Meet Portland’s new pedestrian, bicycle, and streetcar bridge named Tilikum.

More posers please: SPD officer acts like bike buyer for stolen bikes and busts a theft ring.

France going green: France is getting serious about environmental sustainability. New developments must now either have solar paneled roofs or incorporate green space on the roofs of buildings.

Stayin’ political: After a huge groundswell of support for a pro-bike advocacy Cascade Bicycle Club, the political wing of the organization will stay just that–political.

The real inequality: We talk a lot about inequality in Seattle, but it doesn’t even crack the top 10 cities in the US. Suburbtopia Altanta takes the top spot. Although, the rich definitely got richer in Seattle.

Thank a bicyclist: Why do we even have paved roads today? You may just be surprised to learn that’s thanks to Good Roads Movement lead entirely by bicyclists.

UK housing crisis: Talk about housing crisis, London is experiencing unprecedented housing price increases that’s basically gobbling up all of the wealth in the United Kingdom. In fact, £282bn of £289bn of all property value increases have taken place in London and the Southeast of England.

LA obesity crisis: Despite a public health effort in Los Angeles to stem unhealthy fast food eating by residents, the regulations prohibiting new fast food joints hasn’t actually stopped them from appearing, and the data shows that per capita obesity is still higher than before the rules went into effect.

Move Seattle: We weren’t the only ones who wrote about the Mayor’s new $900m, 10-year Bridging the Gap levy. Seattle Met, Seattle Bike Blog, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, and Seattle Transit Blog each took a whack at the details.

Protecting history in Barcelona: Barcelona is planning to give over 100 stores and uses special protection status due to their unique character as opposed to the buildings themselves, an entirely new approach to historic conservation.

The parking wars: We’re loving Streetsblog’s Parking Madness 2015 matchups. This matchup between Nashville and Amarillo is amazing to say the least.

Map of the Week: Hotspots for Tourists and Locals

Central Seattle hotspots for locals (blue) and tourists (red).
Central Seattle hotspots for locals (blue) and tourists (red).

Who knew you could make beauty out of tweets? Data and map guru Eric Fischer recently released a series of maps via Mapbox called “Locals & Tourists“. The interactive map allow users to search for their favorite places around the globe to see what areas are popular with the locals and tourists alike. CityLab explains how it works:

Using Gnip’s archive of geo-tagged tweets from September 2011 through May 2013, Fischer designated “locals” as those who’d been tweeting from the same city region for one month or longer. Their tweets are blue spots on the map. “Tourists” (red spots) were those who’d been tweeting in that city for less than a month, and who seem to be “locals” in another city.

Remarkably, the tweet-points are not overlaid onto an existing world map; rather, they manifest into recognizable urban geographies. This becomes apparent when you zoom in tight or all the way out: neighborhood, county, and national boundaries simply aren’t there. In these maps, the world is a sum of its tweets.

As you can see above, places in and around the Convention Center, Seattle Center, and Pike Place Market are very popular with tourists while the places in between and Capitol Hill are home to the locals. That doesn’t seem all that surprising. But taking a step back to look regionally, Bellevue stands out with a very high density of tourists. Presumably this has to do with many business travelers, but could Bellevue Square also be a draw like Southcenter in Tukwila? The biggest red blotch of them all is the airport. With so many visitors coming and going daily, this is exactly what we would expect.

North Seattle.
North Seattle.
Central Puget Sound.
Central Puget Sound.

Seattle to Ask Voters for $900 Million in Transportation Funding

4th Avenue in Downtown Seattle. Photo by the author.

In November, the City of Seattle will ask voters for a property tax levy to put money where their mouth is on the Move Seattle transportation vision. Approval would supplant the expiring $365 million Bridging the Gap funding with an ambitious nine-year $900 million levy. Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray unveiled the list of priority projects that this money would go to, with a little something for everybody. Half of the Bicycle Master Plan network would be built out, 16 bridges would be reinforced, 250 lane-miles would be repaired, and 100 blocks of new sidewalks would be built, for starters. In conjunction with the City’s new Vision Zero target, Move Seattle has the potential to radically transform Seattle streets for the better.

Seattle Transit Blog reports the property tax would be 61 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $275 per year for the homeowner of median-value $450,000 house. That compares to 36 cents per $1,000 for Bridging the Gap last year. $900 million starts to approach the amount called for by Nick Ferris at The Urbanist, who noted the city has a transportation maintenance backlog of $1.8 billion. The city needs to spend $190 million per year just to keep up the growing backlog; other funding will come out of the City’s general fund (Bridging the Gap supplied 25 percent of transportation funding over the past nine years).

Project map. Click to enlarge. (City of Seattle, edits by author)

Voters in all neighborhoods will have good reason to approve Move Seattle. Its list of projects are geographically and modally diverse, and some will be integrated with the missions of other city services. The levy funds would be grouped in four broad project categories:

Safety ($350 million)

  • Reducing injuries: up to 15 corridor safety projects (road diets) to reduce crashes, up to 12 Safe Routes to School projects to make walking and bicycling safe for every student in the city, and increasing crosswalk repainting.
  • Bicycling and walking: 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of greenways (less than what Cascade Bicycle Club is calling for), 225 blocks of repaired sidewalks in urban villages, 750 curb ramps and crossing improvements, and completing the Burke-Gilman Trail’s missing link.
  • Bridges: eliminate maintenance backlog on 16 seismically vulnerable bridges, replace the last timber bridge on Fairview Avenue, and begin design for major bridge replacements (unspecified).

Affordability ($275 million)

  • Maintenance: repave 35 percent of the busiest streets with an average of 7 to 8 arterial lane-miles per year to reduce backlog.
  • Multiple modes: work with building owners and businesses to ensure access to transit passes, car share, bike share, and minimize structured parking to reduce rents.

Systematic connectivity ($170 million)

  • Street modernization: up to 10 complete street projects, eliminate transit bottlenecks, establish up to 7 bus-rapid-transit corridors, and improve signal timing on up to 5 corridors.
  • Light rail: new Link station at Graham Street on existing line in southeast Seattle, full funding for the Northgate Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge, and improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure connecting to light rail stations.
  • Walking and biking: 100 blocks of new sidewalks in transit corridors, slowing down traffic on residential streets, and 1,500 new bike parking spaces.

Economic and social vibrancy ($105 million)

  • Freight: Build the Lander Street Overpass and East Marginal Way corridor.
  • Neighborhood priorities: complete up 35 minor street projects identified as the most important by neighborhood residents.
  • Natural systems: Replace removed street trees with two new ones, create a new rapid response tree crew, and partner with Seattle Public Utilities on coordinating street projects with utility upgrades, including addressing stormwater flooding issues.

The City is being transparent in this process has detailed specific projects that will be funded. There are a number of ways to get involved, including attending public meetings, signing up for email updates, and contacting City staff with feedback. The three formal community meetings coming up are:

Stay tuned to this space for updates on levy projects and the 2015 election, which along with the City Council’s new district elections will have enormous implications for the future of mobility and quality of life in one the nation’s fastest growing cities.

This article is a cross-post from The Northwest Urbanist, the personal blog of Scott Bonjukian. He is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning.

Bus Driver Appreciation!




Her profile is distinctive. Short, compact, fit, young spirit in an older body, with that angled hair at the front. Yeah, it’s gotta be her, driving the 14, heading south on Third. Tracy. I’m right behind her in my own bus, pulling into Union. Seeing another driver you love and respect out on the road, experiencing the same madness you are, can really bring you up. Getting that wave, or just seeing them in action out here in the vortex, can reorient you, remind you of the better sides of yourself.

On a whim, while we’re all stacked up here at the zone, I decide to race up to her open door and yell, “Traaaace!”
“Nathan! What’s up?” Excited, but then concerned. Drivers don’t run up to other drivers for no reason at all… except when they’re me!
“I have nothing important to say,” I explain animatedly, “I just wanted to say hi!”
She starts laughing. We reach across the doorway for a handshake. “Aw! Love you!”
“Love you back!”

I note her bus number as we trail down Third, making a note of it so I can wave if I see her later in the night. 4112. Great. At Fifth and Jackson, still behind her as we now sit out a red light, I realize that yes, I actually do have something to say to her.

I race up there again, wanting to feel real and valid and useful, to exercise that hunger in you to be unique, to somehow prove to the universe that yes, your presence here makes a difference, and it was worthwhile to show up to work today, because your actions might cause thoughts and feelings in others which wouldn’t have become manifest otherwise. We want to assert the specificity of our existence in this world and prove, perhaps a little selfishly, that we are special. Right now I want to make a few people smile.

A liquid haze of these ideas is running through me as I bound up the stairs, going all the way inside her bus this time. Jackson can be a long red light, thank goodness. She speaks first upon seeing me.
“Nathan Vass! I told them all about you!”

I think I just like yelling people’s names. Then I turn to the passengers inside, full house of commuters right now, and address them in a stentorian voice– as if what I’m about to say is of pressing urgency.
“Excuse me everyone, I have a very important announcement to make. Your driver today is the best bus driver in the system. She’s the greatest! Say hi to her on your way out! She’s gonna be Driver of the Year one day! Yeah. So on and so forth!”

I can still remember individual faces, looking up with delighted surprise. There’s only a few drivers I’d do this for, but Trace is definitely one of them. I remember her looking up at me, wondering what I was up to and then a little shy but excited too, and there was a latent magic in the air that bubbled up spontaneously, as one person cheered and then another, and here we were now, all clapping, making it a round of applause we never knew would happen a minute ago.

I returned to my own bus and continued on, where things were much quieter. I couldn’t conceal my smile though, a remnant from the buoyant celebration a moment ago, slightly silly and a little wonderful, still echoing in my memory and permeating out in the texture of my greetings and announcements.

“You seem very happy today,” a departing commuter said quietly. “I like that.”

ICYMI: Brenda Completes Tunnel Work to Roosevelt


Brenda is kicking butt on the deep bore tunnel trail. Yesterday, the tunnel boring machine (TBM) cutterhead broke through the station box wall at Roosevelt Station. Last year, Brenda began boring work in July to make the 1.5-mile journey south from its original launch point at the Maple Leaf Portal (near NE 92nd St and I-5). There’s still 2.8 miles more of earth to be dug by Brenda before reaching the University of Washington Station (via University District Station). Sound Transit says that the TBM will need some refurbishment and maintenance before she sets off for boring the next segment (Roosevelt Station to University District Station).

King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chair, Dow Constantine, cheered the progress of the tunneling: “This machine churned through hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth to reach Roosevelt Station. Now on to the U-District Station, and then to Husky Stadium.”

Roosevelt Station prior to Brenda's arrival.
Roosevelt Station prior to Brenda’s arrival.

The second TBM, named Pamela, was launched from the Maple Leaf Portal in November. Sound Transit expects that Pamela will reach Roosevelt Station sometime this summer. All tunneling work from the Maple Leaf Portal to University of Washington Station is anticipated to wrap up by mid-2016. Additional tunnel work like cross-passages and tunnel finishes will continue through early 2018. The full line from Northgate to UW will enter service in 2021.

For the tunnel nerds out there, Sound Transit gave some details on the tunnel boring machines saying that:

Each tunnel boring machine weighs 600 tons and is more than 300 feet long including the trailing gear. The cutterheads are 21 ½ feet in diameter. By the time tunneling is finished, a total of more than 500,000 cubic yards of soil will have been excavated and over 7,200 concrete rings used to line the tunnels.