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Why transit nerds are so jealous of Seattle

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The city’s tweeting traffic engineer explains how small changes to streets are adding up to big improvements

What’s keeping Seattle moving?
Photo by PeopleForBikes, courtesy of NACTO

The first thing you might consider after looking at the Twitter feed of Seattle’s chief traffic engineer Dongho Chang is that he may possibly be two, or three, or even four people.

It does not seem logistically feasible for one person to be at this many places in the city at once, surveying the installation of bike lanes, supervising the construction of new sidewalks, and guiding the larger decisions that move Seattle residents.

And he does it all, for the most part, on a bicycle.

“I do some riding around early in the morning and take a look at concerns at the end of the day,” says Chang (who is, in fact, in Spandex bike pants when I speak with him). Today’s concern, for example, is a report from a fellow city employee that a person in a wheelchair was having difficulty on a curb ramp. Chang says he has a “pretty simple solution” which he’ll investigate in person this evening and then deploy within a few days. “If you don’t know about [those little issues], no one will ever get to them, so it’s nice to hear there was a corner we can fix.”

The fact that the city’s traffic engineer is out there personally responding to accessibility issues is impressive, but, then again, Seattle has championed good civic engagement tools.

In addition to soliciting feedback through traditional channels like social media and a 311 app, the city launched the Your Voice Your Choice program, where community members can prioritize the types of public space and streetscape improvements that they want in their neighborhoods. This provides transparency around who wants what where, and gives transportation planners a chance to streamline the process for rolling out these small changes across the city.

One particularly popular Your Voice Your Choice request is for play streets, where communities can shut down blocks to cars and use the street as temporary park space. But although people said they wanted them, the city noticed that not many Seattle neighborhoods were taking advantage of the process to apply for the permit and pick up the city-approved signage.

“The barrier to these being implemented was that we were asking too much from the residents,” says Chang. A simple fix to expand the program employed a clever use of city property: Chang’s department developed guidelines for how a recycling bin can serve as both a place to display the official signage and a physical barrier for the residents to use to close the street.

The speed at which Chang’s implementations are in the ground and capturing the imagination of transit-minded folks is evidenced in the reporting of this story. After I asked him about a low-cost permeable sidewalk solution he’d offhandedly referenced in a tweet, he photographed and tweeted a brand-new example with context. It was immediately picked up on Streetsblog.

Chang also has quite the following among local transportation groups. The hashtag #PygmalionizeDongho features short poems and wordplay based on Chang’s quirky captions.

Although Chang has posted thousands of drool-worthy photos of the city’s streetscape improvements, one that recently went viral was a set of charts—showing how Seattle’s bus ridership was skyrocketing while every other American city’s ridership plummeted.

So what’s the secret? Chang says taking a holistic approach to improving the user experience.

Seattle has two major transit agencies, plus a streetcar managed by SDOT, which meet regularly with representatives from Chang’s department. The team hashes out seemingly tiny details like moving bus stop locations for better performance and big-picture issues like what tools drivers need to do their jobs better.

“We know the small incremental things have a huge impact on how a transit agency is perceived by the rider,” says Chang. “We don’t put a lot of resources in if it doesn’t make a big difference.”

When the agencies decided to focus on improving on-time performance, for example, solutions like giving buses a head start at intersections made sense from a resource standpoint so transit could capture more riders who were on the fence about taking the bus, says Chang. “If there is more reliable service than before, they’re more willing to try it.”

Chang’s team has encapsulated their findings on speed and reliability into a toolkit that any transit agency can use. Although now Seattle has a different problem, he says. “Buses are really full now and people are being left behind.”

Seattle is undergoing a tremendous amount of transformation at the moment, from housing thousands of new residents in fast-growing high-rises to the opening of new urban attractions like Amazon’s Spheres. Chang is always thinking of physical ways that the city can get ahead of changes. When the city’s first bike share program was scheduled to launch, for example, Chang fast-tracked a two-way bike lane on Second Avenue, connecting the busy nodes of Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square with a safe, separated path for cyclists.

In the end, he says, it’s about giving Seattle’s families more options, which is why his priority is a great walking environment that provides good connections to schools and parks and libraries. “Transportation is the second-highest cost per household,” he says, “So anything we can do to provide equity and save families money, then they can use that money for other things.”

These tangible, tweetable results are netting Chang, and the city, positive reviews for getting things done. “Some engineers get stuck in their planning books, and Dongho is really known for getting out in the community and trying out the things he helps to create,” Gordon Padelford, director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, told the Seattle Times.

Seattle’s electorate seems to mostly support the changes; the city approved a big regional transit ballot measure in 2016. But that doesn’t mean the city has transformed into a transportation wonderland overnight, says Andres Salomon, a safe-streets advocate and former mayoral candidate. “I still can’t ride or walk on safe infrastructure for most of my trips, so... yeah.” However, the fact that Chang’s out there making it happen does provide residents a sense of accountability that the city will provide long-term solutions.

While he’s busy getting Seattle moving, Chang is also witnessing evidence of how his decisions are changing lives. One night, when he was riding home, he saw a woman on one of the city’s new dockless bikes, with her son coaching her. “It was a pretty heartwarming moment,” says Chang. “The bike share was just right there, and she was learning how to ride the bike again with her son.”