Teams of students fanned out across the city, interviewing people about their commutes and travel habits, and then brainstorming potential solutions to Seattle's ever-worsening traffic.
It’s a common commuting lament among working parents: I’d love to take transit to work, many say, but I have to drop my kid off at school first, and taking the bus would take twice as long.
But what if the school doubled as a transit hub — an informal park-and-ride where you drop your kid off, park your car and hop on the bus. Or join a van pool. Or share an Uber.
“If working parents have to stop at school everyday and that is a major reason they don’t take transit, then why don’t we create mobility hubs around public schools?” said Proshonjit Mitra, a graduate student studying information management at the University of Washington. “The idea is to have a facility where parents are sort of motivated to take transit once they drop kids off.”
Mitra and a small team of fellow UW students came up with the idea as part of a recent weekend-long “ideathon” put on by the UW and Challenge Seattle, a business-led group that seeks to address regional issues.
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Teams of students fanned out across the city, interviewing people about their commutes and travel habits, and then brainstorming potential solutions to Seattle’s ever-worsening traffic.
The teams included graduate students and undergrads. Engineering students, library-science students and design students. Few, if any, were traffic engineers.
“The whole idea was to not take experts but to take young students,” said former Gov. Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and one of a panel of judges who evaluated the students’ final pitches. “They don’t have barriers in their way, they don’t get hung up on the rules and regulations.”
Mitra, 27, and his teammates — January Shen, an information management master’s student; Simon Suh, a design undergrad; and Chris Woodruff, a mechanical engineering master’s student — took the weekend’s top prize.
The team spent most of Saturday talking with people at Northgate. Almost everybody they talked to had a job that required them to be physically present — no telecommuting. And lots listed their kids as a primary reason why they drove to work.
The team came up with about 15 possible ideas, including outlandish ones like a teleport, before settling on rejiggering school grounds to make them into transit hubs.
There are, obviously, lots of unanswered questions about how this could work. Is there space at schools for all the parked cars? How much would bus routes need to change? Are there enough commuting parents headed in the same direction?
But the students’ job wasn’t to execute the plans; it was just to spark the ideas.
“We’re going to follow up with each of the respective transportation agencies,” Gregoire said. “We’re going to meet with them and say, ‘which of these can we move forward on.’ ”
The second-place idea would require fewer changes to physical infrastructure, but could be just as tricky to implement.
Andrew McKenna-Foster, 36, and his teammates interviewed people in West Seattle, where they met a different group of commuters than Mitra’s team had found in Northgate.
The folks they talked to weren’t all necessarily going to one hub of jobs (like Northgate), they were commuting all over the region — to downtown, yes, but also to Ballard and Renton and the Eastside.
McKenna-Foster and his teammates — Harsh Dev and Yanjie Niu, master’s students in information management; Yuan Wang, a master’s student in civil engineering, and Kai-Y Cheng, an undergrad studying international studies — keyed in on an existing state law, the Commute Trip Reduction program, that requires big businesses to encourage alternatives to solo car-commuting: Transit, carpools and telecommuting.
Lots of companies already do this, but if nearby companies coordinated with each other as well, maybe they could have a bigger impact.
Picture, for instance, Amazon, Facebook and Google, all of which will soon have thousands of employees within a few blocks of each other in South Lake Union. All offer at least some employees the option to telecommute some of the time. Maybe, as part of their Commute Trip Reduction responsibilities, they even promote it, like “work from home Fridays.”
That’s a significant load off neighborhood traffic on Fridays. But it doesn’t do much for Thursdays. Or Wednesdays. Or … you get the picture.
“What if we got the employers to work together in local areas to spread out the days they encourage their employees to work from home or take transit?” McKenna-Foster said.
Their idea: A website to coordinate among neighboring employers — so their “work from home” encouragement is spread out, easing the traffic burden more broadly across more days.
Other ideas that emerged from the weekend included “gamification” of transit — awarding points for riding the bus or the train and having virtual leader boards where you can compete with your friends — and increasing bus and train capacity, by running express trains and having standing room only vehicles so they can carry more people.
McKenna-Foster is a library and information science master’s student who commutes by bike and doesn’t own a car. He said he’s always interested in how individual decisions (driving versus taking the bus) create collective problems (traffic).
And Seattle’s upcoming “period of maximum constraint” — when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes and a series of big projects threaten to make downtown Seattle all but unpassable — motivated him to join the ideathon.
“I was kind of idealistic — cycling will solve everybody’s problems,” he said. “But the whole process was like, you’ve got to be realistic, what’s something that can work within the process to help things quickly?”