Can coders fix the Seattle area's traffic problems?

By Drew Atkins
Crosscut archive image.

Project Manager Candace Faber addresses the Hack the Commute crowd.

By Drew Atkins

Buildings can be razed and replaced. Single-family homes can become multi-story apartment complexes. As Seattle adapts to its status as the fastest growing city in America, residential density has strained to keep up with the influx of newcomers. But building new homes is a far simpler proposition than building new roads, as the city’s daily gridlock demonstrates.

In the next fifteen years, the Seattle area – already among the worst cities in America for traffic – is expected to grow by at least 110,000 people. The thriving tech industry has been pegged as the prime instigator of this population boom. This past weekend, the question was whether the sector could also offer solutions to the city’s growing pains.

Between Friday and Sunday evenings, a group of over 70 computer engineers, data scientists, designers and others hunkered down at the offices of marketing software company Moz in downtown Seattle. Some worked for tech monoliths like Amazon and Microsoft, others at single-staffer startups. Their shared weekend project was Hack the Commute, aimed at crunching the reams of civic data the city has made public, and using it to devise fixes for Seattle’s road congestion.

“This was a big step toward creating a community around civic tech,” said Candace Faber, the event’s project manager and organizer. “The relationship between civic hackers and government needs strengthening. … There are no cash prizes, we’re not offering a $10,000 check. Everyone who came here showed up because they wanted to work together and solve problems… This is about trying to take the lean startup approach, and apply it to the city’s issues.”

At the closing event Sunday evening, participants enjoyed free keg beers and sushi as they prepared to premiere their weekend pursuits. Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller praised the “3248 hours [participants] collectively spent on one of the toughest challenges we face.” Councilmember and chair of the city’s transportation committee Tom Rasmussen popped in for an appearance.

And then it was off to the races, as each of the 14 Hack the Commute teams took to the stage to pitch their transportation fixes.

From mobile apps that take the headache out of carpool planning, to interactive data visualizations that identify road collision hotspots, the ideas presented ran the gamut.

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Some concepts were complicated, such as an app that uses bus stop-mounted sensors to take pictures of oncoming buses. Those photos would then be outsourced to workers in a foreign country, who would identify in real-time whether an individual bus had room on its bike rack.

Other ideas focused on simplification. Ferry Fairy, for example, uses publicly available data to help ferry commuters plan their trip, identifying how many spots were available on the vessel, and which routes were likely to fill up.

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Faber with Hack the Commute's finalists.

In the end, only three ideas could proceed to the championship round, which will take place on April 29, and will feature the weekend’s winners pitching their fleshed out ideas to Mayor Ed Murray and his staff. But Seattle Open Data Manager Bruce Blood hopes this weekend’s hackathon is only the shape of things to come.

“I love the idea of concentrating on a single important subject, and letting all this brainpower have a go at it,” said Blood. “To me, there are plenty of areas where data crunching can reveal new ways of doing things. We just have to get to work on it.”

Hack the Commute Finalists:


In San Francisco and other cities, there is a longstanding tradition known as “slugging”, in which commuters will pick up people by the side of the road near a toll road or bridge, to take advantage of HOV lanes or discounted tolls. The Slugg app banks on a similar idea. Using a simple-to-use app, it aims to streamline carpool planning, revealing who has open seats in their car and when they’re leaving a location.

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Ash Bhoopathy pitches Slugg, one of the event's finalists.

Like Facebook in the early days, the key to the app is exclusivity. Work emails are required for sign-up, allowing people to see other users within their same company, and creating a level of trust many carpool services don’t offer.

As creator Ash Bhoopathy says, this makes it more likely the app will make you a new acquaintance from work, and less likely “that some stranger is going to shank you.”


There are plenty of apps out there for people planning their walks or bike trips. The Hackcessible mobile app aims to simplify trip planning for individuals with mobility issues. The app presents a visual directory of the city’s closed sidewalks, steep hills, wheelchair accessible bus stops, inaccessible buildings and more on top of a Google Map platform. While only in its early prototype stages, in final form one can imagine it serving as an enormous daily help for thousands of city citizens.

GeoHackers for Good

Seattle has become the center of the real estate tech boom, with Zillow and Redfin both transforming how people search for new homes. Geohackers for Good aims to do the same thing with their Work Orbit app, but with a commute-friendly spin. Users searching for a home are asked to input their work address, and how long they’re willing to commute every day. From that information, the app presents the neighborhoods that are within range, as well as daily travel estimates on both time and cost.

For updates on this project, follow Hack the Commute on Twitter at:


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at