A Journey to the State Capitol

Hello? Is anyone home?

At first, I thought that it would be easy to schedule a meeting with my state legislative representative. After all, I am one of their constituents and don’t they have an obligation to listen to voting members of their district? Perhaps this is an incorrect assumption, but I’m guessing my neighbors, their constituents, are not knocking down their doors to discuss State legislation. But I could be wrong.

I live in District 37 represented by Senator Rebecca Saldana and Representatives Eric Pettigrew and Sharon Tomiko Santos. After 8 email meeting request and a voicemail over the course of a month, I heard nothing. Maybe none of them wanted to discuss House Bill 1536. Maybe none of them wanted to talk about creating an economically diverse neighborhood by preserving affordable housing stock in existing buildings. Maybe none of them wanted to talk about how to incentivize private apartment owners to set-aside 25% of their building for low-income tenants (at 50% and 60% of Area Median Income). I will never know.

But all was not lost. Although I was not able to get an in person meeting, I did see Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos at the Education Committee Hearing in House Hearing Room A in the John L. O’Brien Building in Olympia, WA. As chair of the Education Committee, Representative Santos was presiding over a hearing on House Bill 1705.


Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos presides over the Education Committee Hearing in House Hearing Room A in the John L. O’Brien Building.

Representative Kirby, the house bill’s prime sponsor made a few remarks to start the discussion. In a half-joking manner he said that the bill would fix public education once and for all and that the bill was more important because it had a higher number (than another bill on the same agenda). He mentioned, anecdotally, that he spent time with kids and parents in charter schools last year and that the parents were happy with charter school. He said that over the last couple of decades there have been more laws put into place in an effort to make schools better, but he alluded to the fact that this may have the opposite outcome. Charter schools are exempt from, according to him, “almost everything”. The bill he sponsored would allow public schools to be flexible by opting into a program – thus the bill’s title, to authorize flexibility schools and flexibility zones.

Before the bill hearing, there was a working session to first understand, what is a flexibility school?

The Education Committed was presented information about non-traditional education programs in Washington Public School System. These programs include STEM Lighthouse Schools, dual credit programs (Advance Placement, Running Start, etc.), the Highly Capable Program at the University of Washington, among others. The committee members were all given time to question the presenter and to ask for follow up information. Just behind me in the audience, there was a young, African-American teenager that was raising his hand to speak. The Committee Chair called him to the stand to speak.

Eldridge is a senior at Big Picture High School, an Alternative School, in Burien. He spoke very eloquently about the close teacher/advisor relationship with each student, the ability to learn through exploring your own interests, career exploration through outside internship, and a competency-based evaluation system rather than grades/credits. Two other students in the audience joined Eldridge. The Committee was then questioning all three students about their experience at Big Picture High School. The questions including:

  • How does a competency based evaluation program work?
  • How do you get to school?
  • Who determines competency?
  • Why did you choose to go to an alternative school rather than a traditional school?
  • What role did your parents play in making that choice?

The Committee was enamored with these students.   At one point, Committee Chair Santos had to do a time check move on with the agenda.

I’m fairly certain that those students did not take the day off of school to travel from Burien to Olympia to share their story in front of the House Education Committee on their own. At the committee hearing, I witness the power of a strong testimonial. The student’s testimonials eclipsed, by far, the Power Point presentation with bullet points and data. Testimonials have a place in our lawmaking process, but should they become more important than results and data? In a public forum, which is our legislative process, it is much more compelling to tell a story, than to present a data table. Welcome to the legislative process.


Pay to Park

In 2015, the City of Seattle rolled out new Smart Parking Pay Stations. The new pay stations were advertised to provide faster credit card transaction, a higher level of customer service, and allow the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to wirelessly monitor the stations and change parking rates. All of those functions seemed well and good except for the basic usability of the machine.

The image below is of the user interface of the Smart Parking Pay Station. When I first started using this machine, I put my credit card into the machine and then immediately pressed the “check mark” button. Immediately, a parking receipt was printed with 3 minutes of parking time. I didn’t want just 3 minutes of parking. I had to then put my credit card in again to figure out that the “+” and “-” buttons were used to increase and decrease the paid parking time. It seemed awkward to me that the “+” was on the left and the “-” was on the right. Intuitively, time increases to the right and decreases to the left. Think of a timeline.


City of Seattle – Smart Parking Pay Station


I wondered whether other people had the same frustration as I did when using this machine. Also, were these machines ever piloted and tested with human users first before being rolled out to the entire City?

The Seattle Department of Transportation designs and creates a number of human touch points within our regional transportation system including parking stations, bike racks, bus payment machines, Orca Card re-fill stations, transportation maps, bike lanes, and bus stops, just to name a few.

SDOT should implement a Human Centered Design Division with the goal of providing the most user-friendly and intuitive transportation system in the country. This could be accomplished by providing human piloting, testing, and refinement feedback for all human touch points in the transportation system. This user feedback loop will help to constantly improve, for example, the next iteration of parking pay stations.

The Carrot or the Stick

Taxes are a stick. They dis-incentivize the use of a particular good. In Washington State, the alcohol tax rate is a whopping 20.5%. Taxes on goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling (also known as a sin tax) are typically set high to discourage the use of a particular activity. These taxes are less controversial because they only affect a particular group of individuals that purchase those specific goods.

Similar to the sin tax, yet distinctly different, is a carbon tax. A carbon tax is a tax levied on fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which leads to global warming and climate change. The purpose of the tax, similar to a sin tax, would be to increase the cost of fossil fuels, decrease the release of carbon dioxide, and motivate a switch to clean energy sources. But unlike a sin tax, fossil fuels are used by a large majority of the U.S. population to drive to work, heat their home, and transport goods. Currently, there is no nationwide carbon tax levied in the U.S.

A carbon tax is a stick and also a leading reason such a tax has not gained traction in the U.S. What if carbon had value? What if reducing or removing carbon from the atmosphere could be profitable?

An incentive system is a carrot. The system incentivizes a particular action. One of the most robust incentive systems is the free market. The market drives innovation, efficiency, and profitability. If carbon could be commoditized, given a value, and then purchased in the market, then this could go a long way in reducing carbon in the earth’s atmosphere.

Carbon Engineering in a company formed to capture carbon dioxide from ambient air and then convert the carbon into a fuel source that could be sold. The company has backing from private investors including Bill Gates. This is an example of using a market-based entrepreneurial approach to reduce carbon.


Carbon Engineering technology to capture carbon dioxide from the air

When thinking about influencing a particular behavior, especially when it comes to carbon emissions, use the carrot, rather than the stick.

Retail Rethought

There’s nothing worst than empty retail. There’s no street activity, no bustling storefront with restaurant patrons dining inside, and no people. From the outside looking in, an empty retail space is a cold, sheet-rocked shell with the quiet anticipation of a promising future. A For Lease sign is typically posted on the front window with the leasing agent’s name and phone number listed to call for more information.

In many parts of the City of Seattle, retail is required by zoning code to activate the street. An active street frontage creates amenities for the neighborhood as well as a safer and friendlier walking environment. Unfortunately, with the apartment building boom in Seattle, there are many retail spaces that sit empty for years after a building is completed. Thus the required retail does not achieve any of the original goals of activating the streetscape. If retail is a requirement, how can architects and developers create better retail spaces?


Vulcan’s Block 3 Plan for Broadway at Yesler


Treat the retail as an amenity. The retail can be an amenity similar to a rooftop deck, community space, or fitness room in an apartment building. In some cases, the retail can connect directly to the lobby to create a more active lobby entrance for both the benefit of the community and the apartment residents. Financially, if the retail space is treated as a building amenity, then it may not need to produce much income in the proforma model, which will give the developer more flexibility to lease the space to a tenant that would compliment the building and neighborhood.

Design for retailers in mind. The retail space should be high, at least 13’ from the floor to the top of the ceiling to make room for overhead mechanical systems. The retail space should also be deep, with at least 30’ depth. During the design phase, the retail bathroom location should be designed and, if possible, provide shared bathrooms to lower the cost for a new retailer to build out the space. Create outdoor café seating spaces to help active the street. Rather than the typical storefront windows found in new building developments, exterior retail space should be customizable to allow retailers to create their own unique storefront façade.

If developers treat retail as a building amenity and designers designed retail spaces that functioned to meet retailer’s needs, then we would be seeing less empty storefronts in Seattle and more activated streetscapes.

Milk in a Bag

The first time I saw milk in a bag was in a Ukrainian grocery store across the street from my host mom’s Soviet block apartment building.  In Ukraine, a small milk bag is called a packet.  In Ukraine, you don’t go to the store for a carton of milk, you go to the store for a packet of milk.  At first, I thought that the packet of milk was a dumb idea.  The milk did not stand up in the refrigerator, like a carton, and once opened with a pair of scissors, it could not be closed again.  The packets were small.  The standard size bag could hold about 3 soup cans worth of milk.  The packet was made of a thick plastic-feeling material that, if positioned in just the right way, could balance upright in the refrigerator.

I lived in Ukraine for two years with packets of milk.  Along with the milk packets, I lived with sour cream in a bag, yogurt in a bag, and pudding in a bag.  These bags were much cheaper to produce and produced much less garbage compared to milk cartons and plastic containers, but they’re not ready for American grocery store shelves.  The bags cannot easily stand upright, which does not allow for a brand advertising to be displayed prominently on the product.  Also, Americans buy in relatively large quantities.  If the milk container cannot be resealed, then the milk could spoil faster. It’s probably safe to say that the average American consumer is not ready to purchase their milk products in plastic bags.  Is there another way to package products at a lower cost and provide the same benefits to the American consumer?

American condiments are commonly sold in easily squeezable plastic bottles with a resealable cap.  In Ukraine, condiments came in pouches with twist off caps, similar to the cap on a tube of toothpaste.  Condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup, tartar sauce, and mustard are all sold in the same type of pouch.  When filled, the condiment pouch stands upright displaying the brand prominently on the shelf.  The pouch can be easily sealed after each use.  After all of the condiment is used, the pouch is as flat as a piece of paper.  Think about all of the waste that could be reduced if our condiments came in flat pouches rather than plastic bottles and containers.

Copyright GVMachines Inc. www.gvmachines.com

Tartar Sauce condiment pouch

The maker of these pouches is Nestle, an international Swiss food and drink company.  Nestle, the American consumers are ready for the condiment pouch.

Real Time Energy Monitor

According to NASA and NOAA scientists, 2016 was the hottest year on record.  In fact, 2016 was the hottest year of the three consecutive hottest years on record.  According to a Gallup poll, 64% of Americans worried a great deal/fair amount about global warming.  Meanwhile, in January 2017, severe thunderstorms and tornados hit the southern United States leaving upwards of 18 dead.  After a Google search and review of articles in national newspapers, there is limited, if not nonexistent reporting that explicitly links the deadly storms to global warming.

It is not a mystery that severe weather related events are occurring around the world at an ever-increasing frequency.  Headlines that come to mind are drought-stricken California, the disappearing Maldives islands, and the vanishing Miami Beach coastline due to raising water levels.  In September 2016, the world passed the symbolic 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere.  If the world has now reached a point of no return, how can individuals change their behavior to cope with climate change?

Americans can continue to reduce their carbon footprint by consuming less fuel by driving less, converting water intensive lawns to drought tolerant gardens, and conserving energy by turning of the lights.  What are other more innovative ways that will change behavior?

Sense Home Energy Monitor (sense.com)

Sense Home Energy Monitor (sense.com)

In the age of FitBits and Apple Watches that track our steps, stairs climbed, heart rate, sleeping habits, weight, etc.  What if a similar monitoring system tracked our energy consumption?  There are new consumer devices available such as Sense, Curb, and Neurio.  An electricity and water monitoring system could send us real time information with the amount of money spent to heat/cool our home, take a shower, run the laundry machine, etc.  If people knew, in real time, the cost of their consumption, it would have a considerable impact on behavior. A similar system could track the cost of miles driven.

Make it Simple

It was a cold winter day and I was standing on the transit platform in the Seattle International District bus tunnel. I had recently started a new job and this was my first attempt at going from work to home by bus. The Challenge: Get from the International District to my home in Ravenna using the King County Metro bus system.

Now, this wasn’t may first time taking a Seattle Metro bus. I knew from my undergraduate days that the 70’s buses were my connection from the downtown bus tunnel to the U-District, but that wouldn’t quite get me home. I decided to take a look at the Metro Bus map.

If you’ve ever tried to look at the Metro bus map it is completely indecipherable. There is no way to know how to get from Point A to Point B by looking at that map.  Perhaps I should take the 372X, the 65, or the 75, since those are closest to my destination, but where do the bus lines start?  This map organizes King County’s region bus system, which is known as one of the best bus systems in the country.


Metro Transit System: Map

In frustration, I thought that every person at Metro should be required to ride the bus. The designers of the system should also be users of the system. If the mapmakers at Metro understood how hard it was to understand their map, then they could think of ways to improve the map. The goal should be that the map is easy enough to understand that a tourist could walk to a bus stop and figure out how to get from one place to another.

Make the map simple. Use colors: the red line, the green line, the yellow line, so that people can understand where the transit lines run. Create nodes by Seattle neighborhoods: Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Ballard, Wallingford, Greenlake. And then connect the nodes with the transit lines. Make it simple.