Q&A With Dongho Chang, a Traffic Engineer Who Stresses Safety Over Speed

Giving buses priority on downtown Seattle streets has helped transit account for most of the growth in commute travel since 2010. Photo via Streetfilms
Giving buses priority on downtown Seattle streets has helped transit account for most of the growth in commute travel since 2010. Photo via Streetfilms

Streetsblog once called Seattle City Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang “the coolest traffic engineer in the world.”

That was after a team of tactical urbanists calling themselves “Reasonably Polite Seattleites” added plastic pylons to the Cherry Street bike lane in the middle of the night. Rather than retaliate or react defensively, Chang worked with the group to add physical protection to the bike lane.

Seattle Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang
Seattle City Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang.

Chang belongs to a new generation of transportation engineers who see their job as more than moving as many cars as quickly as possible. His work with Seattle DOT has established the city as a national leader on designing multi-modal streets. The results speak for themselves, as transit continues to take mode share away from driving. Nationally, Chang serves on the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which oversees changes to highly influential engineering standards that dictate how American streets are designed.

We got in touch with Chang to discuss his work in Seattle and how the profession is changing. Below is our Q&A, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I notice a lot of street photography on your Twitter. Do you make a point to get out in the field? 

For me that’s the most important thing is to see and experience how things are working out in the field. You don’t really understand the dynamic and how the intersection and the street functions until you’re there at very different times.

How do you get around the city?

My primary mode is usually taking my bike during the week. That’s how I normally go around. I do drive. We have wonderful vehicles at work. I can get around various different locations driving.

Sometimes it’s hard to find parking and sometimes it’s hard to get around by driving. Sometimes the most efficient way is to take transit or ride my bike. That’s the best way for me to see the city.

What innovative things are you working on right now in Seattle?

A survey was released that shows only 30 percent [of downtown commuters] are driving alone. In our downtown we’re at capacity. We just don’t have the physical ability to expand for people who are driving alone.

Our strategy is rethinking the best use of the existing lanes in our downtown. Whether that’s transit lanes when we need the capacity, that gives priority and the advantage for those buses. We’re also really thinking about pedestrians — they need to get off the bus and get were they need to go. So improving the conditions on the street.

We’ve instituted lower operating speeds for our downtown, wider crosswalks, more time for people to cross, better bike facilities, better predictability. Our Second Avenue bike facility, once we put that in and provided better direction about when drivers go and where cyclists go, collisions for pedestrians were eliminated.

Seattle DOT installs a Pac Man themed pedestrian plaza in the Capital Hill neighborhood. Photo:
Seattle DOT installs a Pac Man-themed plaza in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo: Seattle DOT

There’s low utilized segments of our street grid. The Pac Man project [above] is an example. We’re finding places to build pedestrian spaces in community desired locations.

We are looking at how our traffic control system is working. This is really about looking at a traffic signal that was needed at the time it was put in, but maybe conditions have changed since then. It’s very rare that we take another look.

We tried this at an intersection in the University District. Flashing red worked out really well. Now you go and it’s very much clear. Safety data shows that’s its really working very well. In the 21 months since we changed it, there have been zero collisions. The year before there were two.

We’re asking the community what locations might be good to try this out. The community knows our streets much better. If it doesn’t work out, it’s very easy to change. If it’s not working then all we have to do is remove the stop signs and put [the signals] back on again.

Do you get different instructions from the mayor and city leaders than engineers do in other cities?

I think for the traffic engineering profession there has been very much a goal to move traffic. That’s being dialed back a little bit. Obviously safety is of paramount importance.

We’re a very constrained environment, just because of the geography. It’s very, very tight. There isn’t much room for additional capacity to be built so we’re utilizing it the best we can.

  • All I want for Valentines Day is for my bus to not get stuck in SOV traffic.

  • Kevin Love

    In my opinion, the “coolest traffic engineer in the world” is Wim Mulder. His job has nothing to do with moving cars at all. He normally does engineering design work for bicycle traffic in the city of Apeldoorn in The Netherlands, but I met him when he came to North America. See:

    https://www.burlington.ca/en/your-city/resources/About_Your_City/Twin_Cities/Apeldoorn/cycletracks.pdf

    Hang on! Wait! His job is not particularly extra-ordinary. Every city in The Netherlands hires traffic design engineers to move people on bicycles. Larger cities have a substantial team of such traffic design engineers.

    So perhaps Mr. Chang has a “cool” job by North American standards, but by world standards, he gets a “meh.”

  • davistrain

    Since when did the US (generally speaking) care about “world standards”? We’re one of the few countries that still use traditional weights and measures rather than SI (Metric System), and our idea of “football” is quite different from what they play in the World Cup tournament. And it’s highly unlikely that any other country (with the possible exception of Italy) would elect someone like Mr. Trump to their highest political office.

  • Kevin Love

    Angie quotes Streetsblog in calling Mr. Chang, “the coolest traffic engineer in the world.” So it looks like Angie and Streetsblog cares.

    And the “country” did not elect Mr. Trump. He was elected by the Electoral College, not the people. Over three million more people in the USA voted for Mrs. Clinton. And yes, I am one of them.

  • Walter Crunch

    The only way Seattle is going to “fix” the traffic problem is to prioritize bikes and walking on EVERY street. I was there a few months ago around SLU. Super wide roads, weird train alignments…waterfront is a mess (and that train is gone) plus bike share is toast (it was garbage though). SLU was a chance to make a true complete street system and they barely have a complete contiguous trail. Why? Because Paul Allen wants it a certain way.

    When Mcginn was voted out, Seattle lost its way and lost its nerve slipping back 20 years to the bad old days. It’s a good thing UW is there is pushing mutli modal, however, Sound Transit is doing little to help with their unlimited budged. Hey, Sound Transit…is there a dedicated MUP right next to your at grade rail the entire length? No? Shocking!

    Don’t forget, Sound transit is kicking buses to the streets here pretty soon..because they couldn’t make it work. Despite the promises that would never happen.

    So please, Seattle is phoning it in for bikes and walking. Let’s not say they are great. They are barely getting a “D” in class.

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