Armed with 3D-design skills and a sustainability vision, 17-year-old creates better roadways

Joe Mangan, a 17-year-old high school student, redesigned the streets near his school to improve safety and support alternative modes of travel. This is part of the proposal that he submitted to the city of Seattle. (Joe Mangan illustration)

How many of us have traveled along a poorly designed street and thought, “I could come up with a better solution.” Joe Mangan felt the same way about the roadways and sidewalks near his Seattle high school — but the 17-year-old junior actually went out and did it.

Motivated by environmental concerns, worries about student safety and having seen well-designed, multi-use roads in European cities, Mangan has a passion for urban design. And he has some serious drafting skills. Mangan has been using SketchUp 3D modeling software since he was introduced to the program on school computers in second grade.

Roosevelt High School junior and SketchUp software enthusiast Joe Mangan.

The result is a 12-page proposal that Mangan recently submitted to the Seattle Department of Transportation for the redesign of roads, sidewalks and intersections near Roosevelt High School in northeast Seattle.

His pitch has impressed community members, including Tom Fucoloro, founder and editor of Seattle Bike Blog, who proclaimed his proposal superior to the experts’ plans.

“My favorite thing about it is he’s looking at real world problems, looking at his fellow students, seeing corners that are too small and close to traffic and set out to solve those problems,” Fucoloro said.

Last year, the city began working on a redesign of NE 65th Street, an arterial near the high school and running along numerous restaurants and shops. Since 2012, there have been three fatalities, one serious injury and 231 collisions along a 1.7 mile stretch of this road, according to the city. A light rail station will bring additional use when it opens in 2021.

The city’s plans include adding features to make pedestrian street crossings safer, removing some parking, adding bikes lanes marked with paint and extra lane space to help cars pass buses at transit stops. The upgrade is called the NE 65th Vision Zero Project, which refers to the “vision zero” movement embraced by Seattle and other city and national governments internationally to eliminate traffic-caused deaths and serious injuries.

Seattle’s plans address some of the traffic challenges, but Mangan is concerned that it misses some important issues.

Another illustration from Joe Mangan’s street redesign proposal.

“There is not enough waiting space on the corners, so kids will be trying to cross the street and can’t get on the curb and have to walk down the street,” he said. “That’s not a good situation.”

The redesign could exacerbate that problem by shrinking some sidewalks to expand the road and bike lanes. And the bike lanes could be better, too, he and others say.

“The bike lanes are narrow and not the ideal width and they’re proposing to remove parking,” Mangan said. He favors better-protected, slightly elevated bike lanes more common in Europe and found in a few spots in Seattle, including a stretch near the Amazon buildings in South Lake Union. And Mangan notes that there already isn’t enough parking in the area; a few years ago, student parking was reclaimed for portable classrooms.

The toughest part in drafting his plan was figuring out the width of roads to make his models to scale, Mangan said. He found data in city records and used satellite images to make measurements.

High school student Joe Mangan was inspired by city designs in Amsterdam that encourage walking and biking. (Joe Mangan Photo)

Mangan realizes the city’s budget is limited and his plans have some costly, pipe-dream features including a tram line, but he is eager to help shape the changes.

It might be too late for this project, despite Mangan’s scramble to finish his proposal during his school’s Christmas holiday. The city held two public forums last year and received 2,000 survey responses to the project, said Karen Westing, spokeswoman for Seattle’s Department of Transportation.

“The NE 65th Vision Zero Project is approaching final design this winter so it’s too late to add scope to the project but … many of Joe’s suggestions are reflected in this project or another project in the neighborhood,” Westing said by email, such as adding bike lanes and pedestrian crossings. She thanked Mangan for his feedback. “It’s great to see so much initiative and interest in his community.”

Fucoloro called out Mangan’s vision and technology chops.

“He was able to be so clear about it, showing an idea that so many adults and advocates have just talked about,” Fucoloro said. “He was able to say, ‘This is what it would look like.’”

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