405 at NE 8th, photo by KDavidClark

Like most cities on the Eastside, Bellevue has the misfortune of funneling all its transit service into one hub– in this case, it’s the Bellevue Transit Center.  Part of the work to update the City’s Transportation Plan is to address this problem by identifying potential investments in improving the mobility of various downtown modes, transit being no exception.  While the update is currently in the midst of scoping, we can pinpoint major flaws in the way transit is currently structured downtown.

Take a look at a network map of current downtown routes*– nearly all routes, peak and all-day, are funneled through the transit center.  During the peak, the excessive concentration of demand leads to a mish-mash of overlapping routes, which not only congests local streets but also unnecessarily complicates the network.  While this approach is generally more useful with transit hubs in smaller suburbs, its effectiveness in Bellevue is tempered by the downtown street geometry and land use.

More below the jump.

With its wide streets and narrow sidewalks, downtown Bellevue has the form of a second-ring suburb but land use and geometry a bit closer to that of an urban downtown.  Because it’s built on a rather expansive street grid, there’s a sufficient amount of employment, retail, and housing throughout the core to generate decent transit demand from end to end.  The question is how to restructure the downtown network by capitalizing on the grid without compromising the robustness of connections available at the current transit center.

Downtown Bellevue transit network (click to enlarge)

First, it’s worth noting that downtown Bellevue lies on an incomplete grid.  Money notwithstanding, the practical long-term investments are capital improvements to fill the gaps, namely rebuilding the NE 6th pedestrian corridor as a ped-bike/transit mall extended to Bellevue Way NE.  Buses going west currently have to travel via NE 4th or NE 8th by first turning out of the transit center onto 108th Ave NE, adding minutes to the schedules.  Other long-talked about projects like the NE 6th extension across I-405 and the NE 4th extension to 120th could also facilitate long-term mobility.

To capitalize off improvements to the street grid, there are a variety of routing changes that could improve service and coverage downtown:

  • Extend the B Line terminal loop west to Bellevue Way, then back east via NE 6th
  • Reroute other frequent connecting routes via the new NE 6th mall, like the 271 and 550
  • Route the 249 along Bellevue Way NE instead of deviating to the transit center
  • Use 106th Ave NE for terminal loops and north-south through-routes to ease peak-hour congestion on 108th Ave NE (i.e., 234/235, 246, etc.)

While there are a number of ways a downtown restructure could be visioned, routing decisions would have to be principled on the idea of grid-based connections between north-south routes (via Bellevue Way, 106th, 108th, etc.) and frequent services along east-west streets, particularly a new NE 6th transit mall.  Doing so could not only help manage increased transit demand, but also avoid the perils of congesting the network through the “transit center funnel.”

*The network map contains a number of route errors, but it remains a good visualization of just how much the downtown network clings to the transit center.

31 Replies to “Considering the Grid in Downtown Bellevue”

    1. Not in that sense. There wouldn’t be enough capacity along NE 6th. Plus, it’s the whole “rainbow of colors” I’m saying you should avoid…

  1. I actually like 6th as a pure pedestrian corridor, it sort of reminds me of Riverside Plaza in Chicago. Forcing pedestrians off onto a sidewalk would make walking through there less appealing. And I’m not sure how it would up westbound buses — they’ll still have to turn at some point, unless this street continues through the mall (wait, maybe I like the idea now).

    It looks from this map like a lot of bus routes are primarily running north-south through downtown Bellevue but have to do a lot of fancy dancing to get to a tiny east-west oriented transit center. Maybe instead of extending 6th and making it Bellevue’s 3rd Ave, they should just get rid of the transit center and use either 108th or Bellevue Way like 3rd Ave for north-south routes. East-west routes (like the B Line) can just use 8th and run a little past Bellevue Way before turning around. I don’t really know Bellevue all that well, so I could be way off base on all this…

    1. There is a good amount of service running N/S in downtown but a lot of that service does that to avoid congested E/W roads (ie. NE 8th and NE 4th) or because of the gaps in NE 6th that Sherwin mentions (between 110th and 108th and at I-405). If you bridge these gaps all E/W downtown service could be moved and a good amount of N/S routes (at least their downtown segments) could be shift to use NE 6th. A good example is 226, 234 and 249 which would travel E/W through downtown, cross I-405 and then continue north on 116th.

      I think a good analogy is 3rd Ave in Seattle. Imagine if one block was closed to all traffic. It totally screws up the network.

  2. So what happens to service on Bellevue Way when the ST550 quits running to Seattle, which it surely will.
    Maybe a local shuttle bouncing back and forth from S.Bellevue P&R to BTC every 1/2 hour?

    1. I wondered about that when I lived on Bellevue Way SE (the “local” portion of ST550 you’re mentioning). Likely they will just reroute or extent some route from DT Bellevue to serve it.

  3. I would add that moving away from a transit center model towards a linear corridor model for downtown circulation will improve transit usability as the downtown core begins to build out, especially across I-405.

      1. [ot Sorry guys but this really is off topic. Lets stick to talking about the transit network and the pedestrian corridor between 108th and 110th.]

  4. I agree that it looks pretty absurd, but there is a huge advantage to having all of the service share common stops. I wouldn’t want to move too far away from the current model since that means that you can easily transfer from one route to another. If, for example, you move the 249 to Bellevue way you’ve dramatically reduced the utility of it because you lose all of the transfers to and from the 249 and other more frequent routes.

    In addition, it would be very difficult to move the transit center because that is the future location of the light rail station. The only possibility would be to make it inline along 110th between 2nd and 6th, since that is where the subway station will actually be. You could conceivably have some N/S routes stop there instead.

    I dislike the idea of turning NE 6th into a transit access way because I think it serves well as a pedestrian mall. Instead, I would like to see a more downtown circulator model where some frequent routes, instead of terminating at BTC, take a loop around downtown before terminating. A few ST routes do this but they are so infrequent that it’s not actually useful. A downtown circulator should have frequencies of about every 5 minutes, which is completely doable if you look at the number of frequent routes that serve BTC (B, 271, 550, 234/5). This model would do a much better job of serving downtown, and once the rail station is built it will do a good job of connecting light rail riders to the rest of downtown.

    1. I think the biggest issue with the distributed transit approach is going to be connections with East Link.

      East Link should have followed Bellevue Way all the way into town, probably elevated, with a station in the Bellevue Way/Main St area serving the southwest quadrant, and then entering a tunnel with a second station under NE 6th St, perhaps with entrances at 108th (BTC) and 106th. This would have allowed significantly greater walksheds for office, residential and retail riders, as well as allowing connections to a distributed transit network. BTC would be the destination for regional routes (e.g. ST buses to Northgate or Bothell/Lynwood) but local connecting service wouldn’t all have to go there.

      But with a single East Link station with is really at NE 4th/110th, it is so far from Bellevue Way or 106th Ave, that those aren’t reasonable transfers for Link riders – so any routes that are to provide connecting Link service are going to have to use NE 4th, NE 6th or 108th or 110th or serve the BTC.

      Bellevue’s mobility would have been much better served by a radically different Link route in downtown. Connections for Link riders need to be a priority in future bus route designs.

  5. Having just recently gone shopping up at BelSquare, yes there seems to be a disconnect between transit…of all sorts including cars…and where people want to go.

    Why, I ask does it take as long to get from 405 to a parking space as it does to get from Kent to Bellevue itself. And yes, that transit “center” has always appeared to me as remote and distant from the real action of Downtown Bellevue.

    Still, long term, I would be focusing on making Bellevue the new center for business, and thing of Seattle more as the entertainment, cultural and premium residential area. Bellevue has none of the geographic impedances of the Seattle Isthmus that make construction so difficult and arcane.

    1. Vancouver Canada is/has become the model of entertainment, cultural and premium residential, to the point where city leaders up there have become very concerned about the overall health of their city.

      Seattle is unconstrained for business, witness both the quantum difference in commercial space in Seattle compared to Bellevue, and the tremendous existing ability for Seattle to absorb more. There is no reason for our region to entertain some massive separation of uses you suggest – a suburban model.

      Bellevue made the decision in the mid-seventies to move from a low-rise, auto-centric suburban downtown – with many streets devoid even of sidewalks – to a vibrant urban center. I think downtown is still one or two business cycles away from achieving that – but in less than two generations its come a very long way.

      Bellevue Square remains disconnected in many ways, but it’s on the mend too. It started out as a suburban collection of stores and parking, evolved into a regional mall turned away from the street, to a place where the edges are starting to be more active as Freeman develops around it and realizes he needs the activity to spread to his surrounding developments.

      He’s fighting a bit the inevitable onslaught of true urbanity, but he’s smart, and wants to make money, so he’ll come around since in the end it will be more profitable to him.

    2. This is why the best cities are ones that put *walking* first, not cars or buses or monorails or space elevators. There’s something magic about a truly human-scale environment, and it’s something that car-centric suburbs can never replicate.

      1. Really? I’m calling you all on that.

        Last week, before a concert I was attending at Benaroya Hall, I took LINK in early from Tukwila International Station to walk around the city. I walked from Westlake Station, up 5th Avenue to Top Pot and then to the Seattle Center. I was going to take the monorail back but it’s cash only…and I didn’t want to pay a $2 fee at the BoA ATM (Chase customer here). So I walked back 5th and then 4th to Westlake and up further and had a sandwich sitting outside the place to people watch.

        While it wasn’t unpleasant, I would not say walking around Seattle on a winter’s evening is what I would call a happy “experience”. For one thing, the streets outside the core downtown are not well lit at all…I found them not scary, but dark. Even the Seattle Center outside of the Space Needle is hardly lit at all. I was going to go to the Food Court (this was on a Thursday) but while it didn’t seem closed…it looked like they were rolling up the sidewalks.

        On my way back I noticed there were tons of cars…all leaving Seattle. I kept saying, if this is such as great “urban experience” why is everyone racing madly away from it! So, the smog and traffic also make walking unpleasant.

        The central downtown is the only reasonable area but even there, as the Occupy Groups have aptly demonstrated, there are not that many good open air hang out places around Seattle, and what few there are are trivial in size and scale. Even a smaller city like Portland has a much more monumental waterfront for example.

        Meanwhile, I spent yesterday having lunch at Southcenter mall. I found it liight, airy, boisterous, and most of all…happy! Yes, the people there seemed to be having fun shopping, and the whole place is brightly lit — a requirement for the cloudy Northwest. And the other thing is that its warm and indoors, yet its large enough that one can take a good 30 minute walk just covering all the aisles…and that doesn’t count stopping to shop.

        I think rather than just prating on about “cities” and “walkability” some of you Armchair Urbists need to do a bit more real world describing, because often I have no sense that any of you actually ride transit or LINK or really use downtown…you just tell other people how great it is. Me…I like to see for myself!

      2. John, when you travel to different cities do you visit shopping malls or their downtown and neighborhoods?

  6. As a daily Downtown Bellevue commuter coming from Seattle, I do see merit in spreading things through the grid a bit more, but I don’t think the level of congestion in downtown Bellevue would be improved/changed by having bus routes on different roads. A majority of downtown Bellevue traffic is cars still regardless of the quantity of buses on a given roadway or turning movement.

    Plus I would guess moving routes away from the transit center down the hill toward the mall will create issues for ridership. Most all bus riders in downtown Bellevue are going to and from the high rise office buildings on 108th (reaching to 106th and 112th). The mall generates trips but not in the same scale as the office commutes. The transit center does a pretty good job of being in the middle of where the riders are coming from.

    It is also good to remember the blocks of Bellevue are not like the blocks of Seattle. Moving a bus route from 4th to 3rd in Seattle isn’t a big difference. Moving a bus route from 108th to 106th is a bigger distance. So connections that are ‘only a block away’ are not quite as close as you would want them to be.

    And several comments have hit the very valid point that 4th and 8th are the issues. Bus services would get the best benefit from improving the general network connectivity issues mentioned here, such as the 6th extension east of 405, 4th extension to 120th, etc.

    My two cents…
    Greg the traffic engineer

  7. Bellevue has invested so much in the TC; I don’t see them moving away from it. This is the second location and probably the third building of the TC, and the Link station will be there. I think it should have originally been on Bellevue Way adjacent to Bellevue Square. I assume Kemper opposition is the reason it isn’t. But now Bellevue has put its City Hall at the TC, the library a block away, the performing arts center around the corner, etc. They’re not going to move away from what they’ve been emphasizing. That leaves the 4-block gap from the TC to Bellevue Square. NE 6th has always been a pedestrian corridor since the TC was created. The western half is pretty good but the eastern half is mediocre. They could improve it or possibly put in a bike trail but I don’t see bus lanes happening.

    Bellevue TC works well for transferring; e.g., from Crossroads to either Kirkland, Renton, the U-district, or downtown. Abolishing it would mean that people would have to transfer at different places, or potentially walk five blocks to the other bus. That would be a deterioration, not an improvement. Bellevue TC works well, better than perhaps any TC in the region, so let’s not break something that works.

    1. The TC location does a good job of balancing being close to people’s destinations and being close to I-405 which is what the vast majority of buses coming into Bellevue use. I keep hearing talk about the Bellevue Circulator; I think East Link will open before that ever becomes a reality.

    2. This isn’t an either/or proposition you can have a strong main bus corridor on NE 6th with a transit center in the middle. In fact I see them as supportive of each other.

  8. Nice piece, Sherwin.

    I am surprised at the level of transit on the Eastside. Whereas now, there are problems with buses clogging the wide streets of Bellevue, back in 1964, there was one bus line, Seattle Metropolitan Transit, privately operated. It ran from Juanita Junction (Juanita was called Juanita Junction, back then), up to, and then down Market Street into downtown Kirkland, along the lake in Kirkland, up Bellevue Way (I think it was called 104th), thence by Kemper’s Bellevue Square, and south to where it got on I-90 (highway 10) across the original Mercer Island Floating Bridge into downtown Seattle. The Mercer Island Bridge had a dangerous bulge in the middle of it where the span opened. That bridge sank on my Mother’s birthday, November 25th.

    I took that old bus many times from Kirkland to Pike Place Market as a chubby thirteen year old. I believe the fare was 55 cents, could be wrong.

    The very new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge (we called it the New Bridge) was not used at all way back then by transit. I-405 did not exist. It was a two lane road where I-405 presently exists.

    I know I am an old dude when I recall those days…

    1. From Wikipedia:

      In 1964, the system of Primary and Secondary state highways was removed in favor of signed routes, and PSH 2A was renumbered SR 405. The first segment of the interstate to open was between Renton and Tukwilla on September 3, 1965. By 1971, SR 405 was renumbered to Interstate 405 after it was completely improved to Interstate Highway standards.

      I remember visiting the tack stores on the eastside in the early 70’s (Olson’s in Bellevue, Eastside Tack in Kirkland, and Canterbury Tack I think it was called in Redmond). Eastside was in an old building that was originally built to be served by the BNSF spur. Olson’s was in an ex residential home in what is now DT Bellevue and Canterbury was in DT Redmond (which had a single traffic light) in the store that I think is now Alpine sports. The T&D grain mill was still active and served by the railroad. Somehow the rail line that parallels “the most congested freeway in Washington State” was surplussed as a future bike trail and ST is instead investing Billions in a line that meanders from a couple miles shy of DT Redmond through Bellevue and then makes the big “U” to get to DT Seattle taking 50 minutes to get to the U District and over an hour to get to the Airport. That’s progress.

      1. Yes.

        The last item I will comment on about the Eastside is this. My next door neighbor graduated from Lake Washington High School in 1968. I graduated in 1969. For the all-night Senior class party, my next door neighbor boarded a special Northern Pacific passenger train at the Kirkland Depot, which was just yards away from present day I-405, and took that train all the way to waterfront Tacoma. This was via Bellevue, Renton, Auburn, Kent, Sumner, and Puyallup. Once there, they partied at a huge restaurant/club on the Tacoma waterfront. They then boarded a boat that took the Class of ’68 all the way to Ballard, and then home. All in one night, early morning.

        Amazing. The infrastructure was somewhat in place way back then. Now largely abandoned.

      2. My guess is that the Kirkland depot was the building that later housed Eastside Tack (on the now abandon BNSF ROW just north of NE 85th). That or it was down in Houghton? I’ll further speculate that the restaurant in Tacoma was Top of the Ocean which later burned down under somewhat suspicious circumstances; as did a number of Pierce County establishments that failed to keep up on their “insurance” policy.

  9. My points about DT Bellevue:

    1) Bellevue transit suffers from a lack of open businesses on evenings and weekends. The opportunity to grab food, coffee, or use the bathroom while changing buses makes a transfer-based system far more attractive than it would otherwise be.

    2) The I-405 crossing pedestrian environment needs a major improvement. The 10th St. bridge is great. But crossing the on-ramps on the 8th St. bridge is extremely dangerous. Plus, you have to wait forever at the stoplights on each side.

    3) We need a freeway station on 6th St. to allow buses going up and down I-405 to make a quick stop to pick up and drop off passengers, then keep going. Of course, with a pedestrian connection to both the west and east side of 405. The current system require every bus that stops in DT Bellevue to waste at least 10-15 minutes stuck in traffic on the surface streets getting into and out of the transit center. This makes buses that use I-405 unattractive for anyone that isn’t specifically headed to DT Bellevue. For example, on a trip from the Bellevue Whole Foods on 8th St./116th Ave. to Northgate via the 555, there’s a 20 minute gap minimum between when you cross the 8th St. on-ramp on the way to the transit center and when you reach that same on-ramp on the 555 bus (10 minutes to walk to the transit center + 10 minutes for the bus to get out of the transit center back the other way).

    1. Bellevue transit suffers from a lack of open businesses on evenings and weekends. The opportunity to grab food, coffee, or use the bathroom while changing buses makes a transfer-based system far more attractive than it would otherwise be.

      Let’s not kid ourselves, Downtown Seattle has this exact same problem. Lack of open businesses at evenings and weekends was one of the major reasons I moved out of Belltown.

      Both cities need to encourage the livelihood of their downtowns.

  10. Downtown Bellevue also suffers from poor bicycle access. You can ride into the city from the South on 108th, but going cross town is always an “exciting” ride. The streets while wide have sharp curbs which means riding out in traffic. While I don’t mind holding up a whole lane of traffic auto drivers seem to mind a lot.

    So while Bellevue should have put it’s transit center at the “center of town” instead of blocks to the East, if they go about making it more pedestrian friendly they should also make it more bicycle friendly. And that’s not putting bicycles on sidewalks to run down the pedestrians.

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