This past weekend I spent a couple of nights in Bellevue, Washington, as an alternative to Seattle for a quick getaway and an opportunity to see somewhere new. Bellevue is located just east of Seattle on the east side of Lake Washington. It is a bit of a tech hub, with companies such as Microsoft having their name on multiple buildings. According to Wikipedia it is the biggest downtown behind Seattle, one of the wealthiest communities, has been named the number 1 place to live and launch a business and even the 4th best place to live in America by CNN and then later 2nd best place to live by USA Today. The downtown core definitely feels very clean and safe in comparison with other US downtown's I have visited this year, it almost feels like a corporate campus at times. Read on for my thoughts.
So lets start with walking, on the whole, in the downtown core, the sidewalks are pleasant, but they also seem very empty. Perhaps something to do with the poor weather during our stay but nothing an umbrella doesn't solve. On that note, very few of the people we saw out actually use umbrella's here, perhaps because they are never too far from their car? Another reason for the lack of people walking may be because the City has an employment population of around 35,000 in the downtown and just 5,000 residents so I guess during the week, there may be more people walking around. At the weekend, it seems like everybody drives to the central mall from the surrounding single family homes, its a great example of the need for more mixed use int he downtown.
I often felt like half of my time was spent waiting to cross at lights, the cycle times seem long, presumably to accommodate the large volumes of car traffic. I felt like this was my view for much of the trip...
We spotted a Wholefoods across the highway and decide to grab a quick lunch there before continuing on our walk. I'm surprised this isn't located on the downtown side of the highway where it would likely get more walk-in customers from the office towers. Instead, it was an exercise in cheating death trying to cross the highway entrances and exits to get to it. While the crossings have dropped curbs and tactile paving, it would take a very brave person to make this trip with limited vision or mobility. Visibility is limited, cars are moving quickly and they are not expecting to see pedestrians for the simple reason its a horrible place to be a pedestrian.
Back towards downtown we passed the Bravern, a luxury collection of stores, the kind, I have no intention of ever entering, complete with outdoor escalators and guidance for those on foot to the parking, parking, parking, parking or the other parking... this is a real sign! Where else would you want to walk to?
As we head back to the centre, and looking at the maps the focal point is Bellevue Square and Downtown Park. There is some disappointment when you realize Bellevue square is not a grand square but a large shopping mall. On the west side is Bellevue Way, the main street and the mall is somewhat hidden by the street facing restaurants. Over December the street shuts down for about a half hour or so every night for the Snowflake Lane parade, a nice surprise when we went out for dinner and proof the street can be used for other purposes without the world coming to an end.
On the south side is Downtown Park, a large park which was relatively quiet while we were there. Again, weather was not great, i'm sure it attracts more people in the summer. Unfortunately it is also faced by the blank walls of the car park for the mall, it would be a great location to extend restaurants around the block.
On other sides, it transitions very rapidly to single family homes with limited sidewalks, and the joy of facing the multi-level car park for the mall.
Our hotel was connected to the mall via a series of sky walks, which do provide some convenience and weather protection, especially in poor weather and they seemed pretty well used, unfortunately they do take people off the street, making it seem quiet and less active.
We visited Main Street which is part of Old Bellevue, which sounded more like a traditional downtown street at a more human scale away from the towers and restaurant chains. Indeed it is, but there is still very little pedestrian activity. This was the one place I remembered to capture an image of the way-finding signage which is scattered around downtown. It does a good job, but I wonder how many people use it.
Finally for walking, I almost forgot this photo, not sure these push buttons are aiding walkability in those locations...
There's little to say about cycling, I barely saw any infrastructure, I barely saw any cyclists, those I did see were in lycra and appear to be doing it for exercise rather than transportation. I don't blame them, it doesn't look like a fun place to ride and despite the wide roads in the downtown core, there is no provision for cyclists.
On Lake Washington Boulevard we walked up to a small park that takes you down to the lake, here we found a bike lane of sorts, not sure of the width but it seemed a little narrow. Interestingly the local handcrafted signs for the park, which do not look like your typical driver way-finding signs kept pointing us away from where we wanted to go based on our interpretation of the best way via Google Maps, then we figured they were still intended for people driving.
At Main Street and 108th Avenue, I came across one little obscurity, what appeared to be a left turn bay for cyclists in a place otherwise devoid of any cycle infrastructure, which I then figured out was for cyclists crossing Main Street to wait without obstructing right turning vehicles. A case of cycle infrastructure for drivers rather than for cyclists. I don't have a photo, I figured there must be something better, If anyone has a picture, I'd love to add it?
Another tell tale sign of the poor cycling infrastructure is the cycling map, the extracts below are from 2009, but from my experience, little has changed. Almost all downtown streets are marked red suggesting they are Caution Areas with high traffic and no provision. I think its time to reallocate some road space!
We didn't use transit while we were there as the downtown is relatively small. Fortunately, they do have Uber there, and as in other cities, it was a great resource when we did want to go a little further. The sooner cities accept such technology or taxi's catch up with technology, the better!
So onto driving, this is what the City was designed for, albeit we did very little apart from driving in and out. The highway has toll lanes with variable pricing it seems. A way for the rich to get to their destination faster? Carpoolers can get a free pass also, so they are also somewhat encouraging car pooling. I'd be curious what the split is between single occupant vehicles and carpoolers, certainly in the congestion on route, some drivers who had not initially chosen the Toll lanes, had had enough and moved lanes incurring the toll fee.
Finally, I came across this interesting read on the roots of downtown. It seems like the City is making progress and generally heading in the right direction, hopefully they make some quick improvements to cycling and grow the population through densifying downtown to better mix the land use there.