Light Rail Seattle Urbanism

In Seattle, as in Most Cities, Transit Works Best When It’s Not Highway-Bound

» Sound Transit advances plans for East Link light rail; Bellevue council member leads push for I-405 alignment.

In few places in the country is the choice between a quality transit alignment and a miserable one as stark as in Bellevue, Washington, through which light rail trains from Seattle will run by 2020.

The Puget Sound’s Central Link light rail line opened last year between downtown Seattle and SeaTac Airport. It forms the spine of what will be a much larger system that eventually extends south, north, east, and potentially west. The East Link, a 14-mile line across Lake Washington from downtown Seattle, though downtown Bellevue and to Overlake, would open by 2020 according to current Sound Transit plans and serve more than 45,000 daily passengers at a cost of a bit less than $3 billion. It’s a huge project.

But getting the specifics right about the corridor will make a big difference in whether light rail is well used in the eastern suburbs. Its exact route will be decided this year now that Sound Transit has conducted extensive studies on the effectiveness of alternative alignments.

As the region’s second largest business district and a huge opportunity for increased development, downtown Bellevue must be adequately served by light rail — or it will face increasing traffic congestion and encourage commercial space sprawl due to a lack of interest in upped density downtown. Last year, the City of Bellevue made clear its preference for a tunnel routing through the center city, but the $500 million added cost of that alignment forced Sound Transit to recommend a surface corridor, even while encouraging Bellevue to find its own funds for an underground link. But city councilors have expressed strong resistance to the idea of running trains in the street.

Now Bellevue council member Kevin Wallace is pushing forward his “Vision Line” proposal that would run light rail trains along I-405, several blocks from the center of downtown. The councilman’s project appears to be gaining support among Bellevue politicians, who are afraid of angering locals fearful of street-running rail and who are worried about raising the necessary taxes to pay for a tunnel. Picking this alignment, however, would significantly decrease the number of riding passengers and dilute the positive effects of installing light rail in the first place.

Sound Transit has a responsibility to ensure that the project is built right. Good transit, in virtually any city and in any situation, doesn’t have stations along highway rights-of-way.

Mr. Wallace’s “Vision” is an effort to ensure that light rail never reaches the heart of downtown, pure and simple. Compared to the other routes being considered, it would have significantly lowered effects on the commutes of people into and out of Bellevue. Compared to the proposed tunnel and surface lines, which would attract roughly 8,000 daily trips for the downtown segment alone, the Vision proposal would get only 6,000. There’s a good explanation for why that’s true; while the lines stopping at the existing transit center in the center of downtown would be in easy walking distance of 93 developable acres, the vision line would only reach 64. In terms of jobs and employment, the difference is even more stark: 18,000 jobs versus 6,400; 25,100 housing units versus 6,800.

If anything, the ridership estimates of the Vision line seem too high, or those of the alternative alignments too low.

Indeed, by placing a light rail line directly adjacent to a freeway, not only is the station itself not directly in downtown, but fully one half of potential ridership in the walking radius is simply cutoff by the highway to the east. That’s especially true in this situation, because the next stop planned for the line, at Overlake Hospital, would be far easier to get to for virtually all of the riders east of the highway. So the Vision line’s downtown station would only serve people on the west side, a huge missing market for such a big investment as a light rail station.

In other words, though there’s only a 1,500-foot distance between the proposed stations, the difference in access will be tremendous.

Mr. Wallace claims that his preference is for the tunnel, but that he is unwilling to use Bellevue money for the $300 million added cost of that project — he thinks Sound Transit should pay. Seattle, after all, didn’t have to pay directly for the tunnel to the University of Washington currently under construction.

The fallacy in that argument is that funding for light rail expansion is distributed by sales tax revenue, per affected area. So Seattle, in a way, did choose to pay for that tunnel; it could have saved money for something else had it opted for a surface alignment (though in the case of the University Link, only a tunnel alignment was possible). Mr. Wallace’s “savings” also ignore the enormous development potential — and added tax base — made possible by the construction of a station in the heart of downtown, since light rail’s capacity will increase the ability of downtown to handle added business and residents. This is something you’d expect the councilman to understand, since he’s a real estate developer himself.

There are other, less obvious reasons why a light rail station adjacent to the freeway would be so problematic. Such stops are frequently isolated, promote a feeling of insecurity, and difficult to get to, because they’re high up on an elevated viaduct adjacent to a roaring roadway. Anyone who’s willing to put transit riders in such an environment during their daily commutes is ignoring the humanity of those passengers and giving an undue preference to drivers, who apparently have the full right to downtown streets.

And that’s striking at the heart of the issue: the councilman is willing to continue the dominance of automobiles on the downtown’s roadways, despite explosive growth and the construction of high-rise residences and commercial buildings. This is an environment in which walking should be promoted. A surface light rail route would do that well, since it would make getting to stations easy, all while operating in roadways wide enough to allow trains to run in the center of the roadway along with cars on both sides. All at a cheap cost.

Yet Bellevue is afraid of the effects on traffic and on the general downtown environment. Those fears are overstated and closed to the possibility of using light rail as a catalyst to reshape the streetscape.

There are plenty of examples around the world where light rail has been implemented while improving the built environment of urban zones. Paris’ Tramway Line 3 operates in a grass-covered right-of-way along a completely renovated set of boulevards that are a pleasure to walk or bike on. In Nantes, the tram’s construction allowed for a complete rethink of the city’s downtown streets, with the results being a fantastic environment in which to stroll and shop. Each of these French transit lines carry more than 100,000 daily passengers.

If Bellevue wants to save money by not building a tunneled link, it could learn from those French examples. They have created great urban environments that this Washington city could well emulate. A highway alignment for light rail will do nothing of the sort.

Mr. Wallace’s argument, which is premised on the idea that a tunneled route is too expensive and that a street-running route is too dangerous, ignores the billions spent on roads and the danger of automobiles. Meanwhile, it ignores the potential advantages to the pedestrian environment made possible with street-running rail. It is a heavily biased perspective and one that should not influence Sound Transit decision-making.

Image above: Proposed Downtown Bellevue Vision Line Station Map, from Vision Line Report

30 replies on “In Seattle, as in Most Cities, Transit Works Best When It’s Not Highway-Bound”

Hypothetically, transit and highways could contribute to one another if done properly. This hypothetical is not applicable to the Bellevue situation, as that highway has already been built. There are two main problems with combining highways and transit: 1) the ROW for a highway is so wide, it dramatically increases the distance one has to walk from transit to your destination, reducing a line’s usefulness; 2) The auto-centric and polluted environment immediately near highways is very unpleasant for a pedestrian, making transit users second class.

If a combined ROW were designed properly, I think the two could coexist, potentially realizing big gains in construction efficiency by doing both simultaneously. The overall impact of a highway could be drastically decreased by putting the highway in a trench and having no parallel access roads and minimized setbacks. Alternately, it could be elevated high above the ground (I would think this would have to be 40 feet minimum). Either of these approaches would reduce the unpleasantness at the ground level for the pedestrian. The benefits of this approach is that this creates a dedicated ROW for transit, and correspondingly improves speed and reliability, something most light rail systems in the US are in desperate need for.

From a quick glance at google maps of 405, it’s obvious that all the properties are zoned in typical American fashion and the highway is extremely wide. If it ever had to be rebuilt, the zoning and footprint of the highway could be changed to great effect, probably saving tons of money over the construction of a tunnel, and creating a new area for dense development. That being said, the tunnel option remains the best choice; I am only speaking hypothetically. I hope they keep the downtown route!

Do you have a reference for the jobs numbers? I tried hitting a few of the blogs linked to and didn’t see anything for it. I’m curious as to how a 1,000 less people per weekday translates into 12,000 less jobs.

The opportunities for positive interaction between highways and rail is in highways and intercity rail.

Or perhaps better, the primary opportunity for positive interaction between local rail transport, whether light rail, regional stopping train or mass transit, are when the provision of the rail transport provides an opportunity to tear up an expressway strangling a downtown and replace it with a boulevard.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that Bellevue–a very wealthy suburb, and one far more politically conservative than Seattle–is to Seattle what Orange County is to Los Angeles. Many in Bellevue don’t want the line to be built at all (or would rather have an alignemnt across the SR520 bridge through Kirkland, bypassing Bellevue completely), and the local demagogues are trotting out the usual crap–claims that hooligans will be riding the trains into town and causing all sorts of trouble.

So… much of this strikes me as a big fat NIMBY snit.

The sad part is that the nearby city of Redmond, home of a certain large software company, desparately WANTS to be Linked to the city center; the Lake Washington routing through Bellevue is the most straightforward way to get there.

Actually, Bellevue is quite firmly held Democratic territory, not as much as say Seattle, but still quite blue in the scheme of things. However, Redmond is much more on the red side of things. Bellevue has this reputation as some sort of wealthy fairytale land that is out of touch with reality, but in my opinion that’s just the Seattle-Bellevue rivalry talking. There are many very wealthy people in Seattle and numerically speaking probably more of them than there are in Bellevue (percentage-wise probably not). No Bellevue is not as urbane as Seattle is and as time goes on it will continue to become as cosmopolitan as Seattle, but until then there is still a clash between suburban sensibilities and the newer urban realities of a major regional urban center that is growing very quickly. Perhaps that, rather than wealth, explains the disconnect between some of the residents and what is clearly the current reality of the situation.

In LA, we have a portion of the Gold line in the center of the 134-210 freeway. It’s a joke. The stations are at freeway overpasses. There is little or no transit oriented development along the line, because who wants to live adjacent to a 10-lane freeway? Seattle is a great city; I hope they do the right thing and build the line near people, not near cars.

I’m from Seattle, and I can tell you all Wallace wants to do is kill light rail in the city. Please write to the Bellevue, WA DOT and complain.

People really need to give elevated lines another look. While there have definitely been ones that have really been horrible for the streetscape, it is definitely possible to nicely integrate them into an urban or suburban environment. The Canada Line on Number 3 Road is a great example of this. Once the city got over the shock of having an elevated transit line shoved down their main street, they decided to make it work. It is actually a much improved pedestrian and cycling environment than before (which, to be honest, is not saying much). The advantages of an elevated line is more space for bikes and peds, greater separation from traffic and weather protection, which is nice in the Vancouver area. There likely would not have been space for the separated bike lanes if surface rail was used.

Some photos at:

Another advantage of elevated lines over surface or underground is less construction disruption. The guideway is precast and track laying and commissioning is not taking place at street level.

The thing is, Downtown Bellevue is full of skyscrapers, and the streets that elevated would go on are just a couple lanes wide, so elevated in the middle of the downtown would really block out a lot of light.

wallace is one of kemper freeman’s hired mouthpieces.

yeah it would be nice if an elevated alignment could have worked in bellevue. elevateds shouldnt be a problem in a downtown like bellevue with its auto-centric urban form… lack of pre-war buildings, superblocks, wide fast streets, poor streetscape, large buildings and high parking ratios. i agree elevateds should be more of an option nationwide for transit alignments especially if the route would be through a non-historic district.

What part of “transit hub” doesn’t this Wallace character understand? By running the light rail three blocks away from the existing hub, they’ll make sure the project fails.

Very well laid out. Clearly Wallace only seeks to kill LRT in Bellevue, & “protect” his business interests downtown. The most surprising piece of data is that the projected ridership of the 405 alignment is within 2,000 of the surface option. Something smells fishy with the model forecast.

Why is surface transit really preferable to an elevated or submerged profile? I mean, if it really boils down to aesthetics, is it fair to inconvenience the commuters who not only ultimately depend on this system, but deserve an efficient system with quick headways, in order to make for a pretty streetscape?

Aesthetics are nice, but we need to consider that the primary functions of transit are transportation and mobility as well as access. The existing surface alignments in Seattle have already increased minimum headways to five or ten minutes or more, and given that the system is the closest North America has to a European “pre-metro”, that’s a little alarming.

Then again, I’m a Washingtonian and am probably a bit too used to Metrorail trains running every 90 seconds, constantly, at rush hour. Maybe I should be more concerned with what I look like in someone else’s painting when I’m trying to get home…?

In dense areas where trains need to navigate tight turns, or make mid-block alignment shifts or cut-throughs, an elevated or underground alignment offers advantage. In a place like downtown Chicago, you don’t want a dozen trains every ten minutes competing with tens of thousands of pedestrians, freight, cars, etc at the surface. But, in a place with wide streets like downtown Bellevue, there is ample radius at the surface to make the turns. With projected headways and ped volumes, surface should work fine. The question with running on a street is: can all the users share the space or does it become unworkable. The reasons street is preferred to elevated or underground are several. First, it makes rail more present as a travel option in people’s mind if they see it right there in the middle of the road. For everyday commuters it is a couple minutes less time and a bit less hassel to access a train at surface level instead of navigating up or down. Also, Have you ever had to carry a bicycle up 2 flights of stairs? For new or infrequent users, it is easier to find the platform when it is in plain sight than if you need to find a stairwell or elevator to access the trains. Rail in the street is cheaper, not just at build out, but over the long term in operations cost. For the transit provider, street running has lower maintenance and security cost because there aren’t elevators and stairwells where people can get stuck or trip and sue you. There aren’t places to jump off or inviting dark caverns to explore. Maintenance crews don’t need special lifts, or lighting to work underground, and they don’t need additional safety training for common tasks like grinding rails. Local police can see the platform when they walk by on thier beat. People looking out thier office window or eating at a street-level restaurant can see the platform and report something amiss. There are also advantages to the underground or elevated, so all things should be considered. As a daily transit rider and Seattle-area resident who frequently visits Bellevue to shop and dine, I think the surface option is perfectly workable and a wise use of limited tax funds.

I am perplexed as to why building this even makes sense when there is perfectly acceptable bus service in the area. In fact, the bus service between Downtown Seattle and Downtown Bellevue is excellent and is likely to move faster than a train because trains tend to average pretty low speeds. The ST 550 is most often going to move faster than the light rail, if you haven’t noticed the slowest part of the 550 ride is on Bellevue Way, whereas the rest of it is on the freeway and then a tunnel where it has complete ROW.

If you are saying that people will ride this because surveys were done, then really this is a multimillion (billion) dollar marketing ploy to get people to take transit. Are they UNAWARE of the buses? If there is poor bus service, why not invest in better bus service that could cost a few hundred thousand instead. It is very clear that they want to throw away a ton of money.

Let me point out that the Link Light Rail takes about the same amount of time as the express bus service from downtown Seattle. It is also the most expensive system in the country (world?) because of the overhaul to the tunnel. Remember that everything being done was actually originally part of the design, but city politics mitigated costs by cutting corners. Seattlites will remember this from regional news.

So you want walkability or livability or something? I personally find Bellevue to be more pedestrian friendly than downtown Seattle. It has large sidewalks, clearly marked roadways and for the major commercial areas, they are accesible via various skybridges and perhaps tunnels.

It is pretty irresponsible to start arguing for “aesthetics” and “the comfort” of the traveler because it just seems like people are trying to be like, “so there…have some compassion.” What starts to happen with increasing taxes is to fund these projects is that you are continuing to marginalize poor people because sales tax goes up, which means more difficult procurement of goods, property taxes go up, which mean higher rents or higher property taxes for those lucky poor people. Income taxes go up…but of course they are lucky in Washington because there is NO state income tax.

If you are concerned about congestion on the freeway and buses being unable to make the fast trip, then your easy alternative is to implement tolls. Don’t argue that it will marginalize the poor people because they have already paid their toll once on a bus, because the buses and other HOVs will either receive discounts or free passage. Since it IS the Eastside, why not all those wealthy folk pay the tolls, which will force them into transit. Remember, that speed and convenience tend to come at premiums. Drivers should incur that cost by paying a toll, those who truly want that speed and convenience can pay whatever amount necessary so they can move smoothly during rush hour without much hindrance. Those still wanting speed/convenience can avoid tolls by taking a bus/carpool/vanpool etc and paying for it through fares or the personal investment of choosing an alternative, whatever that may be. Long story short, by not implementing tolls (direct user-fees for use of roadways) you have HURT transit riders.

The puget sound region has a respectable express bus service fleet, why not use them? Oh and plenty of “local” buses that sit empty, yet provide very fast service.

The title of this post is mis-leading. It should be “In Bellevue, as in Most Cities…”

Kemper’s family rallied to have Japanese-Americans put into camps during WWII, and then bought their land for a song after the internment started. Kemper also does not want “those people” in his shops. It is very sad but all too true.

Let me just say that although I agree that a tunnel or street alignment would be much Much better than the highway alternative, the reality is that the Bellevue Transit Center is 1000 ft from I-405, Bellevue Square is about 1/3 of a mile. Bellevue’s downtown is quite dense and not at all spread out over more than 20 or 30 square blocks. Although I am very very supportive of the alternatives, the freeway plan is not as bad in this case as it is in others. Also, the Kempers are very good people and despite my disagreement with Mr. Kemper’s stance on light rail development, he is a very very good man and to call him a bigot or racist is just utter nonsense coming from someone who clearly doesn’t know the man.

Bellevue City Council is now unanimous on a tunnel route through the Bellevue CBD, and the City Manager testified to the Sound Transit board yesterday (March 25) with a list of City contributions to funding that he thinks would make the tunnel affordable within Sound Transit’s budget. For details, the Sound Transit board meetings are recorded and archived for web streaming at is complete description of Sound Transit’s preferred alignment for East Link.

Seattle Times May 11 story “Bellevue council not giving up on light-rail route along I-405” is about the alignment south of the CBD, not within or near the CBD, where a short tunnel is now preferred near the existing bus-oriented Transit Center.

On the map of Bellevue below the CBD Sound Transit the light rail construction agency prefers B2, while the City Council majority likes B7.

Sound Transit has Washington State law behind it if the ST Board chooses to override the City’s alignment preference, though a cooperative partnership is always the first choice of relationship.

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