Rule #1: Don’t Site A Light Rail Station Next To A Freeway

[ Rendering of the Wallace Vision Line by J. Craig Thorpe ]

Getting the highest return on transit investments hinges on the creation of high-performing transit-oriented communities (TOC) around the stations.   And the easiest way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to site stations next to large freeways. Yet this is exactly what newly elected Bellevue City Councilor Kevin Wallace has just proposed, in his “Vision Line” plan that would move the downtown Bellevue Station from the ideally located existing transit center, over to the edge of I-405, about a quarter mile to the east (more here and here).

Maximizing the social and environmental benefits associated with high-performing TOC (10 meg pdf) is relatively straightforward:  you put stations where there are lots of people, jobs, and services within easy walking distance, or where there is at least a likely future potential for those ingredients.  And the downtown Bellevue transit center fits that bill—there is already a high concentration of jobs, and the area is zoned to allow high housing density.  The convenient connectivity to extensive bus service is also ideal.

When you site a station next to a freeway, right away you’re throwing away half of your walkshed, because (1) the freeway itself obliterates a massive swath of land in the station area, and (2) few people will be willing to walk across the massive pedestrian barrier formed by a freeway like I-405.   Ridership depends on pedestrians and walkable destinations, and a freeway is anethema to both.

The Vision Line proposal would also add significant inconvenience to intermodal trips, as a rider transferring from bus to train would have to make an extra five minute walk.  The simplest way to kill transit ridership is to make it inconvenient.  The Vision Liners’ apparent belief that the covered walkway shown in the rendering would make up for the inconvenience of distance is wishful thinking.

The Vision Line was motivated by perceived problems with the two basic alternatives:  tunneling costs too much, and surface tracks are too disruptive.  Cry me a river.  New light rail service represents an unprecedented opportunity to help transform Bellevue into a city that makes sense for the 21st century, and most of the bill for it is being covered by taxpayers from across the region.   But that awesome opportunity will not just be handed to the City—it will cost money and the required changes won’t be totally painless for everyone.   On the other hand, compromises made now will be paid for a bazillion times over during the lifetime of the light rail line.

Bellevue, you’re a smart, wealthy city.  Step up and make sure this one gets done right.