Car-friendly Bellevue is trying to look out for bikers, too. Earlier this year, the City Council passed a plan that calls for building 80 miles of bike lanes, 90 miles of sidewalks and 20 miles of trail improvements, although it must still find the money to pay for the work.
With its six-lane roads, free shopping-center parking and winding neighborhood streets, the city of Bellevue was designed with the automobile foremost in mind.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when Bellevue boomed, those wide arterials were meant to speed the family breadwinner from the suburbs to jobs across the lake.
But today, the typical commuter might be somebody like Denise Jones, a Microsoft technical worker who lives in a condo in downtown Bellevue. And Jones wants to ride her bike to work, not drive a Buick.
Bellevue is listening. Earlier this year, the City Council passed a bike and pedestrian plan that calls for building 80 miles of bike lanes, 90 miles of sidewalks and 20 miles of trail improvements, although it must still find the money to pay for the work.
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Over the summer, it installed two dozen bike racks throughout downtown, worked with other Eastside cities to get a federal grant to pay for bike-route signs, coordinated bike-safety fairs, offered urban-cycling techniques classes, printed bike maps and put in new bike lanes on Southeast 26th Street.
For cyclists, the legacy of 1950s city-planning priorities makes Bellevue hard to navigate on two wheels. Many main roads have little shoulder space for cyclists. And most neighborhood streets aren’t plotted out on an old-fashioned grid, like Seattle’s; they twist and wind, sometimes ending in cul-de-sacs, and don’t offer alternative crosstown routes for bicyclists.
According to one estimate, just 300 of the city’s 58,000 daily commuters ride a bike to work.
Bellevue “has been a tough town to get around in,” said David Hiller, advocacy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club. The new plan is a good step, said Hiller, although “granted, it’s 20 years off,” he said. “Maybe it really shows Bellevue turning a corner.”
The new plan marks a shift in thinking from moving vehicles to moving feet and bike tires, too, said Franz Loewenherz, a city transportation planner.
“There is a renewed interest,” said City Councilman John Chelminiak, who wants to see a north-south route and an east-west route for bicycles developed through the city. Chelminiak says he thinks it’s important to “get something completed, and then people can get excited about doing something more.”
In 1993, Bellevue passed an ambitious bike plan that would have added 230 miles of bike lanes and trails. But the city backed down from the plan four years later, after residents questioned the expense.
“I’ve seen an ebb and flow in bike issues,” said Arnie Tomac, a former Redmond city councilman who used to work in Bellevue and now serves on the Sound Transit Bicycle Advisory Committee.
Tomac noted that neighboring Redmond and Kirkland, as well as Issaquah and Seattle, have endorsed the “Complete Streets” principle that requires road-reconstruction projects to include new bike lanes and sidewalks when safe to do so.
Bellevue’s Assistant City Planner Kevin O’Neill said the city doesn’t have its own “Complete Streets” ordinance because policies in place already embrace the principle that new road projects should include bike and pedestrian facilities.
The bike/pedestrian plan outlines an extensive list of improvements, but it does not include funding or a timetable. “Now we’re working with how to get the money to follow up,” O’Neill said.
The lack of money is often a problem with city bike plans, Hiller said. It can take a long time before enough of the system is in place to make bike-riding a practical transportation alternative.
Currently, there are about 33 miles of bike lanes in Bellevue. To the north, the smaller city of Kirkland has 40 miles of lanes. Redmond has 73 miles of lanes and trails, and has won national status for the quality of its bike trails with a bronze-level award from the League of American Bicyclists.
The lack of bikeways in Bellevue makes commuting a challenge.
In a 2005-07 U.S. census estimate of how people commute to work, it was estimated that only one-half of 1 percent of Bellevue commuters — a little less than 300 people — rode a bike to work, compared with 2.3 percent in Seattle (more than 7,000 riders) and 1.4 percent in the smaller city of Redmond (more than 400 riders).
Jones, a Microsoft technical product manager, is one of those commuters. Jones lives in downtown Bellevue and rides her bike along the Interstate 90 bike trail to get to work in Pioneer Square.
Jones finds the eastern half of the city — everything east of Interstate 405, and especially along the Bel-Red corridor — difficult territory for a cyclist. “Between here (downtown) and Redmond, the streets are dangerous,” she said.
Eventually, though, the Bel-Red corridor could become the most bicycle-friendly neighborhood in Bellevue. The 900-acre swath of industrial land just south of Highway 520 is scheduled for redevelopment on a grand scale, where warehouses will make way for a dense urban core with bicycle lanes and light-rail stations. “The Bel-Red corridor project is shockingly good,” Hiller said.
Although the number of Bellevue bike commuters is small, the Eastside has a wealth of good recreational bike routes.
And Gregg’s Cycle does a brisk trade in recreational bikes in Bellevue. The venerable Seattle bike store has had a presence in Bellevue since 1986, and two years ago it opened a new bike store in downtown Bellevue, just south of Bellevue Square.
Tim McGovern, manager of the store, said he’s witnessed the interest in bicycling growing — from the new bike racks throughout downtown to a discount offered by the Bellevue Arts Museum this summer for anyone who rode a bike to the museum.
McGovern said the Seattle shop sells to a younger crowd, where fixed-gear bikes and commuter bikes are more popular. In Bellevue, “what we’re seeing is mainly recreational riders, and lots of families,” he said.
Jones, the bike commuter, grew up in Bellevue and says she thinks the city leaders are starting to embrace a more urban way of thinking, which includes making room for bikes in the city.
Hiller, of the Cascade Bike Club, agrees.
“There’s a new Bellevue coming,” he said. “It’s not the ’50s anymore.”
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org