Bellevue Reaches for Big, Bold Goals

2021 Certification Level: Silver

By Ambreen Ali

With more than 2,700 acres of parks, trails, and open land, Bellevue, Washington has long been regarded as a “city in a park.” But the city across Lake Washington from Seattle is also an urban center with upscale shopping, museums, a convention center, and numerous mixed-use high rises. Major companies including T-Mobile, Amazon, and Microsoft employ thousands in Bellevue, imbuing the city with a tech ethos.

That ethos is manifested in how the City of Bellevue embraces data-driven strategies to set and pursue ambitious goals. For instance, as part of its Vision Zero commitment to achieving zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030, the City analyzes video from a network of 360-degree traffic cameras for near-misses, so staff can consider street design improvements that could prevent actual collisions from happening. And, on the sustainability front, a centralized data-tracking system ensures the City has a full and accurate picture of the sources of its greenhouse gases as it works to rely solely on renewable energy by 2050.

Setting big goals comes with Bellevue’s commitment to high-performance government, which involves a corresponding commitment to data governance, and robust performance and analytics. It also means engaging with the public and embracing innovation, transparency, and accountability, so that when the City misses a performance goal, officials must acknowledge it.

“Fear of failure and transparency is hard, but you have to embrace the red with performance metrics,” says Micah Phillips, Bellevue’s performance and outreach coordinator. “That’s how we’re able to make a real difference for the people who live and work here.”

A Comprehensive Emissions Picture

Performance metrics are at the core of Bellevue’s aggressive push to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. The City needs to reduce emissions by 2 percent each year to meet its 2050 target, but it is currently on track for just 1 percent. Measuring and benchmarking that performance publicly has helped demonstrate that its progress is consistent with the region and state, while also highlighting the need to take further action.

“We break down the long-term goal and then create a strategy on how to get there,” says Jennifer Ewing, program manager of the Environmental Stewardship Initiative, a long-time effort to develop, track, and advance sustainability goals. “When it comes to climate change, we don’t want to wait for new tech advancements, like electric vehicles, to solve our problems in 10 or 20 years. We need to take action now.”

Getting to a place where Bellevue’s emissions metrics are centralized and easily comparable took time. The City conducted its first emissions inventory in 2006, using a desktop tool, and has since incrementally improved its approach.

Now, an online dashboard makes it easy to track progress in each of the five Environmental Stewardship focus areas along several metrics and solicit community input and feedback. As a result of the data centralization, the City is able to track valuable information related to its sustainability goals, such as how much water is consumed by municipal facilities or the tonnage of waste collected throughout its jurisdiction. Between 2011 and 2019, emissions declined 6 percent, even as more people moved to Bellevue. (Ewing attributes this to growing public transit options in the City.) The centralized data system also makes it easy to pull data such as electricity use and daily vehicle miles traveled together from varying sources, including other departments.

Bellevue’s Environmental Performance Dashboard. Image courtesy of the City of Bellevue.

“Bellevue is small enough that we know the people we need to reach out to in other departments,” Ewing says. “There’s kind of a push and pull of what do we need to do to achieve our goals collaboratively.”

At the Corner of Data and Progress

One example of how Bellevue’s bold goals complement each other involves the Environmental Stewardship target of reducing the number of miles Bellevue residents drive by 50 percent over the next three decades. Success requires creating a safe environment for pedestrians and cyclists — and the City’s Vision Zero efforts to eliminate traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries will be instrumental. The success of both the Environmental Stewardship and Vision Zero initiatives is built on Bellevue’s culture of performance management and data-sharing.

“Vision Zero road safety, environmental stewardship, and economic development are inextricably tied,” says Franz Loewenherz, the City’s principal transportation planner. “When we provide people with safe travel options, we end up creating an environment that not only improves their well-being, but also improves our environment and attracts businesses.”

Although Bellevue has a lower incidence of traffic-related fatalities than the state average, the City committed to Vision Zero as it expands public transit and encourages alternatives to driving. In some cases, the changes needed to prevent crashes, such as changing a signal pattern, are relatively low-cost. But that doesn’t mean they were easy to identify. Transportation officials would rely on police and EMS/fire department data about crashes to determine whether a particular intersection was dangerous — and that data would take years to accumulate before a problem was identified.

“That reactive structure is fundamentally at odds with the goal of Vision Zero, which aims to envision a future where you don’t have to wait for people to become statistics before you invest in resources and make streets safer,” Loewenherz says.

Bellevue’s solution? Its Transportation Department, which oversees the Vision Zero initiative, began leveraging other existing data streams to enable much faster change. The City had already installed high-tech cameras at many intersections to monitor and guide traffic flow, so the department decided to begin using the video from them to improve safety too, at no extra cost. With help from high-tech partners, including the University of Washington and Microsoft, staff was able to use artificial intelligence to track when cyclists and vehicles get too close for safety. The AI program can flag such instances and report areas where frequent conflicts arise. The City has been able to automate and scale a street assessment process that previously would have required a person with a clipboard monitoring one intersection at a time.

A recent network-wide assessment focused on 40 intersections and studied over eight million road users in a matter of weeks. While the City is in the early stages of implementing solutions to make streets safer for all, it is already seeing promising results. For example, it identified an intersection where there were a high number of left-turn collisions with opposing traffic. Within a few months, the City was able to implement a $10,000 solution, installing a new signal head and adjusting the signal phasing to a protected left turn. That change yielded a 60 percent reduction in collisions, which Loewenherz says was an excellent return on investment. “Usually it takes three to five years for data collection, and it then takes several years after to invest in a safety countermeasure,” he notes.

The proof of concept has resulted in the City committing $2.5 million over seven years to build a data collection program that will inform future Vision Zero work. It allocated an additional $1.5 million to expand the downtown bicycle lane network, since many of the conflicts observed by the team were related to cyclists and pedestrians.

A bike lane in downtown Bellevue. Image courtesy of the City of Bellevue.

This Vision Zero work demonstrates how data-driven approaches help Bellevue move toward its goals, while addressing complex problems. Griffin Lerner, a data analyst with the City, says momentum for data-driven solutions is growing in part thanks to the What Works Cities certification process.

“The process adds a layer of credibility to what we’re preaching,” Lerner says. “We are hoping to inspire other departments. Once you can give people a bevy of examples, then hopefully staff across the City will embrace using data to reach for big goals.”

Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about technology and immigration, among other topics, and her work has been published in The Washington Post, Bloomberg, AFP, The Wire and Seattle Magazine.

As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Bellevue has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The city has also participated in one of WWC’s online learning Sprints to develop foundational data practices.

Bellevue is one of 23 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.

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