BELLEVUE — Josh Martin pulled up to a Hampton Inn, where a group of tourists waited to go to the Bellevue Botanical Garden. Martin welcomed the three passengers, noted the rain outside and began the short jaunt to the garden.
“Does anyone carry umbrellas around here?” one of the tourists from Southern California asked. Nope, Martin said, then gave a brief history of the Pacific Northwest’s scorching heat waves.
On many BellHop rides, Martin is equal parts driver and tour guide as he shuttles visitors around downtown Bellevue. On others, he’s a familiar face for residents taking a quick trip to the grocery store or completing the last mile of their commute.
BellHop is Bellevue’s all-electric, free shuttle service, providing rides to and from any location within the roughly six-mile area of the city’s downtown core. The service launched Aug. 1 through a partnership with the shuttle company Circuit; the pilot program is the first in the Pacific Northwest.
A month in, Bellevue and Circuit officials say the service has so far been a success — BellHop averages about 250 to 300 rides a day and is on track to reach its ridership goals within the next few months. The pilot program runs through 2023.
“There is a lot of demand and it’s been great finding the right drivers, and then the drivers learning the downtown area,” said Brad Jones, executive director of Visit Bellevue. “It’s all come together.”
BellHop has a fleet of eight vehicles which, depending on who you ask, look like they might belong at a golf course, on a Mario Kart track or inside the Flintstones’ garage. Jones said he was initially a little worried about how downtown drivers would accept them but realized they’re more likely to smile at the sight than be annoyed.
With seats for five passengers, wide windows and low-to-the-ground floor, the vehicles are surprisingly zippy despite their 25 mph-maximum speed. They run each day, and six are on the road at any given time while the other two are charging.
The service costs around $70,000 a month, Jones said, which includes vehicles, employees and insurance, among other charges. The program is fully funded by hotel room taxes. The vehicles themselves are scooting advertisements, and area hotels also promote the service. The program’s goal is 8,000 to 10,000 rides per month.
The riders typically fall into three categories: tourists, residents who live within the service area and downtown Bellevue workers. For workers, Jones said, the shuttles address the city’s first mile/last mile challenge, where commuters face a gap between their transit, like buses or light rail, and where their commutes start and end. Jones said city officials are studying service data as the city prepares for the arrival of Eastside light rail.
Residents within the service area use BellHop for short trips, Martin said, the ones where “you don’t want to walk, but it feels stupid to drive.”
Riders who are visiting the area get an extra service — city tour. Circuit drivers receive tourism ambassador training and usually new hires already know about the area, said Conrad Hoernke, Circuit’s market supervisor in Bellevue.
“We always hire locals,” he said. “We don’t want to bring anyone on who doesn’t have a little bit of knowledge of the city.”
Martin drives part-time while he looks for a new job in the tech industry and has enjoyed being “more a tour guide than an Uber driver,” he said. He’s gotten to know several frequent riders. One woman works in Bellevue Square and had recently lost loved ones; the two connected over talks about grief.
“I get to be a friendly face, be someone who remembers her,” he said. “We talk a lot.”
SOURCE: Seattle Times