FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

July 17, 2014

For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.

It was inspiring; exciting; promising of things to come. It made Boston a national leader and a better place to live.

Which is why it is confusing and frustrating to find that Boston’s transportation agencies are proposing such a backward — and unsafe — set of proposals for Commonwealth Avenue in clear violation of its own policies. Two years ago, before many of the new policies were put in place, the city unveiled their ideas at a 25% design stage meeting. Those proposals were heavily criticized as inadequate or even dangerous by most attendees. After two years of silence, the city has suddenly reissued substantially the same thing and called it a 75% design. They say it’s safer, but the facts say otherwise. It’s upsetting to think that the transportation leadership doesn’t believe in the city’s own vision or follow their own guidelines.

The Walsh Administration needs to focus some attention on the currently overlooked transportation departments. This is a signature project that has to be done right. If it does not fully embody the city’s own exemplary policies we can unfortunately look forward to nasty and protracted project-by-project fights for years to come.


Commonwealth Avenue is one of our region’s showcase gems. Designed in part by our own genius, Frederick Law Olmsted, it is a broad, landscaped boulevard that is supposed to welcome everyone no matter their method of movement. But we all know that it’s become something of a mess. The road surface has acne. The Green Line barely moves. Cars pile up. Walkers, including multitudes of BU students, are unable to cross the street. And cyclists are getting injured – as the Boston Cyclists Union documents, in the BU area alone there were 68 reported crashes between 2010-12 including one fatality.   The people most exposed to danger are the thousands who enter and exit the Green Line twice (or more) a day, dodging across moving traffic and jumping barriers to catch the trolley.

From the Public Garden to Newton, nearly every segment of the road is unique, with different problems and different “owners” at the state and city levels. So it’s not surprising that plans to improve things have been divided into at least seven separate short-term and long-term projects.

Some things have already happened and, although still needing refinement, provide significant improvements: the innovative center-media bike lanes from the Public Garden to Charlesgate/Fens, the bike lanes from Kenmore to Packard’s Corner (where Brighton Ave cuts off) which were LivableStreets Alliance first infrastructure victory after its founding seven years ago. Some changes were well-meaning but have proven inconsequential: the quick fixes Boston installed from the BU Bridge to Packard’s Corner after 23-year-old cyclist Christopher Weigl was killed by a delivery truck making an illegal turn on to St. Paul Street don’t seem to have made as much difference as was hoped.


The city is now focusing on “Phase 2a” — a major upgrade to the section from Amory to Alcorn Streets (near the BU Bridge to nearly Packard’s Corner — a non-Olmstedian segment that was once labeled as an extension of Brighton Ave). Usage patterns have dramatically changed in recent years. Like the rest of the MBTA system and transit systems around the nation, usage of the Green Line, already the most heavily-used light rail line in the country, has significantly increased in recent years. Bicycling is up nearly 135% since 2007; pedestrian volumes have increased 80% since 2001; and (consistent with both regional and national trends) car volumes have decreased as much as 31% since 1987 despite increased key intersection tie-ups, according to the BU Master Plan ((sections 8.5.1-8.5.6).

But instead of dealing with this new reality, Boston’s transportation agencies are rushing through a throw-back proposal, with little public input, that:

> narrows sidewalks and leaves out needed intersection improvements (crosswalks, wider ramps, curb extensions),

>makes it harder for people to walk from one side of the street (mid-block crossings) to the other for shopping or getting on/off trolleys (getting rid of obstructive fences rather than adding more),

>doesn’t make the agreements with the MBTA need to improve trolley times (better station structures, better spaced stops, work T for both-door entry, traffic light priority) or bus service (curb extensions, traffic light priority),

>doesn’t separate bikes from cars (cycle tracks, bike boxes, bike signals),

>doesn’t improve car safety (narrowing outer lane to MassDOT approved 10.5’ width with Green Wave coordination of traffic lights to ensure steady flow at 15 mph), and will require the unnecessary destruction of numerous old trees.

And all this is being done to allow for wider car lanes, more turning lanes, and other car-focused favoritism that will not actually do anything but speed cars that are rushing to the next red light.

This plan, released by the Boston Transportation Department, not only ignores the city’s own Bike Plan and Complete Streets policies, not only flies in the face of today’s best practices, but simply won’t create a street that people can safely and comfortably use. According to one of the wise sayings the Internet now attributes to Einstein, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes is a form of insanity. Cars are an important part of our city transportation mix. But simply letting cars go faster for short distances will not solve anything. Car needs have to be dealt with, of course, but also put into better balance with transit, walking, and cycling, especially in a student dominated area.


Boston University, legitimately concerned about its students safety, is also worried that restarting the design process will make the project miss the FY2015 funding deadline. But the level of community and advocacy anger at this retrograde plan ensures a bruising fight if key improvements are not made — doing it right will be much faster, and better. It would behoove the University leadership, even though their own traffic consultant, Tetra Tech, has primarily a traditional and conservative car-focused highway and bridge focus, to quickly embrace the rather self-explanatory and relatively low-cost improvements advocates have suggested.

The BTD and DPW are currently waiting for the Walsh Administration to appoint a new Cabinet level Director above the departmental Commissioners. But there has been no noise leaking out about any effort to attract anyone – much less the type of creative, high-level, and progressive national figure needed to take control of this backsliding ship. Something will be happening on Commonwealth Ave in the next couple of years. However, what is being now proposed is not what Boston needs. Without clear orders from above to do the right thing, we are heading for a long and bruising fight. We can — and must — do better.


Boston has reached the stage, at least at the policy level, that a better approach is pretty obvious. In fact, a broad coalition of advocacy groups – LivableStreets Alliance, Boston Cyclists Union, WalkBoston, MassBike, with support from BU Bikes, AB Bikes, and others – have sent Acting BTD Commissioner Jim Gillooly a letter repeating back the obvious.

The Boston Cyclists Union, working with other advocate groups, is developing realistic conceptual designs for placing cycle tracks (protected bike lanes) along the road. LivableStreets Alliance has suggested to both the MBTA and the city that if they worked together significant trolley and bus travel time improvements could be made while facilitating passenger access and saving a lot of the old trees along the route. The national Transportation Research Board has published a paper by Northeastern University professor Peter Furth describing an advanced method for bus stop spacing and another for implementing transit priority at traffic lights.   Informal advocacy charettes have developed extensive mark-ups of the city’s engineering plan drawings, and suggested improvements.

The city had a public hearing at the 25% design stage and got a lot of negative feedback. Without incorporating very much of the suggested improvements – particularly those meant to improve conditions for bus, trolley, sidewalk, and bicycle users – it appears that the city is now trying to push the planning process through to completion with relatively little public input.   This will not only lead to an inevitable and endless series of public controversies, but by not incorporating good advice from “outsiders” the city will end up with a severely deficient street layout.

PHASE 2b & 3

Unfortunately, the problems with Commonwealth Ave go beyond Phase 2a. The rest of what’s being planned is also problematic.   Phase 2b covers the BU Bridge-CommAve-MassPike intersection and overpass (from Carlton to Amory Streets). It is, itself, divided into two stages – fixing the underside of the MassPike overpass (which should happen next year) and then redoing the surface (probably in FY16 or 17). And it will be impacted by what is done through the I-90 toll-area project in the next few years which may (hopefully) involve some movement of both the Pike and Storrow Drive as they approach the BU Bridge area.   Phase 3, with the Boston Department of Public Works as the lead agency, includes Commonwealth Ave from Packard’s Corner, where the main road is joined by two adjacent service roads, past the Herb Chambers area (he pays the city for on-street use for his business), up to foot-of-the-hill Warren Street.

In the Phase 3 project area, Commonwealth Ave has 6 travel lanes plus 2 parking lanes. According to MassDOT’s traffic counts, traffic volumes are lower here than on the two travel-lane-wide nearby Harvard Avenue. That leaves a lot of extra space to play with. Rather than follow what appears to be the city’s current approach – putting a cycle track on the south-side median (next to the inbound service lanes) requiring undesirable tree removal and jeopardizing the desirable diagonal parking near Harvard Ave) – advocates are suggesting exploration of moving the MBTA tracks to the center of the street, having one lane of moving traffic in each direction expanding into an additional turning lane at intersections, using some of the side lane space on the (current) inbound side for a bike route shared with local-access-for-parking-only car access, using space around Griggs Street for a “pocket T track” to service flexibility, and using some of the northern service road for expanded park space with benches and facilities.   There is plenty of time for some imaginative planning in this area.

The Phase 2 project area is the most complicated, if only because it involves MassDOT (which “owns” the overpass), DCR (which “owns” the river banks and Storrow), and Brookline (which owns part of Mountfort) as well as Boston and indirectly Cambridge – with implications for the Longwood Medical Area and BU as well. Getting bike lanes on to the BU Bridge was a major LivableStreets Alliance victory a couple years ago, won with the support of key MassDOT and Boston officials.   MassDOT is already starting to fix the crumbling underlying structure, although they are hopefully not locking themselves into any structural commitments that will foreclose some of the good ideas surfacing out of the I-90 Toll area redesign project.

Across the project area, there is a desperate need to widen the teeming sidewalks, provide more space at the bus stops, improve pedestrian and bicycle intersection safety, and clear up the crazy zig-zag car flow that makes the area into a dangerous “merge of death” from Carlton Street across Commonwealth Ave blocking everything going in every direction during every light cycle.

The obvious slice through the Gordian knot is to “punch through” the Mountfort-Carlton traffic island allowing cars to go straight from Park Drive on to the BU Bridge and creating a single point intersection. This still leaves major issues about the Park Drive to Storrow and Park Drive to Commonwealth westbound. But it is a bold and effective starting point.

Unfortunately, based on MassDOT’s Environmental Review submission, they don’t intend to pursue the punch-through, which forces them to keep a two-right-turn lane layout from Commonwealth on to the BU Bridge. On the other side, MassDOT proposes to have two right-turning lanes into Essex, also unneeded based on traffic volumes and flow patterns. Much worse — rather than shorten pedestrian crossing distances, their plan will lengthen the distance and time required to go over both the BU Bridge and Commonwealth – and their VHB Consultants don’t seem to notice that there is no median safety area in the middle of Commonwealth so their assumption that people can do a two-stage (and even more time consuming) crossing is simply ridiculous. Instead of three through lanes, which immediately narrow back to two going in both directions on Commonwealth, it would be better to create a separated bicycle lane.


The BU Bridge/Commonwealth Avenue intersection is key part of the regional transportation system. The best solutions will inevitably come from open-ended discussions and creating brainstorming among a broad spectrum of stakeholders.   Cars are an important part of the mix, today and for the foreseeable future. But when it comes to safety, car speed – and even car volumes – is not the most important goal. We need – building on the words of Boston’s own Complete Streets policy – be smart, green, multimodal, and willing to push the boundaries so that we, Boston and the region, remain the national leader we are capable of being.


Thanks to Jamie Maier, Jackie Douglas, and Matt Danish for comments on previous versions. All remaining mistakes, omissions, and opinions are entirely my own.


Related previous postings:

> MAKING COMM. AVE. SAFER: City Proposals Are A Good Start; Turnpike Overpass Is Next Issue


> ENOUGH KILLING: How to Make Bike-Car Collisions Less Deadly

> COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

>TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

> VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”



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posted in ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE by Steve Miller

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23 Comments to "FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies"

  1. Robert Winters wrote:

    Translation: Boston is not caving in to your insistence on a cycle track and you’re unhappy about it.

    Not everyone agrees with your vision of a city where bikes are relegated to the sidewalk or into cattle runs. Some of us would simply like to see the streets redesigned for safer use by all users. For many of us this means wide outer lanes to provide the flexibility to share the road and to accommodate all road users during all seasons of the year, including when there is snow and ice.

    It’s also worth noting that the sidewalks along this stretch of Commonwealth Avenue are absurdly wide and date to the era when car dealerships lined this street and cars for sale were on display in front of the dealerships. If just a little of that excess is transferred to the roadway, it will make it far safer for all road users to share.

  2. Steve Miller wrote:

    Robert: I’m not unhappy about the plans for Comm Ave. I’m frustrated and angry. However, you’re right about one thing — there is a very small percentage of intrepid bicyclists, vehicularists, who enjoy sharing the road with fast-moving cars and blind-spot trucks. But the vast majority of people are very clear, whenever asked, that they’d never bike in that kind of road. Dealing with snow and ice is a real problem for every style of street — the stuff is traditionally just pushed to the side into the space that bikes are supposed to use, so that doesn’t solve anything. And finally, while there are spots where Comm Ave’s extra-wide sidewalk might be appropriately narrowed a small amount in exchange for significantly better street safety, there are many places where the heavy use by students might suggest making them even wider.

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