Commonwealth Ave, Phase 2A: “to, through, or around”

A lot of bright people have been discussing the upcoming rebuild of Commonwealth Avenue lately, because the city plans to forge ahead blindly with a bad design.  The fundamental issues are these:

  1. The city is refusing to even attempt to have public input to the process, and
  2. The current design increases space set aside for drivers at the cost of pedestrians and cyclists, even though:
    1. More of the right of way is already devoted to automobiles than to any other user community.
    2. Only 30% of the users of the road are drivers.  The other 70% walks, bikes, or takes transit.
    3. Driving on Comm Ave is in decline. Driving declined by almost one third since 1997 while walking and cycling rates have increased 80% and 135%, respectively.

Let me say that again, because it does not make sense to me either: Driving is the minority usage, but gets more space than any other mode.  The amount of people driving is in deep decline, yet it is currently slated to get more road space.

This is insane.

If the city decides to act now and open the planning process to public input, there’s a chance we can build a road that is safer and more efficient for all users – including drivers.

So here’s my take on this issue.  It’s derived from one of the comments on a news article about this debate, something akin to “why don’t cyclists just take a parallel road?”. Genius!  But two parallel roads – Storrow Drive and I-93 – prohibit cycling either by law or by common sense. So let’s turn this thesis question around:

“Why don’t drivers just take a parallel road?”

Part 1: Going “through it” (or “around it”):  What’s equally true whether you’re cycling or walking is this:  If the start or end of your journey is Commonwealth Avenue, you’re going to it.  That will be addressed in Part 2, below.  For now, let’s pretend you are driving and your start and end points are outside this stretch of road.  Among your choices is to go through or go around this section of Comm Ave.  Below are four alternatives to get between two not-so randomly picked places:

  1. Comm Ave: 11 minutes.
  2. Cut through Longwood:  10 minutes.
    Longwood Option
  3. Go Storrow: 10 minutes.
  4. Take the Pike: 9 minutes.

Drivers take notice: of the four options, taking Commonwealth Ave requires the most time. So I’ll end part 1 with the same question I started with: Why don’t drivers just take a parallel road?

Perhaps they lack sufficient motivation.   If the perceived and actual road capacity was decreased (e.g., narrowing all car travel lanes, dropping one travel lane in each direction), congestion would increase (for awhile).  Congestion would cause drivers to seek and adapt to alternate routes.  This will benefit transit, people walking on Comm Ave, cyclists, and drivers whose trip start or end is on Comm Ave.

Part 2: Going “to” it:

This stretch of Commonwealth Ave is home to the fourth largest private college in the USA.  There are also a lot of private businesses located along the road.  All of these private enterprises rely on safe, efficient travel into this section of road, and for the college, within the area.

Going “to it” means you need a way there, a way home, and a place to store your vehicle while you’re there (for drivers and cyclists).  In other words, what local stakeholders need far more than widening the existing car lanes is better street parking (and bike racks).  Here are some ways to accomplish this desirable outcome:

1. Take at least one, maybe two lanes away.  Use some of the reclaimed space for reverse angle parking, shown below (reverse angle parking is safe and space efficient).  The rest of the space reclaimed from dropping car travel lanes would go to maintaining the current sidewalk width and widening bicycle and Green Line rights of way.
Reverse Angle
Increased parking density will offset any loss of parking necessary to “daylight” intersection turns, creating sidewalk bulb-outs to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, installing bike corrals (a need for more parking applies to bikes, too!), or to create left or right turn bays.

2. Manage the parking better.  San Francisco showed us how, we just need to copy & paste.  The best time and place to implement something like this is at the site of a major road reconstruction.


To sum things up: In spite of the fact that this section of Commonwealth Ave has 5 lanes of traffic through it, driving is the minority use for the corridor.  Transit, bicycling and walking each account for greater throughput of people.  Moreover, detailed study shows that driving through this area is in steep decline.  And as shown above, there are ample alternatives to driving this section of road that are simply not a viable option for people on bike or on foot.  All that is to say, let’s explore the option of reducing the number of car lanes through the area.  This will leave room to improve the Green Line right of way, leave sidewalks as they are, install a cycle track and even improve on-street parking in support of local businesses.  Doing so would reinforce the mode shift goals of BU, Boston, and MassDOT, improves safety for users of all transportation modes, and makes the area more  like a college campus than a highway.