Comm Ave: from auto mile to people mile

Contributor: Matthew Danish

ALLSTON — Nearly a century ago, Commonwealth Avenue from Kenmore Square, heading west to Packard's Corner, was home to over a hundred automobile dealers and associated vendors. For much of the twentieth century, while riding the trolley, you would have passed showroom after showroom, parking lot after parking lot, all calling out for you to buy a car and drive away.

Commonwealth Chevrolet, now the site of a Packard's Corner supermarket (source: BAHS)

Problems with this street have been known for decades. As the Brighton Item noted in 1948:

Something has to be done with Commonwealth Avenue, the broad and landscaped parkway that is perhaps Allston-Brighton's handsomest thoroughfare and undoubtedly its most lethal one. Multi laned, well paved, and alluring to the motorist made fretful by the cold molasses in Boston's ever cooking traffic jam, it is the Circe of highways.

In 2014, much has changed. We now know that people who are walking, biking and riding the T along Comm Ave strongly outnumber [PDF] the drivers. For example, for the area just west of the BU Bridge, the breakdown comes out as 7 to 3 in favor of non-car modes.

Time criteria




Peak Hour

Green Line "B"












57 Bus



BU Shuttle






Almost all of the automobile businesses have left, and the buildings have been largely converted into other uses. At long last, the city has produced plans for the second phase of the long awaited street reconstruction of Comm Ave, Phase 2A from Amory Street to Alcorn Street:

Phase 2A is from Packard's Corner to the BU Bridge, non-inclusive (shown in blue highlight).

But these plans have turned out to be highly disappointing, by seemingly encoding the values of 1974 rather than 2014: with wider travel lanes goading higher automobile speeds, with sidewalk narrowing requiring the removal of older trees, with no provision for improved bicycle facilities on a busy corridor, and without addressing the problematic long blocks that impede pedestrian movement across the street.

Crossing the street at Naples Road, with groceries.

A similar style plan has already been implemented for phase 1 of the corridor, from near Kenmore Square up to University Road. How did that turn out? Well, they added a lot of trees, brick crosswalks, and street furniture to make it look prettier. But the same problems that plague the phase 2A design also apply to the phase 1 design and we can see how it worked out: not well. The design of phase 1 has proven completely inadequate for handling the volume of pedestrians generated by Boston University in between classes.

Pedestrian volumes on Comm Ave overwhelm even the new infrastructure.

The crossings of Comm Ave are not sufficient in number and are poorly timed for pedestrians. And the sidewalks have been narrowed by the addition of poorly thought-out street furniture zones to the point that the remaining space overflows with a flood of students between classes.

Even while the pedestrians are squeezed, the drivers are treated to a generous motorway with wide lanes and few interruptions. The various trees and fences create the sense of a divided highway, and the long blocks practically beg you to put the pedal to the metal.

As a result, phase 1 represented a triumph of aesthetics over sense and safety. The continuing trickle of car/pedestrian and car/bike collisions attests to the problem.

Locations of crashes involving a bicycle in Phase 1 scope (Boston Cyclists Union)

Fortunately, these collisions have been non-fatal (and therefore, it seems, non-newsworthy). There is typically some form of victim-blaming involved, "oh, why was he running across the street," without any consideration of how the poor street design creates the problem by encouraging higher car speeds, and by making it unnecessarily obnoxious for pedestrians to cross the street as needed.

So when I heard that the phase 2A design was mostly an extension of the phase 1 design further west on Comm Ave, I became alarmed. We missed our opportunity to fix the obvious problems with phase 1. We should not miss it again. But the city was very secretive about phase 2A. The only public meeting, at 25% design, was held in March of 2012, and poorly advertised as usual. Various advocacy organizations, including LivableStreets, did submit letters with suggestions that would have greatly improved the design. But nothing was heard in response.

Actually, the only reason we heard anything at all is because the city suddenly filed plans in December of 2013 with the tree warden to have the remaining in-scope, older trees removed. So two years after the comment letters were submitted, we finally learned that basically nothing was taken into consideration and the 75% design remained mostly the same in principle. The trees were to be taken away and the sidewalk narrowed with essentially no community input or process. We also learned that no further process is planned. The design of phase 2A has been funded by Boston University and they are not interested in making anything but the most minor of changes.

This is simply unacceptable. I understand that Boston University is a major abutter to the street. I appreciate that they have been willing to provide funds. They have put together a decent transportation master plan. I know that they care about their students' safety, even if I believe that they are mistaken in their methods. But if they expected to simply drop a design on the city without public input, without a chance to fix the obvious problems with it, without incorporating modern pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly street design, then they are wrong and must be challenged by members of the community.

Typical bicycling conditions in existing Comm Ave phase 2A scope; not planned to be improved.

In short, LivableStreets and I believe the following changes must be made to the design of Comm Ave phase 2A:

Locations of crashes involving a bicycle in Phase 2A scope (Boston Cyclists Union)

  • Minimize sidewalk narrowing, make intersections pedestrian friendly, and extend curbs.
  • The travel lanes must not be widened, instead they must be calmed to reduce speeds.
  • Additional crossings of the street must be added to cut up the long blocks.
  • Integrate with the MBTA plans to consolidate stations and add signal priority.
  • Comm Ave is a designated cycle-track on the bicycle network plan, and that begins now.

What you can do: