|Commonwealth Avenue at Packard's Corner|
If it weren't for the trolley, Commonwealth Avenue would be in much worse shape, because currently, far more people use the Green Line to commute than there are cars driving along Commonwealth Avenue. The transit mode share of the surrounding census blocks is greater than 50% in many cases. Without the trolley, I can only imagine that an otherwise similar Commonwealth Avenue would be piled high with parked cars and gridlock. Instead, with the help of the Green Line, the boulevard only needs to handle amounts of traffic that are well under the capacity of 4-6 lanes.
Alternatively, Commonwealth Avenue may have never developed properly without the trolley. According to the Brighton Allston Historical Society:
As the Brighton Item editorialized dejectedly on April 4, 1890, a year and a half after the completion of the costly new thoroughfare: “Commonwealth Avenue has been built at an expense of nearly half a million dollars, and there is not yet a house upon it from old Brighton Avenue [Packard Square] to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.”
Allston-Brighton’s Commonwealth Avenue was laid out between 1885 and 1888, but the building of this grand boulevard did not lead to the large scale, high-quality development that its projectors had envisioned. Development of the Commonwealth Avenue would not occur for another two decades.
|Commonwealth Avenue by Wallingford Road as it appeared in 1900* (source)|
Despite improved economic conditions by the late 1890s, the Commonwealth Avenue still lagged developmentally. Beacon Street was the focus of development. The existence there of electric streetcar service was enormous advantage. Until such service was instituted on Commonwealth Avenue, in 1909, little development occurred on the Allston-Brighton roadway.
|Trolley along Commonwealth Avenue, mid-century (source)|
Also, the developers [of the Avenue] did not foresee the rise of apartment buildings along the Avenue. What they visualized at this stage was the construction of large-scale, high style detached houses in the Colonial Revival, Shingle, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival styles, the sort of development that was occurring in the Aberdeen Section near the Reservoir.Luckily for us in 2012, the city did not have the legal authority to stymie development on behalf of their particular aesthetic prejudices, or else the growth of Commonwealth Avenue and the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton may have been permanently stunted.
More recently, MassDOT traffic counts reveal that the average daily traffic is 14,049 vehicles using Commonwealth Avenue near Boston College. And that is reduced to only 11,880 vehicles near Harvard Avenue. By contrast, the "B" branch of the Green Line is estimated to have approximately 30,745 weekday boardings on the surface stations alone, with Harvard Avenue being by far the busiest surface station in the whole Green Line system, at 4,077 weekday boardings. And also consider in comparison that Harvard Avenue sees upwards of 18,112 vehicles in average daily traffic handled by only two lanes. So, it seems clear that the 4-6 lanes on Commonwealth Avenue are massive overkill, dangerous to the local residents, and only serve to degrade the corridor in its current state.
When the eventual reconstruction of Commonwealth Avenue between Packard's Corner and Washington Street takes place, they will be working on moving the MBTA reservation to the center of the road and updating the intersections to modern safety standards. I hope that they take into account the fact that Commonwealth Avenue has much more value as a green boulevard than as the highway that it currently resembles, and that there are and will be more people moving by foot, bike and trolley than by motorized vehicle. So the accommodations for each should be laid out more equitably in light of that fact. And perhaps we can even reclaim some of Olmsted's vision for the corridor, updated for the realities of life in the 21st century.
*I am not sure that this could be 1900 because I see the presence of trolley wire infrastructure in the picture and the Comm Ave article as well as the Cleveland Circle article claim that this wasn't available until 1909. But I think it is safe to say that the picture was taken prior to 1915.