Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Happy 115th birthday to the Green Line "B" branch, and thoughts on the future

Commonwealth Ave when it was provisionally named 'Massachusetts Ave' in 1885 (source)
The section of Commonwealth Avenue between Packard's Corner and Chestnut Hill Avenue was largely built in the 1890s. Trolley service along this relatively new stretch of Comm Ave began May 26th, 1900. Prior to that, service to Lake Street typically ran via Beacon Street and Chestnut Hill Avenue.

Construction of Comm Ave near Lake Street (source)

Trolley service near Wallingford Road, in the early years (source)

A description of a journey that was published in 1904:
From the Newton line, by taking a Commonwealth Avenue car, another attractive ride is afforded for the return journey. The car turns off to the left and runs through a delightful combination of city and country until it reaches the Brighton junction, off to the left being the links of the Kenilworth Golf Club. At Pleasant Street, on the left, may be seen the links of the Allston Golf Club, and one of the most picturesque county clubhouses in the country is visible across a little pond. The car comes back into Beacon Street again after passing Cottage Farm station

Yes, it existed: the Allston Golf Club house (source)
Tudor Manor, 1930 (source)
The electric streetcar service would eventually attract the transit-oriented development of the avenue that we see today, with large, graceful apartment buildings of various styles from the early to mid-twentieth century. Sadly, the current zoning code (from 1990) has chosen for aesthetic reasons to retroactively ban these kind of apartment buildings, and so none of them could be built today without many variances. That's a strange policy to maintain in a city that is ostensibly trying to generate housing units that are attainable to people of middle-class means.

Comm Ave near Allston Street, present day

1958 view from near Washington Street, during road-widening construction (source)

Snow didn't stop them in 1938, near Warren Street (source)
I was fortunate enough to view a presentation on the history of Comm Ave last year but it was not until recently that the slides and pictures were made available on-line. For more of these pictures and history, please visit the website.

What we now call the Green Line "B" branch has gone through many changes over the years. Obviously when the MBTA was formed, the rebranding changed it from merely having a streetcar number into being integrated as part of the color-coded 'rapid transit' map (sadly, while not really improving service). The reservation has been shifted towards the center as part of road-widening efforts in the 1950s and the 1970s, resulting in the awkward intersection at Warren Street, where work ceased. The trolleys gave way to big 'light rail vehicles' that now carry approximately 30,000 passengers a day, averaging a snail-like 6-10 mph due to overcrowding and degrading infrastructure. The stations have not seen much in the way of upgrades, either, largely remaining as tiny asphalt strips with the occasional concrete barrier or plastic shelter added.

Chestnut Hill Avenue station platform (for thin people only)

Looking down the hill

At times, many stops were eliminated or consolidated, most recently about ten years ago, when Mt Hood Rd, Summit Ave, Greycliff Rd, and Fordham Rd were permanently retired to help improve spacing. We're looking forward to having another four closely-spaced stations be consolidated into two appropriately-spaced, fully accessible stations. The T has promised us signal priority for years, and claims to be experimenting with it. We're still waiting for the use of all doors on the surface to help speed up boarding and alighting, as well as full accessibility for everyone.

As the twentieth century progressed, Comm Ave was turned more and more into an asphalt wasteland: big sections carved out for angled parking, with a few sickly looking trees inhabiting the neglected median islands that were left. The Green Line and its riders were largely disregarded, probably considered relics of the past that would be replaced by mass car ownership and buses. But the Green Line is a survivor. Despite how poorly it has been treated by the city and the MBTA, the "B" remains the busiest branch of the Green Line, and the surroundings remain highly transit-oriented, with some of the lowest car ownership rates outside of Boston proper.

We have an opportunity to change the future. The city is brewing up a design for what they call Comm Ave Phases 3 and 4. That covers the section of Comm Ave from Packard's Corner up to Warren and Kelton Streets. This is part of the section that was constructed in the 1890s, and it's 200 feet wide, a lot of space. Despite that, daily vehicle volumes are very low, about 12,000 ADT, a figure which is low enough that it could easily be handled even on a street with merely a single lane in each direction. Clearly, this should be a street designed for people. The city has claimed that they are going to do something to make the avenue much more friendly for walking, biking, and riding the Green Line. They claim that they will do something about the fact that there are extremely long intervals between crosswalks (and then those are also inaccessible to the disabled), with a fence blocking off part of Allston/Brighton from another. They claim that they can restore the idea of a Comm Ave 'greenway', an echo of its original conception, a park that connects from the Charles River to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The 21st century version of Comm Ave could be a lot friendlier to the community. But only if we remember to show up and hold them to it.