Back to the Future: Using Olmsted as Inspiration

For over a century, Beacon Street in Brookline has been a gorgeous boulevard. But changing times bring new usage patterns. Beacon Street has previously gone through one re-creation. Is it now time for a second?

Beacon Street, from Audubon Circle to Cleveland Circle, was designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted as a wide, tree-lined boulevard with separate “lanes” for trolleys, carriages, pedestrians, and a bridle path for horse-back riders. Unfortunately, the triumph of motorcars led to a 1930s remake that enormously widened the already-large carriage lanes and replaced the median bridle path with angle-parking spaces and a maneuvering lane. The predictable result was faster traffic and more dangerous pedestrian crossings. Perhaps now is the time for another refinement – to bring back the original Olmsted design’s better support of diverse ways for people to travel from place to place?

The current proposal for Beacon Street restoration seems like a no-brainer: use the part of the Beacon Street median previously occupied by the bridle path for a 10-to-15-foot-wide safe space for walkers, joggers, kids on skates, bicyclists, people pushing baby carriages or walking dogs, and other non-motorized movers. The enormously wide roadway has plenty of room so that the path can be restored with no loss of traffic lanes and parking capacity, and no limitations on light-rail service. The process can be broken into several small, low-cost steps with minimal disruption and maximum gains. It would seem that everyone benefits from this incremental approach; no one loses.

There are, however, several flies in the ointment. Still, it’s important to keep taking steps to move from idea to reality.

WIN-WIN-WIN, MAYBE

Restoring the Beacon Street bridle path has multiple benefits. The path is an integral part of Olmsted’s beatific vision of a green and tree-lined promenade. There will be no loss of travel lanes, no loss of parking with safer in/out movement, easier pedestrian crossing, easier access to the trolley, and a quieter pedestrian environment along the sidewalks at the outer edges of the street. There are also low-cost methods of incrementally implementing the change using paint and planters, rubber curbs, and/or flex-posts, so that the idea can be tested and any kinks worked out before eventually doing the costlier moving of stone curbs as capital budget constraints allow.

But there are challenges. First, while revising many of Beacon Street’s segments is generally straightforward, several of its intersections are complex – particularly at Coolidge Corner (Harvard Street) and Washington Square (Washington Street). Second, there is a proposal to install electric vehicle charging stations along the Beacon Street median – potentially in the middle of the historic bridle path. Third, while the Department of Public Works’ Transportation Division staff, and Planning and Community Development Department staff are supportive of the vision, they already have a relatively full plate of pending projects; adding this makes the plate heavier. And lastly, there is the inevitable doubt and anxiety about change. Given the challenges, it’s disappointing but not surprising that the Town of Brookline has offered measured support for the project. Following the recommendation of the Town Administrator, Select Board, and Advisory Committee, the Town Meeting voted to authorize scoping (but not yet funding) of a feasibility study that will shape the project’s design requirements.

MOVING SLOWLY

Proponents of the bridle path restoration have proposed dividing the project into three major phases, each with small, manageable components. This will allow Brookline residents to provide feedback and for town staff and proponents to identify and address any issues that arise. During the first phase, “proof of concept” demonstrations would be conducted along a limited segment of Beacon Street in one or two areas: between Carlton Street and Charles Street (or perhaps St. Paul Street or Kent Street) in the east; or between Summit Path and Winchester Street (or perhaps Marion Street) in the middle; or between Winthrop Road (or perhaps Tappan Street) and Ayr Road (or perhaps Strathmore Road) in the west. For periods of a few days to a few weeks, rubber ramps would be installed to cover missing curb cuts, and barrels/cones and road tape would be used to show how lane and parking lines would be moved. The goal is to allow drivers, walkers, and cyclists to get a feel for the proposed new layout. These demonstrations could take place in 2019 or 2020.

The second phase would be “quick-build” pilot installations in the same segments using temporary rubber curbs (and/or flex-posts) and paint (and perhaps some temporary crossing signals and stone-dust surfaces). These pilot installations could remain in place for several months, and would permit engineers to explore ways to deal with intersections currently lacking crosswalks or signals, and with any storm-water drainage issues as well. This phase could be done in 2021 or 2022.

The final phase, moving stone curbs and revising pavement, would not begin until public feedback and several design iterations had produced an acceptable plan.

SAVING THE PLANET

In both Massachusetts and the nation, the transportation sector has become the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Electrifying our motorized transportation systems – trains, trolleys, buses, vans, trucks, and cars – is a vital step towards limiting the damage to come. The key for this needed transformation is the creation of a massive, state-wide and local, electric vehicle (EV) recharging infrastructure. Not incidentally, this will also be a huge boost to the profitability of the power-generation and transmission as well as the construction industries. So, not surprisingly, Eversource and Greenspot have offered to cover at least part of the cost of installing underground wiring and charging stations along highly visible Beacon Street.

This seems like a reasonable quick win to some Brookline environmentalists and politicians. But it is vital to remember that EVs are just part of a solution to the environmental and other problems caused by our transportation system. Replacing fossil-fuel vehicles with EVs will still leave our streets congested. As the recently released recommendations from the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth points out, to protect public health as well as the environment, we need to promote both mass transit and “active transportation” -- meaning walking, cycling, and running -- as well as other still-emerging forms of “micro-mobility” from low-speed scooters to who-knows-what.

Fortunately, a little coordination should allow Brookline to accomplish both goals on Beacon Street. This requires placing the wires and EV chargers in locations that do not block the historic bridle path. Parked cars can easily be moved, but EV chargers cannot. Since the future dimensions of much of the mid-block portions of the proposed bridle path are not likely to change much during the various design testing phases, the charging stations should be installed in places that will work both under the current and future layouts. The most important thing is to not let two good, environmentally positive projects end up undermining each other.

MASSDOT FEASIBILITY FAILURE

Beacon Street is a major road, for which the state has devoted substantial resources to renovating in the past. So, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has the power to review proposals for major design changes to it. In the mid-1990s, Brookline proposed a number of improvements on Beacon Street, such as adding and coordinating traffic signals to improve Green Line trolley service and constructing an eight-foot-wide multi-use (non-motorized) path in the median. Consultants VHB actually drew up plans for part of the Corey Hill segment. However, the state Highway Department’s then-in-effect road design guidelines, based on Interstate Highway design guidelines, required such wide car travel lanes and such a wide maneuvering lane behind the angle parking zone that the path couldn’t be built without cutting down many trees. Tree removal on such a massive scale was unacceptable to Brookline and the path idea was dropped.

Since then, MassDOT -- the successor organization to the old Highway Department -- has radically updated its policies. Current professional standards incorporate the obvious fact that local roads are radically different from limited-access, high-speed highways. Ten-foot and even nine-foot wide lanes are now considered not only acceptable but desirable -- they improve safety and have repeatedly been found to have no negative effect on overall throughput. Today, increasing the tree canopy and water-absorbing green space or permeable pavement are recognized climate-protection requirements. State policy now measures success by the number of people who travel through an intersection, not the number of cars -- giving more weight to mass-transit and non-motorized mobility.

In short, it is very likely that today’s MassDOT will no longer stand in the way of proposals to return Beacon Street’s design to its Olmstedian vision.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Restoring the Beacon Street bridle path will require both citizen pressure and town staff engagement. The Brookline Department of Public Works’ Transportation Division has to operate within tight budgetary and personnel limits. But the incremental, multi-year process that Beacon Street transformation needs should allow this work to fit in.

Simplifying the project may be another approach to increased feasibility. Perhaps the most complex intersections could be left until last, or even not done at all in the nearer term. It would be a shame to have a gap in an otherwise continuous safe route between Audubon Circle and Cleveland Circle. But if a missing connection at Coolidge Corner or another particular spot would make this bold project do-able within staffing and budgetary constraints, it would be foolish to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It might be worthwhile to leave one or two gaps as projects for a later day. In fact, there has been already been some discussion of ways to improve the narrow and uncomfortable trolley access space at Harvard Street (in Coolidge Corner), and it is possible that, as a happy synergy, this work might create opportunities to continue the median path through the intersection.

Finally, and inevitably, there’s the money issue. Hopefully, Brookline can secure grants for the recently approved feasibility study. And both demonstration and pilot phases of implementation should be relatively inexpensive. But it’s likely that a more-final, more-perfect, full-length transformation will be costly. City leaders will have to carefully program the capital expenses into future budgets --implementing the vision incrementally in various segments should make this affordable.

Frederick Law Olmsted was a man of many careers, failing at several before finally finding his glory road in Central Park. Beacon Street, like its designer, has flourished and floundered. In the twenty-first century, can Beacon Street regain the beauty and function that it lost in the twentieth? It’s a question worth asking, and a vision worth working towards.

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Thanks to Jules Milner-Brage and Jacob Meunier for their information. For more about the Beacon Street bridle path project see some historical images and rough drawings of possible future layouts at <http://milner-brage.com/jules/2018/bridle-path-beacon-st-brookline>. To see some of the preliminary demonstrations of how current space could be re-aligned, see: <http://flickr.com/photos/49752072@N04/albums/72157676246094268>.

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