Beacon Street, from Audubon Circle to Cleveland Circle, is a pleasant, tree-lined boulevard that over the past year has been incorporated into our wider vision of the Emerald Network. Originally laid out in 1850, Beacon Street has long served as a busy connector between Brookline and Boston. Thanks to Brookline resident Jules Milner-Brage and the Friends of Beacon Street Bridleway, an exciting vision for a safer, multimodal street is starting to take shape.
To introduce a short history of Beacon Street, we are going to fall back on our friend Steve Miller’s January 2019 blog post:
Back to the Future: Using Olmsted as Inspiration
|Beacon Street & Commonwealth Avenue (Thomas Warren Sears Collection, Smithsonian Institute)
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 bridleway for horseback riders. Unfortunately, the triumph of motorcars led to a 1930s remake that enormously widened the already-large carriage lanes and replaced the median bridleway 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 bridleway 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.
MassDOT Feasibility Failure
|Looking down Beacon Street (Photo: Jules Milner-Brage)
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.
What’s Happening Now
|Pop-up demonstration of a shared-use path on Beacon Street in December 2018.
The Friends of the Beacon Street Bridleway have mobilized quickly behind the momentum of community members who want to see their community safer and more accessible. They will be co-hosting “Envision Beacon Street” with the Brookline Bicycle Advisory Committee on May 18th from 10:00am - 2:00pm between Carlton and Kent Streets. Attendees will be able to experience the historic Olmsted bridleway as they stroll, jog, scoot, or bike along a protected space within the Beacon Street median. The group will also co-host “Past & Future Beacon Street” with the Brookline Historical Society on May 13th, from 7-8:30pm, an engaging talk and discussion about the historic Olmsted plan for Beacon Street.
Jules Milner-Brage is quick to point out that this vision for Beacon Street is not his alone, but “something that has been carried forward in the collective memory and appreciation of this essential Brookline Street by a selection of folks for a long time”. As someone who frequently travels Beacon Street - by walking, biking, trolley, and car - Milner-Brage says that his inspiration to revive the lost vision for the bridleway comes from a desire to provide his children and other vulnerable road users with a safer space to cycle.
Milner-Brage would specifically like to acknowledge that recent bridleway efforts have benefited from valuable critique, advice, and engagement from Cynthia Snow, Jacob Meunier, John Bowman, Tommy Vitolo, Peter Furth, Jackson Lynch, Hugh Mattison, Abby Swaine, Frank Caro, David Kroop, Andrew Fischer, Chris Dempsey, Kara Brewton, Todd Kirrane, Carla Benka, Heather Hamilton, and many others.
LivableStreets has helped the Friends of the Beacon Street Bridleway extend the vision for this enhanced corridor through outreach and engagement support, encouraging its inclusion in the MAPC summer ride series, and building a network of project supporters. When complete, we know that this path will connect existing open spaces, create a safe green route along a major transit corridor, and serve as a vital link in the Emerald Network.
Learn more about the Beacon Street Bridleway at the following links:
If you enjoyed this post, consider reading about more greenway projects nearby: