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Boulevards first appeared in continental cities of Europe in the 19th century. Obsolete fortification walls ringing cities like Paris, Rome, and Vienna became the foundation for wide roadways often planted with trees and separated into local and through-lanes with medians. Spurring development along the boulevard’s path and beyond the historic city center, this urban street type became a center for commerce, culture, and the social quarters of the upper classes.
The boulevard street type was transported to American cities in the late-19th century as part of the Parks Movement. Wide roadways with ample plantings and sidewalks became a way to move large amounts of traffic through and around cities, but also provide a reprieve from relentless industrial development. In Brooklyn, boulevards were laid out to connect parks and serve as a centerpiece for developing residential neighborhoods. Having fallen out of use during the 20th century in favor of limited access expressways, boulevards have recently been resurrected as a viable modern street typology. Several highway removal programs across the country, perhaps most notably in San Fransisco, have used boulevards to replace underused highways in cities.
The Boulevard in New Haven is really two separate streets connected at Whalley Avenue. The Beaver Hills section of the Boulevard was adapted from Adams Street, a late 19th-century road that traversed farms and fields prior to the subdivision and residential development of the neighborhood in the interbellum years. This section of the street measures 48-feet wide and includes parking lanes, one travel lane in each direction, and recently completed bike lanes. The character of the street is low to medium density residential of mostly one- and two-family houses. To the north is the Southern Connecticut State University campus.
The Edgewood section of the Boulevard was originally referred to as Nott Street and measures 48-feet, like in Beaver Hills, but does not include dedicated bike lanes. As a result, travel and parking lanes are needlessly wide along this stretch leading to speeding. Two- and multi-family houses and apartments line this section of the Boulevard. Beyond Edgewood Avenue, however, residences give way to Edgewood Park on the west side.
The Boulevard dates from the 1890s when a ring road was built from Sea Street to Nott Street. In the West River segment, the Boulevard takes on the characteristics of a highway. Wide travel lanes, shoulders, and no medians create a dangerous stretch of road formidable even for those in cars, much less anyone else. MLK Boulevard and Legion Avenue intersect the Boulevard and Routes 10 and 34 briefly overlap. This section of the Boulevard has been the most radically changed over the years due to ConnDOT widening projects, most notably in the 1980s when North Frontage Road was completed. The modest scale of the Boulevard through Edgewood transitions to two wide travel lanes in each direction along with a central turning lane as it passes by the public Pre-K-8 Barnard Environmental Studies School. Some residential development exists on the east side of the roadway, while West River Memorial Park picks up where Edgewood Park left off.
Even though city directories and maps dating back to the 1890s show the Boulevard extending from Whalley Avenue to Sea Street in City Point, the bridge over the railroad tracks wasn’t actually built until 1978. Beyond Legion Avenue, the street returns to its 48-foot width though it retains its highway-like feel. Parking lanes are abandoned in favor of generous travel lanes and parkland gives way to junk yards, strip malls, and parking lots as travelers approach Interstate 95. Sitting among medium-density residential properties, Truman School, a K-8 public school, sits back from the Boulevard behind a green space and parking lot.
Pros: dedicated bike lanes in Beaver Hills; pleasant street trees, convenient on-street parking, and interesting houses in Beaver Hills and Edgewood; ample road carrying capacity south of Derby Avenue
Cons: lack of on-street parking, speeding, and car accidents south of Derby Avenue; unprotected bike lanes along the entire length of the street; overly wide travel and parking lanes; insufficient plantings and medians in the West River and Hill sections; left hand turns into businesses on the Boulevard in the Hill can stall traffic as there is no mid-block left-hand turn lanes
Protected Cycle Track
In the West River Mobility Study, a report recently released by the city in June of 2015, there is mention of a possible two-way cycle track along the Boulevard in West River Memorial Park (see here on pages 17 and 20). Alternatively, the Boulevard could be retrofitted with a protected cycle track within the roadway along its entire length, which offers the benefits of making New Haven’s ring road more boulevard-like, separating cyclists from motorists and the dangerous MLK Boulevard and Legion Avenue intersections, calming traffic, encouraging alternative transportation options to driving for all including vulnerable users, and facilitating denser development along the corridor.
While the Beaver Hills section of the Boulevard already provides dedicated bike lanes, this type of cycling infrastructure is really only useful for able-bodied riders. By narrowing the travel lanes from 12-feet to 10, space for a 4-foot buffer zone with delineator tubes is created, while the existing bike lanes can be moved to the west side of the street to create a two-way cycle track. Parking and roadway carrying capacity is not lost with this arrangement, but a significant amount of safety for cyclists is gained, particularly for younger and older riders.
The Edgewood segment of the Boulevard, which currently lacks any dedicated bike lanes, offers the same opportunity as the Beaver Hills section. Moreover, this portion of the street is arguably in greater need of this type of infrastructural improvement considering that many trucks and other vehicles use this stretch of the Boulevard. Locating the cycle track along the west side of the Boulevard puts cyclists next to Edgewood Park where there are fewer intersections and no cars making turns into driveways.
The largest benefit of placing the protected cycle track on the west side of the Boulevard, however, is that it allows northbound cyclists to avoid the dangerous and daunting MLK Boulevard and Legion Avenue intersections. Cyclists also have to added benefit of riding adjacent to West River Memorial Park where cars rarely require access.
One benefit of ConnDOT’s widening of this section of the Boulevard is that there now exists the opportunity to add typical boulevard characteristics to New Haven’s ring road. Reducing travel lanes to 10-feet provides space for separated bike lanes and the introduction of a central planted median – giving the street a true boulevard feel without losing the functionality of left turns at intersections.
In the City’s West River Mobility Study, there is a proposal for a two-way cycle track to run along the north side of MLK Boulevard, but as planned, the bikeway will essentially dead-end at West River Memorial Park. By creating similar infrastructure along the Boulevard, future cyclists from Downtown, the Hill, and West River will have a safe and convenient route to the north and south.
South of Legion Avenue where the roadway returns to 48-feet wide but traffic demand is high, a three lane system could absorb the traffic load while providing a dedicated left-hand turning lane in addition to space for the two-way cycle track. This type of road system can accommodate an Average Daily Traffic count of 22,000 cars, which is ample for the Boulevards current ADT of 19,800 in this section. For additional information on four-lane to three-lane conversions see here.
With the proper accommodation of multi-modal transportation infrastructure along this section of the corridor, in particular, there will be an opportunity to develop currently under-used parcels adjacent to the roadway with higher density buildings with less parking.
At the intersection of Kimberly Avenue, a signalized bike and pedestrian crossing could allow cyclists to cross the Boulevard to and from Kimberly Field, which gives access to the Howard Avenue bike lanes and Long Wharf via Sargent Drive.
Pros: protected cycle tracks to enable vulnerable users to ride safely; narrower travel lanes calm traffic; maintains existing road carrying capacity; requires half as many delineator tubes and road paint as separated bike lanes; buffers pedestrians from moving cars
Cons: southbound right-hand turns may conflict with bikes; northbound cyclists must wait at intersections to access local city streets on the east side of the roadway
Boulevards are one of the noblest urban street types – known for their high carrying capacity matched only by their pleasantness to navigate on foot. In its present state, New Haven’s Boulevard falls short of these high standards, but redemption isn’t out of reach.
As one of the most concentrated corridors in the City for vehicle crashes, the Boulevard is an overwhelming street for all road users, but for pedestrians and cyclists in particular. Rather than promoting avoidance to these vulnerable road users, we should tackle the issue head-on. The Boulevard provides ample width for a protected two-way cycle track, which would encourage more cycling and promote calmer driving along the corridor. A protected cycle track would allow cyclists to avoid the MLK Boulevard and Legion Avenue intersections. The addition of a planted median along the widest section of the Boulevard in West River would get New Haven’s ring road closer to its European roots.