Newton, MA's Safe Routes to School program has made many gains since they started roughly ten years ago. Examples are across the board! Not only have they identified more local champions who work with individual schools, but they are also poised to announce a new working school transportation policy developed by an after school committee. The current policy has more of a focus on who qualifies for the bus, and they’ve been asked to develop a policy that promotes walking, biking and taking the bus. Because of Safe Routes to School, making schools more walkable and bikeable destinations is now a part of the school design and redesign discussion. Additionally, with the help of a big push from students, parents and staff, there is support to do more Safe Routes to School work at the high school level, so that everyone can arrive safely to school, no matter which mode of travel they choose. Safe Routes to School is helping find a safer way for everyone to school!
Passing a snow shoveling ordinance is yet another big win for the Newton Safe Routes to School team. Kids are often forced to walk in the street in the dark when sidewalks aren’t shoveled, an obvious safety concern. The snow shoveling ordinance increased the number of miles the city plows, making it a huge step forward, even though they would like to see violations enforced by law enforcement.
A favorite story from their work over the years stems from the rebuilding of 15 elementary schools. Lessons were learned from the rebuilding of the first school that the Safe Routes to School team was able to use to advocate with for a safer and more efficient design for the second and following schools. The initial design of the second school included a two lane drop off loop and a bump in to widen the road. Safe Routes to School enthusiasts attended each planning meeting, pointing out that cars, busses, walkers and cyclists all needed to have their own spaces going into the school. This resonated with the architects. Because of their hard work, the school design was not only more walkable and bikeable, it also saved $400k by not widening the road. Additionally, there was commitment from the school committee to develop a school transportation plan that promotes walking, biking and bussing over being driven to school.
One positive change they envision in the next year are dedicated paths for high school students who bike to school, since they have to cross a major street to get to bike parking. Students are currently working on promoting this. Their promotional tactic is to not focus on the safety factor, but on how biking to school speeds things up. One student is actually doing a Capstone Project showing how students can sleep later if they bike to school.
Newton reelects public officials every two years, including transportation directors and mayors, which can slow things down at the local level. Even still, Safe Routes to School is alive and growing. When they began, it was hard to tell people to walk to school because not everyone could. Nowadays, it is rare to get the response “Stop telling us not to drive. We don’t have a choice.” This is probably one of the biggest impacts of Safe Routes to School in the Boston area. The equation has changed with both the public school system and the city being held more accountable as they develop policies and implement safer infrastructure for schools, including safer accommodations for those who walk and bike.