How Safe Routes to School helps boost bike safety for Newton kids

As city officials explore how to improve bike safety in Newton, one group has been helping to make streets safer for kids for years.

Safe Routes to School was launched in 2005, incorporating road safety initiatives used in many cities since the 1990s. The organization is federally funded and helps cities and towns implement programs and activities educating kids and parents about road safety and also works with communities on infrastructure project planning.

“I’ve been involved since 2013 when my son went to kindergarten,” Jenn Martin, chair of Newton Safe Routes to School, said. She was told about the organization by a neighbor, and before long many neighbors were involved.

“It’s made a world of difference,” Martin said.

And many parents like having their children ride bicycles to and from school, Martin added, because it fosters independence and many different life skills. By learning at an early age to pay attention to traffic lights, vehicles and others on the roads, kids can develop enhanced navigation abilities and a keener sense of their surroundings.

The idea is that kids who learn to walk and ride bikes safely will learn to drive and do other things safely as well. Kids are essentially learning “safe routes” for life.

Lots of kids out there

A survey showed that in 2014, there were about 8.500 automobile trips to and from the schools. And Newton’s population has grown since then.

Last Wednesday, Martin did a bike count at Newton’s high schools and middle schools and found:

  • 357 bikes in total
  • 97 bikes at Newton South High School
  • 131 bikes at Newton North High School
  • 50 bikes at Day Middle School
  • 12 bikes at Bigelow Middle School
  • 24 bikes at Oak Hill Middle School
  • 43 bikes at Brown Middle School

“That’s a lot of vulnerable road users,” Martin said.

The volume of kids walking and riding bikes around the city makes road safety education critical in Newton. And different parts of the city have different levels of roadway danger.

“We have kids biking to school on Washington Street,” Martin said. “There isn’t a sidewalk. They’re just invisible.”

And that’s another piece of the safety puzzle—collaborating with infrastructure projects to make sure they include things like sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes—in which the state steps in.

Complete Streets is a program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that grants funding to roadwork renovation projects that incorporate and prioritize those safety components.

“Every change is an opportunity to make safer routes,” Martin said. “And being in the Complete Streets program has been a game-changer.”

While Newton Safe Routes to School has contributed greatly to safety improvements for kids in Newton, there’s still a lot to be done.

Over the summer, Newton Safe Routes teamed up with Bike Newton and the Green Newton School Connections to map out suggested bike routes for students all across the city.

Newton South High School is working with the Newton Police Department and the DPW on a protected bike lane for a nearby road, and that will be a pilot program that could extend to other schools.

On Sept. 28, the city’s Traffic Council will meet to discuss several items, including City Councilor Julia Malakie’s request for a four-way stop light for the intersection of Watertown Street and Eliot Avenue, and Martin said those meetings are a great way for residents to stay informed about road safety ideas.

And International Walk/Ride/Roll to School Day, which helps highlight the cause while providing a fun commute for kids, is Oct. 4.

This flashing school zone traffic light is just one of the safety improvements Newton Safe Routes to School has helped bring to Newton. Photo by Jenn Martin

In the longer term, the city is rolling out a comprehensive bicycle/pedestrian network plan for the whole city that will prioritize safety, Newton Director of Transportation Planning Joshua Ostroff said.

“There will be a public meeting for that in October or November,” Ostroff said. “And we are looking at routes and the projects across the city to make cycling safer, more comfortable for cyclists of all ages and abilities, in addition to making the city more walkable and accessible.”

That plan will identify future projects for bike safety, Ostroff said, and prioritize bike safety in roadway infrastructure improvement projects as well.

“And we will be looking at Safe Routes to School projects, because hundreds of kids all across Newton bicycle to our high schools and middle schools, and it is critically important that we do that in a way that’s safe.”

To learn more about Newton Safe Routes to School, check out their website.