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Newton students want smarter, kinder streets

Daniel Borhegyi, Jack Dzialo, and Julian Phillips look on as Nathan Phillips instructs students on how to check a tire for leaks.
Daniel Borhegyi, Jack Dzialo, and Julian Phillips look on as Nathan Phillips instructs students on how to check a tire for leaks. Smart Streets

Between the honks and the swooshes of cars going faster than they ought, the bike ride along Parker Street from Newton South High School to Newton Centre proved to be a challenge for a group of six venturesome students last summer.

When it came time to head back to the school, they knew there had to be an easier away. Just a few streets over, they found a quieter, easier, and in their words, “kinder” route.

The elementary and middle school students were participating in the first Smart Streets camp, a week long program at Newton Community Education dedicated to learning about transportation and developing advocacy skills.

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Everything they learned can be summarized with their big idea, Kind Streets.

“It’s a really nice thought,” said Julian Phillips, a sixth grader at Charles E. Brown Middle School. “Smart streets is a combination of a lot of things, but kind streets is people coming together. We need smart streets, but kind streets are vital too.”

The students’ final project was to find a route in Newton that they thought needed a kind streets makeover. Thinking back to their hectic ride to Newton Centre, they knew that the backroads route they ultimately found was a good fit for the project.

“What we found is a route that isn’t a whole lot longer that the direct route,” said Nathan Phillips, vice president of Bike Newton and one of the Smart Streets teachers. “The direct route is very noisy and high stress. The new route that’s one street over is safer.”

The students put together a plan for establishing “wayfinding signs” to encourage high school students to take the backroads route when heading to Newton Centre. Other changes they would like to see are new traffic signals that alert cars of pedestrians and a bike path in the Newton South parking lot.

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Once Newton’s new director of transportation , Nicole Freedman, gets settled into her new position, the Smart Streets teachers hope to have the students officially present their plan to the city.

“I think its fantastic to see them teaching students about transportation,” Freedman said of Smart Streets. “I look forward to walking through with them to see what we could actually do.”

Freedman is an avid biker herself; she competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney on the US cycling team. The Wellesley native is coming to Newton from Boston, where she was head of the Boston Bikes initiative.

“Fresh eyes come up with ideas that we never would have thought of ourselves,” said Freedman.

During the Smarts Streets camp, students went on walks, bike rides, the T, and rode buses around Newton to learn about various ways to commute and how some are more sustainable than others. They also received lessons on mapping and how to report infrastructure problems.

“They liked picking out routes and testing them with their bike,” said Alicia Bowman, president of Bike Newton and one of the Smart Streets teachers. “A lot of these kids don’t commute on their bikes. Maybe they bike around the neighborhood, but they don’t go places on their bikes.”

The phrase “kind streets” was conceived by Marley Weiner, a fifth grader at Mason Rice Elementary School, when they were trying to come up with a logo for their wayfinding signs. It means that pedestrians, bikers, and drivers should share the road safely and it discourages road rage and speeding.

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“Kind streets is being aware,” said Jack Dzialo, a sixth grader at Bigelow Middle School. “Even if you don’t have to yield to pedestrians, maybe you can so the atmosphere is nicer and kinder.”

Bowman thinks the group will be successful in implementing a bike lane in the Newton South parking lot because it is currently undergoing construction and the installation of solar panels.

“Our real hope,” said Bowman, “is for them to think, ‘wow if we could do this, think of the things we could do all over the city.’”

The students visit Landry's Bicycles in Newton on a Smart Streets field trip to learn about bike safety from Galen Mook.
The students visit Landry's Bicycles in Newton on a Smart Streets field trip to learn about bike safety from Galen Mook. Smart Streets

Debora Almeida can be reached at debora.almeida@globe.com.