This is how corrosive car culture in Newton is. A fully-grown adult stood up at a public meeting this week to argue for a right turn on red across the street from Angier Elementary School, otherwise frustrated drivers might blow through the crosswalk in a distracting rage and kill a child.

It’s time to ban cars around schools during drop-off and pick-up times.

The adult, a close neighbor to the school, invested the better part of a Thursday evening to attend a meeting of the Public Safety & Transportation committee to object to right-turn-on-red restrictions on the turn from Manitoba Rd. to Beacon St., mostly out of concern that eliminating the (default) right turn on red will cause backups in her neighborhood.

Right turns on red are a convenience for drivers. Full stop. (See what I did there?) Right turns on red allow drivers to proceed sooner, on the theory that right turns on red are safe enough. It turns a fully signalized turn into the equivalent of a stop sign. There is no benefit to people on foot, only an increased risk that there will be a motor vehicle/person conflict in the crosswalk.

The neighbor’s argument was that eliminating the right turn on red during school drop-off and pick-up times will so increase backup at the intersection that it will turn drivers into raging sociopaths who put children at risk. The correct policy response, according to the neighbor, is to accommodate the latent sociopathy.

Sadly, the neighbor’s diagnosis is not entirely wrong. The neighbor’s solution, however, is all wrong. If we are at risk of sociopathic people in control of machines capable of killing elementary school children, the answer is to remove the risk. Rather than accommodate potential killers, let’s keep them away from our kids altogether.

Don’t mix large groups of small children with two- to three-ton vehicles operated by people in a hurry.

Happily, the committee, by a unanimous vote, rejected the appeal of time-based restrictions on right turns on red at the intersection and, in fact, removed the restrictions. (Traffic Council had approved no right turn on red during three specific periods, only.) Right turns on red will not be allowed at any time. Karma.

Still, the neighbor’s argument highlights the need to more fully separate motor vehicles and crowds of vulnerable children. (Why do I write “motor vehicles” and not “cars”? A huge proportion of motor-vehicle traffic is now actually light-truck. That fancy SUV you’re driving is really a truck.)

Since I last promoted banning cars around schools during drop-off and pick-up, some thoughtful Newtonians posed some quite reasonable questions. This seems like a good opportunity to answer them.

What about working parents?
There is nothing inherently anti-working parent about a ban on cars within a quarter mile or so of a school. There would no impact, at all, on working parents whose children already take the bus or walk to school. Working parents who, out of necessity, drive their children to school, would no longer drop them within sight of the front door. Instead, they would drop them off at the edge of an incredibly safe, almost entirely motor vehicle-free zone filled with happy children and parents walking and biking on the sidewalks and in the street. (I get teary just thinking about it.)

What if my child needs to be escorted to the front door?
They don’t. I mean it. Don’t @ me.

More specifically, the vast majority of children would be far better off gaining the independence that comes from navigating a little part of their world on their own. Hundreds of elementary-school children around the city walk themselves to school every day. More accurately, those unaccompanied children join a vibrant stream of adults and children on the way to or from school. Your child will be fine self-propelling along in that stream.

If your child is really the exception that needs direct adult supervision all the way to the front step, there are options. Park at the edge of the zone and walk together. If that’s not possible, arrange with one or some of those parents already walking their children to the door to look after yours, too. Whether it’s a formal walking school bus or a more informal arrangement to walk with a classmate whose parent is not so time-constrained, it’s hardly a novel concept. 

It is less convenient to have to set up and maintain those arrangements than it is to drive your child to the front door. Acknowledged. We should no longer be willing to put children at risk to reduce your inconvenience. 

There are going to be true exceptions. Special needs children. Children who are recovering from injuries that limit their mobility. I would hope that their families would recognize the community benefit of car-free zones and arrange to travel through the zones before or after the car-free period. But, if that’s not possible, those families should get a placard and be able to travel through the zone, with hazards flashing, at no more than 5 MPH.

Staying on the working-parent thread, the car-free zone is between my house and my work, how will I get to work on time when I can’t drive through the zone? 
Get up a little earlier. Drive around the zone to a point closest to work. Drop off your child.

What about the weather?
Children are already walking and biking to school through the car-free zones. Every day. In all weather. I live along the busiest route to an elementary school. There is never a day without some children (and parents) on foot. To my knowledge, no one has died of exposure to the elements walking to school.

No, seriously, what about sidewalk snow removal? 
Sidewalk snow removal is a problem for a handful of weeks during the school year. If sidewalk snow is really a problem, suspend car-free zones during those weeks. But, sidewalk snow is not a problem.

First, one thing the city is really, really good at: removing snow from streets. If we turn the streets around our schools into car-free zones, children will be able to walk safely in the streets. It won’t matter how well-cleared the sidewalks are or are not.

Second, sidewalk snow removal on the sidewalks within would-be car-free zones is already good and continues to get better.

Third, if good sidewalk snow removal is a pre-requisite of car-free zones, then we should invest in better sidewalk snow removal.

Fourth, if sidewalk snow removal is really an ongoing, unsolvable issue precluding car-free zones, suspend the car-free zones after snows and before sidewalks are clear. 

What about the neighbors who live within car-free zones?
What about them? Like everyone else, they are going to need to adjust their lives to restricted access to city streets for a few hours a day. Why is 24/7 unrestricted access a value that’s more important than the health and safety of our children?

What about the neighborhoods at the edge of the car-free zones, aren’t they going to get congested with parents dropping their kids off?
Absolutely. But, if we’re willing to put high up with congestion directly around schools now, why wouldn’t we be willing to put up with less concentrated congestion at points a bit away from schools?

The answer is, of course, political. Currently, my neighbors and I endure heavy traffic by our homes each morning, but the real congestion is closer to the local school. If we did a car-free zone, my neighbors and I would see the backups on our street. We’d only see a part of the backup. It would be spread around several blocks in the area. That’s a bunch of people motivated to complain and object.

We should be ignored. 

Okay, I’m sold, how can we get started? 
Like any other big change, car-free zones should be implemented in phases. Pick a school that seems particularly well-suited for a car-free zone (a school that’s not on an arterial). Conduct a trial of a car-free zone, in a month that’s unlikely to see much snow, like October. It will, initially, probably require a meaningful manual investment, like putting up and taking down traffic barriers to demarcate the zone. If it works (and it will!), do a longer trial. Do a trial at another school. Do a trial at a school, like Williams or Angier that is along an arterial. Make some zones permanent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It won’t happen overnight.







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