School bus travails and International Walk and Bike to School Day (first Wednesday in October)
I was remiss in not writing about International Walk and Bike to School Day, which is held the first Wednesday in October, in other words earlier this week.
It's a great event in that it's held in the fall, pretty early into the school year, and it has the opportunity to repattern people's choices on how they get to school. The 2019 post has a bunch of recommendations.
Of course, the biggest problem with "walk or bike to school" is how in the expansive land use and transportation development paradigm that the US has adopted--called sprawl--schools have been repositioned to serve larger populations and multiple neighborhoods, and are located at distances where walking to school is no longer emphasized, and school bus based transportation is required to get students to and from school.
This has been written about plenty over the past 20 years:
-- Why Johnny Can't Walk To School: Historic Neighborhoods in the Age of Sprawl
-- Helping Johnny Walk to School: Policy Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Community-Centered Schools, National Trust for Historic Preservation
-- "Why Johnny Can't Walk to School, op ed, Chicago Tribune
The vehicle-dependent travel paradigm for K-12 education has been a problem for a long time. From the article:
School sprawl doesn't affect just kids, it also makes life worse for parents. A 1999 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based research and policy organization, reported that mothers with school-aged children make an average of more than five car trips a day, 20 percent more than other women. Today, the average American parent is trapped behind the wheel of a car--an average of 72 minutes a day, chauffeuring children to school, and then from there to soccer games, birthday parties, friends' houses and the like.
But now it's become even worse in the post-vaccine period of the pandemic because it has discombobulated the job market, especially for drivers of school buses ("As Schools Reopen, Districts Are Desperate for Bus Drivers," New York Times).
Many communities are now unable to operate all their bus routes, and parents and others are stepping up with car pools etc. to fill in the gap. But there are plenty of students wasting hours each day because of missed bus runs ("Canceled bus routes caused 1,164 Fayette students to miss a half day or more this year," Lexington Herald-Leader, "‘This is a huge burden on families:’ Henrico students missing classes thanks to bus driver shortage," ABC8).
Business Insider argues it's a function of "underfunding schools" ("America's bus-driver 'shortage' isn't new: It's due to years of underfunding, and it's putting kids at risk.") completely missing the real issue, that it's a function of developing a vehicle-dependent paradigm for K-12 student transportation.
When I was a child in Detroit, a mile was about the maximum distance for elementary schools. We all walked to school. And older kids helped shepherd younger kids.
Here in Salt Lake City, it's comparable. The school district makes a point of building walkable schools, and most schools have bike and scooter racks (even if the accommodations aren't up to the recommendations of national policy bodies). This is true even though the region is firmly committed to sprawl (but also probably has to do with the Mormon Church's focus on siting churches at distances convenient to being able to walk to church--even though these days it appears that few people walk to church).
A lot of DC's schools would be walkable, except that probably most students don't attend local schools, but schools all across the city.
And if schools are farther away, kids need to be driven.
(Note, yes, with open enrollment schools, a greater number of students don't live near the school they attend.)
Conclusion. Going forward, things will only get worse in terms of (1) finding bus drivers; (2) wages; (3) the cost of fuel; and (4) the cost of buses.
The solution is for schools to reduce their dependence on bus transportation, and should be required to do balanced transportation planning, with a focus on shifting trips to walking and biking.
-- School Walk and Bike Routes: A Guide for Planning and Improving Walk and Bike to School Options for Students, State of Washington DOT
But most states have requirements for school bus transportation planning, and few if any requirements for balanced transportation planning for all modes.
One exception is the Boulder Valley School District serving Boulder, Colorado, which has walking and biking planners as part of their "student" (not "bus") transportation department.
Palo Alto, California extends its Safe Routes to School planning to junior and senior high schools, whereas most school districts that do have good SRTS programs tend to limit them to elementary schools.
States should address that omission and require school systems do walk and bike to school planning as an element of comprehensive "student transportation" (not "school bus transportation"), rather than just leave it up to the vagaries of parent interest and propinquity.
In addition, as a way to help strengthen local transit systems ("Creativity helps Rochester bus system turn a profit," New York Times), school systems should aim to shift some students to public transit systems, because it can be more efficient to do so. (Many school districts do this for junior and senior high, since these schools tend to be located not within walking distance.)
(Although ADA requirements mean that separate disability transportation is still a part of the mix regardless.)
Note that the MUNI system in San Francisco does this for K-12 students already ("SFMTA announces young people to ride Muni for free," Mass Transit Magazine).