As Fewer Kids Attend Neighborhood Schools, Transportation Challenges Intensify

Scenes like this are becoming rarer. Photo:  MoBikeFed
Scenes like this are becoming rarer. Photo: MoBikeFed

The more kids get driven to school instead of walking, the more chaotic the drop-offs and pick-ups become. Twice a day, the streets around schools turn into a snarled traffic mess, with a lot of vulnerable children walking around.

There’s a discussion at Greater Greater Washington about how schools can make the process safer and less of a free-for-all, and few seem to have had much success.

GGW’s Matthew Kohler notes that the rise of school choice policies adds a whole new wrinkle, as students shift from neighborhood schools within walking distance to schools farther away:

The problem’s scope has only recently expanded — in other words, it’s not something schools have had that much time to think about.

Since the mid 2000s, enrollment at both charter and traditional schools is up (charters had 44 percent of citywide enrollment in 2014), and with more parents entering the school lottery every year more students are attending schools outside of their neighborhoods. That often means walking or biking isn’t feasible (especially for elementary school kids who may not be old enough to walk, bike, or take public transportation), so more parents are driving.

In other words, said Steve Glazerman, “school choice does naturally lead to longer commutes, all things equal, at least in the short run. The idea is that parents get to trade off distance with other school attributes like academic quality or special programs.”

Steve actually did a recent study on school choice, and his findings helped lead to this graph, which is based on data from everyone who applied to DC’s public school lottery in 2014.

School choice roughly doubles the commute for parents and students, a study by Steve Glazerman found. Graph: GGWash
Image: Steve Glazerman and Dallas Dotter

“School choice,” said Steve, “both charters and open enrollment, more than double the average commute distance for these families, probably pushing a lot across the mode choice threshold from walking to car/bus/train.”

More recommended reading today: Transportation for America warns that transit funding will be at risk in the Trump budget. And Price Tags considers how much ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are increasing traffic in Seattle.

  • Charter/choice/magnet schools certainly do increase distances, but the habit of driving kids to school was well established before that, part of a societal trend away from walking and bicycling. Many kids are being driven to neighborhood schools at distances of less than a quarter mile. There are many explanations for this, but parents report the greatest reason as being fear of traffic speed and driver behavior. Of course, that is mostly other parents driving their kids to school, as a large portion of traffic at arrival and dismissal times is school-related. Safe Routes to School programs try to counteract these trends, but working against the new paradigm of driving everywhere is not easy. Those who live in urban areas may be surprised that this is still the trend, but the suburbs are a different world, and unfortunately most students live in the suburbs.

  • Vooch

    Indeed, in a very upscale inner ring San Diego Nieghborhood, the elementary school draws from a catchment basin of less than 3/4 mile with most children living less than 1/2 mile away.

    It’s a delightful fully walkable 1920s inner ring suburb.

    99.9% of the children are driven to this elementary school.

    School Choice isn’t going to change this

  • reasonableexplanation

    I mean, if you’re already driving to work, you might as well drop your kids off at school on the way right? Unless they’re old enough to walk there on their own.

  • Vooch

    the Moms sit in a Mom caused traffic nightmare for 20 minutes picking-dropping off their kiddos

    It’s faster to walk back and forth

  • thielges

    A longer term consequence of driving kids to school is that they become indoctrinated into the idea that every trip begins with getting in a car. This is how we get adults who think nothing of driving three blocks for a cup of coffee.

    My daily commute passes several elementary schools so I’ve got a front seat in the Pikov Andropov Circus. Some schools do better than others. There are quite a few schools that seem to have a solid 40-70% of students arriving on foot. Maybe we can learn from those schools.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I mean, the dads pick up the kids too, again, often on the way to/from work, to which they’re driving anyway.

  • voltairesmistress

    I think schools should prohibit curbside drop offs and pick ups and instead obtain lease agreements from nearby parking facilities or shopping centers for parents wishing to drive their kids. Parent drivers could park and unload their children safely and then walk them or allow their children to walk the 1-5 blocks to school across what I would hope would be intersections with crossing guards. It would provide a much safer environment for students arriving on foot or bike. And it would eliminate the utter convenience of door to door drop offs, thus encouraging more families to choose not to drive at all.

  • Vooch

    in this case it’s nearly all Moms

  • thielges

    +1

    Another byproduct is that it might improve safety if the parent chauffeurs know that it doesn’t make sense to race up in their car to the front of the school seconds before the first bell. Any racing to the door will be done on foot. While that footrace might still be unsafe, it is not nearly so as when accompanied by two tons of equipment.

    There will be pushback from parents though, especially considering the extra block or two walk will expose people to walking in the rain.

  • bobfuss

    Racist school allocation systems and de facto busing policies have caused a massive increase in school commutes, all in the name of ideology and social engineering.

    Why can’t every kid just go to his or her local school?

  • AndreL

    I am all for more kids walking or using transit, but that should not, under any circumstance, be an argument against a more important principle: school choice.

  • Milo DeShong

    Different kids need different options! Transportation?
    Check these middle school kids out!

  • Joe R.

    This is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. It seems nobody bothered thinking that school choice was going to increase the number of kids who couldn’t walk to school. End result is school districts spending a lot more on busing than before. That’s money which could have gone to improve local schools instead. I also question the value of busing to a supposedly better school when the children arrive after sitting on a smelly, bumpy bus for long periods. The fatigue and nausea caused by this may well negate any value from the better school. And then you have the negative effects on the general population of all those children being bused or driven to school. That has an enormous societal cost even if it’s not borne by the school district.

    In my opinion, we should put money into improving local schools and assign kids based on zoning. Maybe you can make a case for school choice in high school given that some students at that point might require a more specialized curriculum which local schools can’t deliver. However, by high school students are capable of using local public transit to get to school, avoiding the need for more money spent on busing.

  • There are no shopping centers or parking facilities anywhere near my kid’s school. The closest surface lot of more than four spaces is nearly a mile away.

    (I’m not a fan of the jam either, but your proposal simply wouldn’t work at all in most of Chicago)

    Our family walks or bikes, except on days of extreme weather or when delays or emergencies at home have not left enough time to do so, in which case I drive her. I find street parking (which is available in one-to-two-spot numbers here and there; maybe fifteen on any given morning) and walk her in.

    There are plenty of parents in our school who don’t have time to walk their kid to school AND THEN set off for work on their commute. They have to trip-chain. And there’s no place for that many cars to park.

  • AB3

    In certain cases, school choice can actually help increase transit usage for student dropoffs/pickups. In the case of my downtown-area neighborhood, the local school is not very transit friendly. That was one major reason we supported the formation of a local charter school located 1.5 blocks from a Metro station. As a car-free family, transit friendliness is a must for any school our daughter would attend.

  • calwatch

    Remember school choice is not just about educational quality, but about breaking down racial and economic segregation. If neighborhoods are poor and the only other kids one sees are poor kids, then that means the poor kids are stuck in their “separate but equal” schools. Ironically, that also hurts the neighborhoods that they are in. Urban areas which have specialty schools often attract middle class parents who normally would move to the suburbs.

  • calwatch

    Because then minorities and the poor would never see someone from another race, or someone from a higher economic group. Urban school districts that do not practice segregation, like San Francisco and Wake County North Carolina, consistently have higher performance for their students than segregated districts.

  • Joe R.

    The thing is we tried busing and forced integration in the 1960s. It understandably created a lot of resentment when a child had to be bused to a school many miles away when there was a perfectly good school right around the corner. It also didn’t produce the expected results among poorer children who were bused into wealthier school districts. This is one of those ideas which might look wonderful in an ivory tower, but it fails miserably in the real world.

    School choice is just a variation on that theme. We no longer force kids to be bused. Instead, we give them, or more likely their parents, a choice of going to the local school, or being bused to one of their choosing. Now one could argue that giving choice at least gets rid of the parental resentment. Fine, but I have a much larger problem here. Do the kids themselves have the final say in whether or not they attend a far away school, or is it solely up to the parents? In the end children often have a good instinctive grasp of what might be better for them. At a young age, I might not have been able to critically compare the programs at several schools, but I certainly would have known going to a far away school would have meant sitting in a bumpy, smelly bus which would have made me sick day in and day out. For that reason alone I would have insisted on the local school.

    Finally, while I agree that it’s not ideal if poor kids only see other poor kids, that’s a symptom of the larger issue of neighborhoods divided along class and ethnic lines. I suggest that we try to solve this problem first. Doing so would produce a whole host of benefits above and beyond making school populations more diverse.

  • bobfuss

    Have you actually asked blacks in Hunters Point, Asians in ChinaTown or Hispanics in the Mission whether they want to be thrown into schools where there is next to nobody like them? Is it possible that is traumatic to a sixth grader?

    And SF has better scores because parents here are smarter and richer. SFUSD doesn’t get so much credit for that.

    But the issue here is transportation, and a quota bussing system increases student miles travelled.

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