“Why Isn’t the Transportation Sector More Engaged in Student Transportation?” asks Jennifer Schiess of Bellwether Education Partners in the Eno Transportation Weekly. Schless provides a good overview of why school buses — “the largest mass transit system in the [US]” — are so frustrating, for both students and providers.
Yet the real problem is much simpler than her article suggests. The problem is bell times. Really, this is all you need to know.
Many, many US transit agencies are pressured to run service to schools where yellow bus service isn’t provided. In the early 1990s, for example, when I was working in California, funding cuts wiped out almost all school-funded yellow bus service. Suddenly one day, a regular bus passed near a high school and found 200 kids waiting, for more than a bus could handle. The problem was dumped onto the transit agencies without any funding to address it.
What’s more, when school districts run school buses, they think about how to run them more efficiently. This often means setting bell times — the time school begins and ends — differently at different schools so that a single bus and driver can do multiple pieces of work.
But as soon as the schools didn’t have to think about transportation, they stopped setting their bell times with any concern for the efficient use of transit resources. Suddenly, we transit planners were told, bell times were locked down by other priorities. The result was a mess for both transit agencies and students.
For transit agencies, pulling out a bus to work just a brief shift is very, very expensive. The cost lies in the short driver shift, the one-direcitonal demand, and the cost of owning a vehicle that is used only briefly. You can pay the driver less, but expect to get what you pay for in terms of the skills required (supervising kids, intervening in conflicts, and, in your spare moments, driving.)
In dense cities, there is often enough all-day transit near a school, and enough walkable streets, that students can disperse at bell times using services that are running all-day anyway, though the sudden big loads are still a challenge for these services. In network designs, I often try to keep routes a few blocks away from major schools, so that kids will tend to walk to stops on different routes instead of all ending up at one.
But in a low density suburban area, there may be almost no demand until 3:00 PM, when suddenly there are 500 kids expecting us to take them home. Buy big buses that hold 100? Sure, but that’s still five driver shifts that are 1-2 hours long. And if three schools set identical bell times, we need 15 shifts, when if they staggered bell times we might still get away with five.
This is a nice example of a problem that no technology will solve, at least until we have such cheap driverless buses that it’s no problem for them to sit around until once, twice a day, we need five of them. Like all users of transportation services, schools need to be motivated to think about the demands they place on public services. Because without staggered bell times, these demands can eat transit agency budgets, disrupt other customers, and produce worse mobility for everyone.