Addressing School Bus Costs through Walking and Bicycling
State Policies and Local Models
School districts all across the country are struggling to balance budgets and save money. When school districts face financial challenges, a common target for cuts are the school transportation system by cutting back bus routes, trimming the number of bus stops, or widening the walk radius around a school. When bus routes or stops are eliminated, parents often react with anger and concern—they are concerned about dangers from traffic due to a lack of safe infrastructure, such as sidewalks and crosswalks, and about “stranger danger” if their children walk or bicycle to school.
However, cutting bus routes without a simultaneous and planned effort to address student safety concerns will likely lead to greater traffic congestion, poorer air quality, and higher parent transportation costs due to an increase in parents driving children to school. It is essential that school districts collaborate with parents and city officials to make it safer for children to walk and bicycle, particularly when cuts to school bus services are being proposed.
Effective state policies on school transportation recognize that children come to school in a variety of ways (school bus, parent vehicle, walk, bicycle, etc.) and seek to ensure the safety for all children. States can also have an impact on busing by how they reimburse local school districts for school transportation costs. Good state policies set standards for the types of hazards that are unacceptable for children walking and bicycling and link “hazard bus” funding for the children to an eventual fix for the hazard. When the hazards are repaired, children who live close to a school can safely walk or bicycle, and the school district can save on school transportation costs.
Good models for local policies around school transportation focus not just on busing, but also on the safety of children who walk and bicycle to and from school. Many of these models set conditions for the determination of safe walking zones – or on the contrary, areas that are unsafe for walking and bicycling, resulting in those children being bused. In the most proactive approach, local communities can seek to fix those safety issues, allowing children to walk and bicycling again, and reducing busing costs.
- The state of Florida provides funding to local school districts to help underwrite the cost of busing children who live close to school but cannot walk or bicycle due to unsafe conditions. State law links the availability of this funding to a plan to fix the hazard. School boards that request hazard bus funding must work with the appropriate state or local governmental agencies to correct the hazard within a reasonable time.
- The state of Illinois reimburses schools for hazard busing when children live less than 1.5 miles to school, but the route is determined to be unsafe for children walking and bicycling. Costs for hazard busing have increased 67% in seven years, and the number of students enrolled in hazard busing is increasing 1.2% per year even while student enrollment is dropping. Illinois House Bill 3202, the Hazardous Busing Mitigation Act, would allow school districts to use a portion of their hazard busing reimbursement from the state to repair the hazards, allowing children to walk and bicycle and allowing the school to reduce busing costs.
- Washington state legislation requires that each elementary school develop suggested route plans identifying the safest routes for children walking and bicycling. The state provides a guidebook to help school administrators develop the school walk routes and work with public works officials to remedy deficiencies.
- Montgomery County Schools in Maryland have a comprehensive student transportation policy that includes clear policies on bus transportation and walking. The policy sets clear guidelines on the “no-transport” zone for school bus transportation and for exceptions due to hazardous walking conditions. It also makes the school district responsible for assessing safety of recommended walking zones and school bus stops and encourages school staff to work with parents and students to teach safe walking and bus-riding behaviors.
- The school board for Memphis City Schools have adopted language requiring the Superintendent to develop an annual Student Transportation Plan that includes bus routes, walk zones, and exceptions due to safety concerns and hazards. The Board of Commissioners must approve the plan each year, ensuring regular attention to the safety of students on buses and walking or bicycling to school.
- In the Auburn School District in Auburn, Washington, each school has a Safe Walking Committee made up of parents, community members, and school personnel that develops walking maps and makes recommendations for needed safety improvements. Each school’s recommendations are reviewed by a city-wide District Safety Committee that prioritizes the requested safety improvements, with a focus on reducing transportation costs where possible, and works with the city to make needed safety improvements and to acquire grant funding as needed.