Beyond the Yellow Bus

Academia Data

Beyond the Yellow Bus

This is the first of three reports I wrote with the Center for Cities and Schools. Having attended K-12 schools with yellow bus service, I assumed this transportation was comprehensive and universal. Not quite.


First, a little more about the Center for Cities and Schools. Essentially, they’re awesome, both personally, and because they hone in on a really obscure but incredibly important oversight in city planning. City/county governments and school districts are wholly uncoordinated (everywhere but Maryland, and more about that in a minute).

For example, a county can make a land use plan that puts all the homes on one side of town, and the school district can decide to put all the schools on the other. Neither side is acting maliciously. The county plan is likely based on transportation access, existing land use patterns, and politics. The school plan is based on the cheapest available land. Cheap land is often far flung. Once the school site is picked, now the water and sewer authority (a third, independent actor) gets to build new infrastructure to serve it, making that far flung land more attractive, and leading to sprawl. No one actor is malicious, they’re just uncoordinated and driven by different requirements.

In addition, students are generally given very few opportunities to participate in the planning process. This is a loss for the entire community – students and young people have a unique viewpoint, and know more about what they want (and will want) than people decades their senior. Empowering young people to understand and advocate for their own interests will make our communities better places for all. I facilitated a town hall workshop in Oakland years ago with a raffle for A’s tickets to attendees under 22. The meeting was in a senior center at 9 AM on a Saturday. They just divided the surplus of tickets among the three qualified people that showed up.

The Center for Cities and Schools targets each of these issues through a variety of programs and projects. My biggest involvement has been through the first approach, coordinating government processes. This student transportation report is a part of that.

Maintaining and operating a fleet of yellow school buses is fairly expensive. More and more, school districts are turning to private contractors. It’s ironic that the majority of the modern school buses shown on the School Bus Wikipedia page are of private buses (“First Student”). As is often the case with privatization, over time the immediate savings of vehicle upgrades are lost to higher operating overhead and staff turnover. Regardless, this trend is growing, and in 2012, 40% of yellow buses were operated privately.

In districts served by transit, operating a fleet of buses for use twice a day is redundant. In New York City, most students take the Metro or walk. In Oakland, which has some transit, but nothing on the level of NYC, many take the local bus. But a federal “Tripper” rule requires that public transit not directly compete with yellow bus operators. Strange? Yeah, that’s the beauty of privatization – it applies to private bus operators, too.

Effectively, it’s a challenge for transit operators and schools to coordinate routes that serve schools, but aren’t designed specifically to be too convenient. You might end or start at a school, but make other non-student serving stops along the way. In addition, many school districts opt to subsidize student transit passes. Students in Polk County, Florida pay $2.14 a year for unlimited transit access. Students in Oakland pay $20 a month.

There are a lot more interesting nuances of student transportation, but these were my favorite. The full report is embedded below. Enjoy.

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