Is the school bus destined for extinction over the next 50 years?
The answer seems obvious. Of course, not. Well, probably not, anyway.
Currently, about 450,000 school buses transport approximately 24 million American schoolchildren to and from school with a safety record that’s unmatched by any highway carrier.
These 450,000 school buses not only provide safe passage for millions of schoolchildren, but they also reduce traffic congestion around schools during the morning and afternoon commutes. They also help to preserve the environment by reducing the amount of tailpipe emissions into the atmosphere.
What’s more, the school bus has become an icon of the U.S. educational system. Just as McDonald’s is tied to the golden arches, the American school system is wedded to yellow school buses.
So, it’s nearly inconceivable that school buses will not be plying the nation’s highways 50 years from now. The service they provide is too important for them to disappear. Or is it?
Majority is hopeful
To gauge the industry’s belief in the future of the school bus, we asked a group of 82 pupil transportation professionals the following question: “Will school buses, as we know them now, still be around in 50 years?”
More than half say yes. About 56 percent are optimistic about the survival of the school bus. But many of them concede that challenges exist. Here are a few samples of their concerns:
“Funding. Without it, we won’t survive.”
“Overregulation by the government.”
“Technology outpacing training.”
“Funding. We need more state and federal help.”
“Student misbehavior on buses.”
“That it will fade away.”
Meanwhile, nearly three of 10 respondents (29.6 percent) believe that the school bus is doomed. They say it will not be around in 50 years. And nearly one in seven (14.8 percent) also have their doubts, saying they are “uncertain” whether buses will survive. That’s a surprisingly large number of transportation professionals with such a pessimistic view of the industry’s future, but trends suggest that their opinion may have some merit.
Rising costs are concern
The annual cost of transporting those 24 million children is upwards of $12 billion, and that sum has undoubtedly increased in the past year because of record high fuel prices. Many school districts have had to tap into reserves or transfer funds from other accounts to cover higher-than-expected fuel expenses.
And it’s not just the cost of fuel that’s going higher. The industry’s bus manufacturers are saying that the costs of their products are also heading higher.
Some of these price increases are caused by rising cost of construction materials such as steel, copper and plywood. And next year’s implementation of stricter diesel emissions standards by the EPA will lead to engine price increases of several thousand dollars. In 2010, those emissions standards will be further tightened, forcing engine manufacturers to invest even more money in cleaner-burning propulsion systems and filters. That will most likely lead to another round of engine price hikes.
Meanwhile, school boards continue to be squeezed by tight budgets and forced to make tough decisions about how to adequately fund classrooms without taking too much away from ancillary services such as transportation. Some have already taken drastic action.
Bitten by the unexpectedly swift rise of diesel fuel prices, one school district canceled school for two days to defray its operational costs. Other districts have reduced service by extending walking distances or discontinuing bus transportation for activity trips. Certainly, a trend is emerging that suggests that transportation services will continue to be whittled away, even as more parents try to put children on buses to reduce their own transportation expenses.
In the short term, it looks like funding issues do not augur well for school bus transportation. But the economy tends to move in cycles, and the next 50 years will likely see a series of troughs and peaks that will create corresponding budget deficits and surpluses. How school districts respond to those cycles will be interesting to watch, especially as it relates to school transportation.
Disappearing fossil fuel
Another interesting factor in the survival of the school bus will be the world’s fossil fuel reserves. More than likely, you’ve never heard of Hubbert’s Peak, but it has a bearing on this story. No, it’s not a peak in a mountain-climbing sense; it’s what geologists call the “halfway point” in global oil production. According to some calculations, we reached that halfway point sometime last year, meaning that half of the world’s oil supply has been exhausted.
What does that mean for the school bus industry? It means that in another 30 years or so, the world’s oil production will be cut in half. If Hubbert’s theory is correct, by 2056, global oil production will be approximately a quarter of what it is today. That would not be good news for operators of school buses.
Of course, Hubbert’s conjecture is merely that. Other oil experts, including the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), predict that world oil production has by no means reached its peak. But even the DOE concedes that peak production could be reached by the year 2050.
The argument for alternative fuels is strengthened by this specter of disappearing fossil fuel. Over the next five decades, school buses should be transitioning to fossil fuel alternatives to maximize their chance of survival.
Hybrids spur enthusiasm
Respondents to the aforementioned survey were asked what they thought would be the most common fuel (or propulsion system) in 2056. About two in five (42.6 percent) predict that hybrid diesel-electric systems would be the most likely replacement for traditional diesel engines.