This column is in response to our October 2012 editorial and Along for the Ride blog post titled “Thoughts on transit replacing yellow buses.” For more responses, go here.
Ted Finlayson-Schueler is president of Safety Rules!, a nonprofit organization based in Syracuse, N.Y.
Transit bus transportation has certainly not operated under the same microscope as school bus transportation as far as student safety is concerned. I served, along with Ron Kinney [state legislation monitor for the National School Transportation Association, a consultant, and former state director of school transportation for California], who is quoted in the blog, on the Transportation Research Board’s study committee that created the report “The Relative Risks of School Travel.” (It can be downloaded at http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr269.pdf.)
The committee searched for data to compare the “relative risk” of school and transit buses and was not able to pinpoint data on student transit fatalities because, No. 1, students are not an established subset of transit ridership. No. 2, once riders have stepped off a transit bus, they are no longer counted as being related to the transit bus. If they are struck by the bus, they are just a pedestrian, not a passenger/pedestrian. If the rider is hit by another vehicle while crossing the street after alighting, the transit bus doesn’t appear on the accident report.
All this said, a strong transit system can play an important role in high school education. (I hesitate to include middle school because that term can include children as young as fourth or fifth grade in some school districts.) If education at these levels could be easily partitioned into activities that started at 8 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. (you can pick any other a.m. or p.m. times), then our yellow buses could meet the needs of these students handily.
Unfortunately, there are some before-school activities, many days when testing schedules or other special activities mean students don’t need to be at school first thing in the morning, and many, many activities after the school day ends. If these older students get to and from school with a transit pass they can use at any time an activity is scheduled, they have the opportunity to participate in these activities. If their parents don’t have a car and the late buses have been cut (which is often the first service on the budget chopping block), then involvement in non-curricular activities becomes a choice between non-participation and riding with teens (something so dangerous that a comparison between school bus and transit bus safety becomes superfluous). These “extra” activities are what keep some students in school and what other students use to show themselves as being “well-rounded” in college applications.
If transit bus transportation is chosen for middle and high school students, ridership safety must be taught just as intensely as we teach school bus safety to our yellow bus students. The additional benefit to teaching transit bus safety is that it is a skill that the students can use their entire lifetime.
The one-size-fits-all yellow bus arrival and departure times may provide the safest form of surface transportation, but it does not support the schedules and needs of our students. Unless we can develop the flexibility to meet our students’ transportation needs and we can find a way to make yellow buses appear relevant to them, we will not be the transportation of choice for students or for educators — not for the financial reasons that began this discussion, but because transit’s flexibility is the only way to deal with the diverse aspects of secondary school education that include schools of choice, homeless children, community service, online courses, courses on college campuses, work study, internships and GED programs, along with traditional after-school programs and athletics.