Image Courtesy of HopSkipDrive

Image Courtesy of HopSkipDrive

For decades, the yellow school bus has been an effective way to transport kids to and from school. When students living within a school zone are all headed to the same school, the iconic yellow bus consistently and safely meets the needs of the community.

Over time, however, as neighborhoods have become more sprawling — and especially now that many states have expanded school choice — families have begun to enroll their children in schools located outside of their community. Important regulations have also been developed that mandate transportation for vulnerable youth, such as students living in foster care, students with IEPs, or students experiencing homelessness.

These, and other, societal shifts have made it even more challenging for the yellow bus system to meet the evolving needs of all students. This has led to a mismatch between school transportation demand and supply, stretching hardworking school transportation teams to the max as they try to meet the diverse needs and expectations of the families in their community.

Taking the lead from tried and true solutions

When considering solutions to evolving needs in the student transportation space, we can gain inspiration from a different environment: cities. Facing the diverse needs and growing transportation demands of a large population, bustling cities like New York City, Boston, and Chicago — and even smaller cities like Charlotte and Denver — have all become multimodal, investing in numerous forms of transportation in order to ensure all riders have a way to get where they need to go affordably, equitably, and conveniently. These cities have promoted robust public transportation, city-supported bike-share programs, scooter programs, and rideshare transport to help fill the gaps where previous methods of transportation were not enough.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the student transportation community has yet to fully embrace and implement this comprehensive approach — and it’s costing us all. With limited investment in diversified transportation methods for students, we’re seeing highs in absenteeism, extraordinarily long commute times, reduced access to school-provided services, and more, all of which has negatively affected the way school transportation is perceived in the community at large.

Vulnerable populations are affected disproportionately

Sadly, access to transportation impacts marginalized and disadvantaged groups the most, including students experiencing homelessness or living in foster care and those who live in isolated areas. According to recent data, about 32% of students in poorer communities in 40 states and Washington, D.C. were chronically absent during the 2022–2023 school year — representing a steep increase from 19% before the pandemic. The reasons for this are many and varied but include the fact that not all families have a car. In 2022, 8.3% of American households did not have access to a working vehicle. These families rely most on the school bus or, alternatively, public transportation, which isn’t suited for children with distinct needs. This means that low-income families that don’t own a car — and therefore cannot drive their kids to school — naturally face more barriers to getting there, which impacts attendance.

Chronic absenteeism can have devastating long-term impacts on such things as academic grades, a student’s ability to graduate on time, and their decision to drop out of school altogether. A Utah study found that chronic absenteeism in even a single year between 8th and 12th grade was associated with a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out. Without finishing school, students are then more likely to experience poor outcomes later in life, such as poverty, diminished health, and criminal involvement.

Well aware of these absenteeism and equity issues, schools are challenged with solving them in a way that is sustainable with little to no impact on budget — all while dealing with the school bus driver shortage, which is at an all-time high. In tandem, schools are also facing more mandates to go electric with their transportation operations to reduce carbon emissions.

More options for schools means more options for students

A multimodal approach to school transportation is key to solving these complicated and intertwined issues — and understanding the need for this type of approach is essential at every level of education. We must collectively understand that more options for schools means more options for students.

To decrease absenteeism and better serve our communities, we need school buses — perhaps now more than ever — but we also need safe streets for walking routes and biking, as well as public transit and other supplemental transportation options to give all children equal access to the education they deserve.

By working with experienced and dedicated partners, schools can supplement buses and help improve routing for more efficient transportation. And by leveraging cutting-edge technology to ensure each student is paired with the right mode of transportation, we can work together to create a future where student transportation is efficient and safe for everyone.

Learn about how HopSkipDrive partners with districts to enable a multimodal approach to school transportation and solve complex transportation challenges where there is a heightened need for safety, equity, and care.