NSTA Advocacy in Action — Public Transit for Students May Save Money, but at What Cost?

John Benish Jr.
Posted on October 1, 2019

File photo
File photo
For many of us, the back-to-school season denotes the unofficial end of summer, and a return to a full menu of deadlines and schedules. Although you undoubtedly saw an increase in media stories related to school transportation during that time, school transportation does not always represent the most glamorous topic for media coverage. So, in an industry that is renowned for its consistency, grabbing readers’ attention may prove difficult.

One topic that has reemerged in several localities is the concept of school district encouragement of public transit to transport students to and from school. First, use of transit agency rail or bus service is not a new phenomenon. Truthfully, its usage revolves around a single benefit: revenue. (More to the point, saving revenue.) In a quest to balance budgets, school boards can save money by providing students a “free” transit pass, in some cases, instead of offering yellow bus service.

The premise is simple: pay the transit agency a certain amount of money for it to provide service for students. Hopefully, that amount resembles adequate compensation to “cover” the additional ridership on transit bus or rail. In theory, this arrangement helps transit agencies because it gets their buses or trains to operate at a higher capacity. But what about students?

Let’s start from a place that recognizes that school transportation is primarily, and appropriately, focused on the school-age population. In other words, bus routes are configured in the safest and most efficient manner to pick up students and take them to school. Transit routes are configured differently, and may require students to traverse multiple roads and intersections to access the closest bus or rail stop. Transit lines are not necessarily picking up students in front of their homes, nor are they dropping them off in front of the school. These particular nuances should not be taken lightly.

A recent survey released by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services indicates that on a single school day, there were 95,319 illegal “passings” of a school bus. If this statistic alone doesn’t grab your attention, consider that these inconsiderate motorists illegally pass a yellow bus with flashing red lights and stop arms. Students getting on and off transit buses wouldn’t be afforded the same protections as those traveling on a yellow bus.

In addition, let’s not discount the expertise of the school bus driver, as most transit bus drivers are not held to the same level of training, especially when it comes to the critical element of passenger evacuation. Also, remember that the school bus driver remains the gatekeeper to the safe haven that the yellow bus represents. Not just anyone can board a school bus; the same cannot be said for transit.

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.
John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.

Let’s also not forget that school buses can only pick up students and drop students off either at school or their home. If a student wants to, he or she can take public transportation anywhere — the city, a park, an airport, or even to another state. And as a parent, do you want to mix your children with the general public?

You may have heard me say this before, but it’s worth repeating. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, “a child is 70 times more likely to get to and from school safely when riding a school bus compared to other modes of transportation — safer than a parent driving their child to school, walking, biking, or students driving themselves.”

Most of us understand the challenge of balancing school budgets, but the transportation of our most valuable commodity — school-age children — should never be a decision based solely on dollars and cents. School transportation remains a critical element within the context of a child’s overall educational experience. When we boil this element down to a cost-saving endeavor, we’ve really done a disservice to our children.

Related Topics: cutting costs, NSTA, transit/tripper service

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