From last school year to this one, the St. Lucie County (Fla.) Public Schools reduced the number of buses it operates from 399 to 362, despite opening two new schools. Add in some other smart changes in policy, and the district lowered its annual transportation costs by more than $3 million over last year. Saving $3 million a year doesn’t come easily, especially since the district wanted to keep the adverse impact on service to a minimum. Solutions included analyzing bus route efficiency, promoting walking or bicycling, and shifting school schedules. “We use data to drive our decisions—our management structure will look at data almost weekly,” says Marty E. Sanders, the executive director of growth management, land acquisition and intergovernmental relations for the board of education of St. Lucie County.
For most of last year, it looked like the cost of fuel might upend the budget of nearly every district in the country. While the price of oil might have returned to earth, diesel fuel is still on average $1 more per gallon than gasoline, and in today’s environment, money is tighter than ever. Consider this: The total cost of operating one bus for a year is about $50,000, and bus service can eat up 3 to 10 percent of the district’s budget, according to Trans-Par, a student transportation consulting firm based in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
But the bottom line is more than financial. If 700 students in a district started walking or biking a two-mile round-trip route to school instead of taking the bus, more than 11,500 pounds of carbon monoxide, as well as more than 230,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, would be kept out of the atmosphere in a school year, according to the National Safe Routes to School Task Force. And those students would have spent 84,000 hours being active.
No one is more pleased with the enthusiasm generated by this reality than Sean Miller, director of education at the Earth Day Network, which grew out of the original Earth Day in 1970 and steers environmental awareness worldwide. In 1964, about 40 percent of American students walked or biked to school. Today only 20 percent do, which has led to higher obesity among youths, a greater disconnect with nature and an increase in gas consumption. “We seek to green America’s schools, and one of the best ways to do that is through your school’s transportation system,” Miller says. He adds that “it’s great to see individuals take action on a local level,” instead of such action just being about the Arctic polar bear or endangered species.
Miller identifies various safe and sustainable ways to get kids to school, such as bicycling and walking, certain bus policies, and better site placement of schools. In addition, the Earth Day Network is kicking off this month an anti-idling campaign for all buses nationwide, recommending that bus drivers don’t let their buses idle for more than 30 seconds, either when starting up or waiting for students to board. For each bus that reduces idling by five minutes each day, 7.5 pounds of fuel are saved each year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
A More Efficient Bus Route
The twin variables to building a better bus route couldn’t be more elemental: time and space. The bus itself, the driver’s paycheck, and the fuel are sunk costs—they’re essentially the same if one child is riding or 50. So fi lling as many seats as possible is crucial. There’s a catch, however. Most districts try to keep the amount of time students ride the bus to no more than 45 minutes, or an hour at most. But with the clock ticking from when the first child boards the bus, it often is impossible to maximize the number of riders in a timely way. “Most buses run out of time before they run out of seats,” says Kyle Martin, vice president of TransPar. “It’s critical to look at any runs that can be combined. But first and foremost, you have to manage your starting bell times, so one bus can be used several times over.”
More than 90 percent of the districts TransPar works with have different bell times for their schools, but typically, they have one start time for all high schools, one for all middle schools, and one for all elementary schools. Of those, Martin says, half could probably change some start times to help bus routing. “When you schedule the bell times more efficiently, you’re not reducing transportation, just changing the time of it,” he notes.
St. Lucie officials, who worked with TransPar on transportation changes, altered the bell schedule for several of the district’s 47 schools to save money. They also created an express bus run with fewer stops for a new magnet-type school that has students spread around the district. Using data from automatic vehicle locating technology on the district’s buses, similar to a car’s GPS, they tweaked other bus routes as well.
“Something like the bell schedule, which will let you get as many as four runs out of a bus, is the key to efficiency,” says Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. “Those kinds of considerations not only save on fuel, they save on the personnel costs, which in transportation are significant. It’s easier to retain drivers when you can offer six to eight hours of work daily, compared to more drivers at three or four hours.”
Riley notes that compared to students traveling to school in an automobile, the bus is much better for the environment. However, about half of kids come to school via car, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. Parents might be worried about child safety, or teenagers might not want to be seen on the bus, which for some students is “not cool.” But the trend can be aggravating for a district, which still needs to run buses to those routes since on any given day a student who usually comes to school by car might need to ride the bus.
There are many benefits to having more kids walk, such as that when fewer students need the bus, routes can be altered to save time and money. St. Lucie used this strategy, bringing in $2.4 million from Safe Routes to School (SRTS), a federal program that provides funding to install new sidewalks and make other changes that increase the feasibility and attractiveness of walking or biking to school, which emit zero hazadous chemicals.
More than 4,000 programs nationwide have received SRTS funds since the $612 million program was launched in 2005. The funding is distributed to individual state departments of transportation, each of which distributes the funds to local governments that apply.
“Usually a district will ask for funding to support a planning phase—some money for a walking audit to assess what elements it needs to address to make walking more attractive,” says Raquel Rivas, marketing manager for the National Center for Safe Routes to School. “The money can also go to infrastructure improvement, like sidewalks, striping, signage, as well as for crossing guards and education and encouragement for students.” The first International Walk to School Day in the United States was held in 1997, and it has since grown to be a monthlong activity, with 42 countries participating.
The Auburn (Wash.) School District has used SRTS grants the last three years on everything from new stop signs to education about the benefits of walking. About 85 percent of the students at Pioneer Elementary School now walk to school, for example, eliminating the need for six buses. Better yet, the school has gone from one of the lowest performing schools in the district to one of the highest, according to Jim Denton, the district’s former director of transportation and now a consultant on school transportation issues. “It takes a lot of variables to accomplish that, but the kids at school are fit and alert because of how they get to school, and they work with their teachers outside of the classroom on issues like safety—that’s got to help,” he says.
Auburn schools and the city work together to target specific schools for the program that are best suited for a walking campaign, due to factors like which sites are located on and near quiet streets and the number of students who live nearby. “Over the last seven years, we’ve been able to reduce the number of buses by 20 percent, even as the district has been growing 5 to 7 percent annually, opening a new school every other year,” Denton says. And Auburn has saved $220,000 to date districtwide through the SRTS program.
Part of Auburn’s strategy has been to help parents get comfortable letting their young children walk to school, including a “walking school bus” program at some schools, where parent volunteers take turns leading a gaggle of kids down specific routes at scheduled times, just like a bus.
Nationally, walking school bus programs are becoming increasingly popular, in part because they allow even the youngest student to walk to school safely. At the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System, parents meet at six departure points to take pupils to Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex, and one route has as many as 200 people who regularly walk. In the Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif., the families in the Natomas Park Elementary School register children in advance to participate, and every parent has a background check and training to ensure proper safety for walking students.
A Safer, Healthier Route
Safety is the underlying issue in getting kids to and from school. The American School Bus Council points to federal data that shows students are 13 times safer in a school bus than in other modes of travel. It’s no coincidence that walking campaigns and funding make child safety the first order of business. “The first time [walking was promoted], parents were not excited,” says Andrea Fletcher, principal at Hillrise Elementary School in the Las Cruces (N.M.) Public School District. “They were very worried that kids would get kidnapped. But statistically, stranger kidnapping is not something to be concerned about.”
To encourage walking, the school brought in a speaker to talk to its 510 students about how to be safe on the streets. The school also holds regular bicycle rodeos to teach proper signals and other skills. Today about a third of its students regularly walk to school, up from 8 percent before the program began, and many are walking up to mile a day. “It’s an opportunity for families to walk together and see each other,” Fletcher says.
Whether it’s lowering the number of cars around school at drop-off and pickup times, or reducing the number of buses, there are benefits for safe-routes-to-school programs. Denton says that fighting childhood obesity was part of the goal for the Auburn district’s program, and some schools even incorporate the walk into the school day, from using distance and miles as a real-life example for word problems in math class to having healthy snacks in the cafeteria for walkers when they arrive in the morning.
And at Hillrise, the impact has captured the students’ imaginations. “They’re aware of how their actions affect things globally, and they’re dying to do something like this,” Fletcher says. “But they need a reason and a way to get involved.”
Carl Vogel is a freelance writer in Chicago.