Changes and Challenges of Student Transportation

In 1927, Albert L. Luce, the founder of the Blue Bird Bus Co., built his first school bus. The need to be driven to school by auto probably became more commonplace 20 years later, when suburban developments beyond typical walking distances became the norm in suburbs across America.

Regardless of how cars and buses became the most common means to get to and from school, it’s clear the means and methods of how this gets done continues to change, due to common-sense reasons like student safety, school security and technology.

Changes in curriculum and in the types of schools being built by today’s school districts have also made a difference. The introduction of magnet schools, and the movement to build smaller neighborhood schools where community- and student-oriented amenities can be consolidated, has also increased the radius of where students live, and as a result, there is more busing and driving to school.

Other than inner city schools in the major metropolitan areas, where public transit is used to transport students, the factors that accompany bus and automobile traffic (and overall community needs) has dramatically affected the way school sites are laid out and, more importantly, how they interface with a building’s overall design.

Most schools serve more than 500 students, and many have enrollments exceeding 1,000 or more. Transporting those students safely is a huge undertaking. When you also consider the fact that most communities can’t afford simultaneous running bus fleets and must coordinate the consecutive movement of high, middle and elementary school students, it can be mind-boggling. The efficient, safe coordination and movement of walkers, bus riders and car drivers can best be facilitated by a well-designed and thought-out network of bus lanes, parent drop-off drives, parking areas and sidewalks, that are coordinated with the appropriate building components.

Typically, visitor parking areas are separate from larger student and staff parking areas, but should always be located at the main entrance to the school so administration can oversee activity and monitor visitor entries. Student drop-off drives also make the best sense in this vicinity and should be long enough to accommodate several cars stacked end to end.

This area alone can be a prime spot for congestion, particularly in the mornings, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools in New Britain, CT, Ronald Jakubowski.“Parents today don’t feel comfortable driving off until they see their youngster actually enter the building,” Jakubowski says. Therefore, the distance from the car to the front door adds wait time, adding car stacking length, and if the drop-off lane isn’t long enough, congestion. Since public security weighs heavily on peoples’ minds today, especially in moderate-sized cities like New Britain, parents would much rather have the child ride the bus or be driven than walk to school — even when distances are less than one mile.

The bus queuing necessary, particularly at the end of the day when students need to exit the school quickly and safely, is anoither place where significant driveway length and site area is necessary. At New Britain High School, with a student population of more than 3,000, as many as 46 Type I (68 seat) buses, plus several mini buses stack end to end to accommodate a mass afternoon exit of students. Current proposals to add a bus exit drive offsite, through an adjacent city park, may be the only solution to site and surrounding traffic congestion.

Student parking is another student transportation component that has grown through the years as increasing numbers of younger people are given the option to drive rather than walk to school. Students tend to loiter in these large parking areas, so they must be arranged in ways that can be easily monitored. These parking areas should also be designed so they will interface with other building and onsite components effectively. Large community-use areas on school campuses, like the auditorium and gymnasium, should be adjacent to the parking areas for after-school hours or weekend town-wide use. Close proximity to onsite playing fields and running tracks is also important.

“During school hours,” says Richard Webb, a senior project manager for the Albany-based Clough Harbour & Associates, “with many young teenage drivers contained in one parking area, whose safety and caution may not be a highly cultivated driving habit, I employ ‘traffic calming’ techniques in parking lot layouts, with gently-curving parking aisles and additional islands to limit long, straight drive lanes between parking spaces and the temptation to speed. Webb also uses raised and textured crosswalks to calm traffic. “They clearly define pedestrian circulation and gently elevate the road surface with a complementary texture. Drivers naturally slow down.” he says.

Shade trees planted in islands are another effective to alleviate the illusions of vastness these large parking areas present. Current movements toward green school buildings and site design encourage these plantings. They are helpful in large parking areas because they reduce the “heat island effect” large parking areas can create during summer months when they absorb the sun’s radiant heat and substantially raise surrounding temperatures. Through shading and evapotranspiration, trees in parking areas can significantly cool an environment. Something less optional in Southern California, according to Project Architect Derek Labreque of the San Diego-based NTD Stichler Architecture firm, are codes that require contractors to increase reflectance on large paved areas by paving in light colored concrete versus dark asphalt to cut down on the cumulative heat gain on school parking areas.

Another challenge in California, according to Labreque, is rain. Since school buildings are separated into smaller groupings of structures, walking canopies and overhangs must be strategically designed to not only provide cover from the rain and sun between buildings, but to provide shelter for bus and car afternoon pick-up.

Of course, when rain is discussed as something that impacts student transportation, you can’t help but talk about other kinds of weather — frozen precipitation. In many towns and districts through out the country, the removal of snow, school closings and early dismissal’s are all parts of a well-orchestrated operation. In New Britain, where 14 school buildings must be cleared of snow and ready for morning openings, Raymond Moore, the director of Facilities Management is up most of (if not all) the night. Moore spends the snowy night hours coordinating a 12-person team running trucks and sanders on parking areas and sidewalks. Each facility’s maintenance staff is asked to start the shift early and clean up smaller walks and entranceways adjacent to the building. “With moms and dads both working, we do everything we can to keep school open and keep our kids safe,” Moore says.

Early dismissals and school closures due to potentially hazardous weather are not easy calls for districts to make. William Troy, superintendent of schools for East Hampton, CT, is also up in the early hours of the morning. He jokingly calls his first step as “amateur-meteorologist” work. Images reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s “Armchair General” come to mind as Troy explains how he needs to simultaneously assimilate TV and radio forecast information, as well as Internet-based, real-time Doppler Radar to get a sense of the forecast or where the rain/snow line may fall in the state. In many cases, this can determine a rainy day versus several inches of snowfall. Armed with this available information, he is immediately on the phone with a network of other superintendents in his area of the state contemplating the same decision. He’s also in touch with town and state road crews on the clean up and treatment status of the roads before a final decision is cast.

While the final verdict regarding school closures must be made decisively no later than 5:30 a.m., weather situations causing the potential for early school dismal cause a whole new set of challenges. “Although the safety of our kids come first,” says Troy, “busing young children home to avoid messy roads to what may be an empty house is a little disconcerting.” In many cases, households with both parents working may not be able to be home in time. To alleviate the schedule gap, Troy buses the high school students home first, then the middle and elementary students, so younger students with older siblings may have some level of supervision until parents can get home.

It’s difficult to describe changes to student transportation without touching on developmental safety regulations to buses during the past 80 years, says Jay McDuffie manager of Communications and Training at the Blue Bird Bus Corporation. The biggest strides came about in the late ‘70s, when the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association set Federal Standards. Changes were made to buses through the years and were slowly adopted state by state. Included in these changes were the eight-light, amber to red, stoplight system, the stop sign arm and, in some states, the yellow swinging crossing arm at the front of the bus. The crossing arm change came about with the sloped hood of the conventional school bus. The arm swings out and puts children crossing in front of the bus out far enough were the driver can more easily see them. According to McDuffie, with all these changes, children are still much safer on the bus than they are off. Accidents created by drivers passing stopped buses, for example, continue to be one of the biggest causes.

Despite the evolving challenges parents and school and transportation facilitators have been faced with through the years, the benefits are evident of having the past few decades’ experiences from which to learn. Advances in technology and common sense have improved student’s lives, the quality of their education and, most importantly, their safety for today and many years to come.

Ron Quicquaro is a LEED-accredited, Connecticut based architect with more than nine years of award-winning school design experience in the Northeast.