When It Comes to Drop-Off and Pick-Up, Safety Is First

Sometimes — and depending on the issue — school administrators and parents don’t see eye to eye. When it comes to school drop off and pick up, however, both groups agree that safety is of the highest priority. And, while creating a safe transportation area is something everyone easily agrees on, actually creating one isn’t so easy, for two reasons.

First, there are many groups that have to be kept separate, including buses/cars, buses/walkers, cars/walkers, parking/loading and teacher parking/student parking (in the case of high schools).

Second, “there is not a one-size-fits-all solution because each school has different needs,” says Alvah Hardy, II, executive director of Facilities Management for Collier County Public Schools (CCPS), Naples, Fla. Some of the factors that go into planning a solution include the size of the site; the number of buses, cars and walkers; and urban vs. rural sites.

Fortunately, whether the goal is to create safe drop-off and pick-up areas in new construction or to improve safety at an existing school, there are plenty of guidelines from those who have been there, done that.

New Construction

In new construction, there are two things to consider.

The first is that what makes designing K-12 drop-off and parking areas so challenging is that multiple functions need to be accommodated, as indicated above in the list of groups that must be kept separate. With that in mind, the ideal parking area needs to be “programmed” like any other portion of the school, notes Judith Hoskens, REFP, LEED-AP, associate principal of Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture, P.A.

Three specific elements to be programmed include parking for faculty/staff, visitors, community parking after hours and high school students (What time does each group need to park and for how long?); parent drop off and pick up (How many are in queue, at what time of the day and for how long?); and bus staging (How many are in queue, at what time of day and for how long?).

Hoskens cites Watertown-Mayer Elementary in Watertown, Minn., as a programming example. Completed in 2007, the school combines faculty/staff parking with bus staging and parent pick up/drop off with visitor and community parking. The lots are supervised from an administration corner window. Additionally, a gate was provided at the bus turnaround so that it can be used for hard-surface play during recess periods.

Hardy also offers sage advice for the programming process. One reason to keep buses and cars separate is because buses are on schedules. “Having buses get interspersed with car traffic can create a mess and get the buses off schedule,” he points out. Therefore, the ideal solution for keeping the two separate is having two entries (one for buses, one for cars) onto the site from main thoroughfares.

As an example of keeping cars and buses separate, CCPS has a design that uses a single canopy that runs perpendicular to the building entry. Students enter the school from different zones, buses on one side of the canopy and cars on the other. The design also maximizes use of personnel who are outside for safety. “We’ve had some success with this design,” says Hardy, “especially in schools that have a more balanced number of buses and cars. Walkers come straight down the middle of the canopy, thus avoiding both buses and cars.”

Hardy also recommends creating clear site lines so that no one is able to dash out from behind bushes, unwittingly causing an accident. Finally, he suggests that small schools use the asphalt lanes on the running track for the bus loop.

Thomas Carlson-Reddig, director of Design for ADW Architects, Charlotte, N.C., observes that designing for convenience also improves safety. He’s a proponent of keeping building entries close to the drop-off/pick-up areas and appropriately scaled for the many students entering and exiting the school.

“One of the things I like to do,” says Carlson-Reddig, “and it isn’t driven by school systems much, is allowing students who use cars and students who use buses to access the same building entrance. There are some security benefits to that.” Typically, he adds, students who ride in cars enter the front of the school, and students who ride the bus enter the back of the school, thus creating first-class and second-class students. When all students use the same entrance, they’re all first class.

The second thing to consider in new construction is that, once programming is complete, it must be presented to the administrators. “I would say that the most important thing is having the administrators understand how the traffic will come onto the site and flow through it, and how people will come into the building,” says Shannon Pollard, RA, LEED AP, project architect for Education Design with Hollis + Miller Architects. “If you walk through it in design, it’s easy make changes, if necessary. If it doesn’t work, it’s much harder to make changes after construction.”

Existing Construction

When it comes to improving parking and drop-off safety in existing construction, there are no easy solutions, says Hardy. However, there are a number of options that may fit your situation.

Sometimes, the best solution is an operational solution. For example, when you have set building entries and set roadway entries, you may be able to increase the stacking length of the loading areas. “You can do this in an existing school because you have data on the numbers of students who arrive by bus, walking and car,” says Hardy. “You have the data to make it appropriately sized for the way students come to the campus. This also helps somewhat with the separation issue.”

Hardy cautions that operational solutions involve training parents about how the new plan works. “It takes persistence,” he admits, “but it is do-able.”

Carlson-Reddig recommends a solution he has used in urban areas where there is on-street parking. “During the morning and afternoon,” he explains, “restrict parking on the street and use that space for pick up and drop off in order to get students close to the school entrances. This eliminates loopy, winding drives and seas of asphalt that take up land and are disruptive from a sustainable aspect.” He cites Moore Square Museum Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., done when he was with another firm, as an example. “Using on-street parking for the morning and afternoon bus queue works efficiently,” he says. “It eliminates the need for on-site bus parking. The cars are handled in a more typical fashion,” he concludes.

Pollard offers a similar example in Lees Summit Farm Elementary in Missouri. This 12-acre site was too small for a loopy drive leading to a parking lot. Instead, the district received a variance that allowed the creation of a wide pull-off on the street for stacking the buses.

An obvious operational solution that’s often overlooked is encouraging students to ride the bus. This clearly cuts down on the number of cars coming to campus and, therefore, increases safety.

Once operational options are exhausted, consider starting over to improve safety at existing schools. “We’ve experienced this in a number of schools,” says Hardy, “and you basically reconfigure the drive-thrus, drop-off zones and parking lots to increase stacking to make it more safe and functional.”

Carlson-Reddig agrees, offering Dilworth Performing Arts Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., as an example. There were a number of parking challenges to tackle in the redesign of this magnet school, located on a four-acre site in an historic neighborhood. One challenge was that cars dropped off students on the street, which wasn’t designed for that, and which caused cars to back up in front of home-owner driveways and students to not be dropped off at the school entrance. Unfortunately, the site didn’t have an accessible route to the school, but required climbing stairs and entering the building through a hallway. The solution was building an internal street that separated cars and buses and brought them to a new, centralized entrance.

With many options from which to choose to create safe drop-off and pick-up areas in new construction or improving safety at an existing school, the one thing that is sure is that both parents and administrators will be pleased.