It's Back to School season and for most people, that doesn't just mean picking up notebooks and pencils at the store or figuring out class schedules. It also means determining how your kids will get to school. Where is the bus stop and how early do the kids need to get up to make it on time? Which parent will drive the children to their respective schools? How does the drop-off area function?
But here are four questions you may not have thought about yet as you prepare for the school year. They cover issues that we've written extensively about at Strong Towns and we think they'll invite important reflection on the state of school transportation for kids like yours and kids across the country.
1. In your town, is it safe for children to walk or bike to school?
That's a key question on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple method for figuring out how strong your town is. Take a second to consider this question seriously. Ask yourself, would you allow your child (or grandchild, or nephew, or cousin) to walk to school by himself? Would you feel good about that decision and know that he was going to have a safe path, free from the risk of getting hit by a driver? If you're like most Americans, the answer is No.
This simple fact tells us a lot about our towns. After all, if it's unsafe for a child to walk or bike, chances are it's not much safer for an adult, not to mention a senior or someone with a mobility impairment. That means your transportation options are limited to cars (and perhaps buses) and that your whole community is likely designed around this mode of transportation (with big parking lots, wide roads, etc.).
Picture, for a moment, what a bike- and walk-friendly town would look like. Would it have more substantial sidewalks? Safer intersections? Drivers who travel slowly and look out for children instead of speeding through neighborhood streets? Perhaps all of these things...
And yet, we have become used to a life where driving is a requirement to get anywhere. It's normal to pile your kids into the car and spend gas money (not to mention the cost of wear and tear) just to visit your local park. It's expected that your school district will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to shuttle kids around to schools across the metro area on buses.
Instead of the far more affordable (and healthier, and more independent) options of walking and biking, we've accepted the fact that cars will dominate our cities and we've sacrificed the safety and ease of traveling via our own two feet (or pedals) because of this. Read more about how to take this Strong Towns Strength Test to find out whether its safe for kids to walk and bike in your neighborhood.
2. Do we really care about children?
Not only have many of our towns given up the option for kids to safely travel on foot or by bike, but in doing so, we've put our children at risk. Riding in a car is arguably the most dangerous activity in American life. Even with car seats, auto crashes are a leading cause of death among children in the United States. 32,000+ people die annually as a result of car crashes. If we are serious about wanting what is best for kids, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to reduce the number of auto trips people are required to take each day, including to and from school? Read more about the dangers of auto transportation and why, if we care about our children, we should decrease our reliance on it. Then ask yourself: are we really doing everything we can to keep our children safe?
3. Is this the right approach to busing?
In our auto-dependent nation, we take it as a given that children will need to be bused to school (if they're not driven by their parents). Nationally, we spend more than $21 billion on school busing every year. Imagine if a lot of that money could be freed up and spent in the classroom instead. It could decrease class sizes, provide more one-on-one help, and give kids more opportunities for the music, art and sports programs that are so frequently cut when budgets are tight.
How could we drastically reduce our spending on busing? By only providing it to children who need to live in rural areas (i.e. farm families and others whose parents' jobs require them to live a great distance from town). So many families live far away from the nearest school out of personal choice—because they want big lawns, three-car garages, and so on. If we took away the mandate to provide free busing to every kid, we'd remove the incentive for families to live far from schools, and we'd encourage the creation of neighborhoods that are safe for kids to walk and bike in.
But it's not just about where families choose to live. The larger problem is where cities choose to locate their schools. The trend over the last several years has been to abandon long-standing neighborhood schools and to build massive campuses on the edge of town instead. A return to naturally walkable neighborhood schools would virtually eliminate the need for busing. Read more about the question of busing here. Then decide for yourself whether we've got the right approach to school bus spending.
4. Are your kids independent?
In a society that relies so heavily on cars, anyone who can't drive is automatically limited in their freedom of movement. Children are thoroughly impacted by that. If you're a parent, how much of your week do you estimate is spent driving your kids around? Between school, extracurriculars, medical appointments, and social activities many parents spend hours every week in the car with their kids. This arrangement not only routinely puts everyone in danger of a car crash, it also means parents can't spend that time doing other things (working, relaxing, or enjoying quality time with their children that doesn't involve the stress of traffic) and children must rely on parents to do anything outside of the house.
Two years ago, Strong Towns member George Linkert wrote this essay about how walking and biking to school gives his daughters more independence and flexibility. Give it a read and learn how he has fostered independence for his kids and then ask yourself if you could do that for your own.