Accommodating Schoolchildren on Public Transit

Roughly 15 percent of all transit riders are schoolchildren. But unlike their European counterparts, U.S. and Canadian transit systems are, for the most part, just beginning to “accommodate” them – just as they have dramatically altered the structure of service to accommodate individuals with physical and developmental disabilities.

Like the transformation of transit and paratransit services to meet ADA requirements, this effort faces similarly daunting problems. Yet a handful of unusual efforts have demonstrated what can be done – and what the benefits can be for transit riders in general. This document overviews the design and operating features of one U.S. system completely “Europeanized” to accommodate a ridership dominated by schoolchildren. Key institutional and operating issues will be identified and overviewed. The most difficult operational, institutional and liability problem – crossing – will be analyzed from the perspective of several serious transit and school bus accidents. And the official position of the pupil transportation community regarding schoolchildren riding transit will be summarized.


Because they have provided transportation for schoolchildren of all ages for decades, European transit systems possess many fully-developed characteristics aimed at safely accommodating these passengers. These features include:

  • Loading and unloading: Routes are often configured to stop on the school side of the street, and crowd-control barriers are used to funnel queues of students from clearly-specified loading positions.
  • Driver Training: Drivers are provided with special training specific to these passengers, with emphasis on loading, unloading, crossing, security and passenger management.
  • Passenger Training: Mirroring the school bus training received by U.S. and Canadian students, European students are taught all about riding on transit buses and motor coaches – the latter often deployed when schoolchildren are the only riders.
  • Roadway Safety: Because transit buses and motor coaches do not contain emergency flashers, stop arms or other crossing aids, curricula for schoolchildren – particularly of elementary school age – emphasize roadway safety, since all must cross to the rear of the bus or coach after it has left the stop.
  • Seating: Tour coaches, of course, provide every passenger with a heavily-padded, forward-facing, compartmentalized seat. But transit buses selected and deployed for use largely by schoolchildren often contain enough padded, forward-facing seats to accommodate their usage, which is sometimes encouraged by drivers. While students do ride as standees, horseplay is typically better controlled on European transit systems than on their U.S. counterparts.

Beyond these evolutionary characteristics, European Union vehicle specifications (called “homologation”) are also beginning to include a growing number of U.S.-developed “yellow school bus features” such as stop arms and emergency flasher systems, as well as reflective striping, loading zone illumination and other features not yet required on U.S. buses and coaches. In fact, the EU’s Paris-based pupil transportation policy-making organization, ANATEEP, has recommended a number of such measures – just as the National Standards Conference does every five years for school buses and their operation in our own country.

Several years ago, this author had the opportunity to redesign a suburban fixed route bus system to accommodate three important changes:

  • A light rail station had been opened in one corner of the City
  • The number and alignment of 13 regional bus services had evolved, and the County’s peak period bus system had been reduced in response to rail development
  • The school district had recently abandoned “general school bus” service in selected parts of the service area

While the community contained more than 6,000 businesses marginally connected to a skeleton of regional fixed route bus services and one light rail line, the unmet needs of commuters were dwarfed by the surge of schoolchildren requiring home-to-school transportation – including 700 who attended high school in an adjacent community. So the system had to be redesigned to satisfy a multi-dimensional matrix of objectives, providing both local and feeder/distributor service to an unusual spectrum of riders of all types and ages.

The revised system characteristics, and the integration of traditional transit roles with those aimed primarily at schoolchildren, are far too numerous to cite here. But a sampling of its special features illustrates the enormous range and variety of changes that can be made to address these needs:

  • Rather than bi-directional, linear service, all routes were configured as single-directional loops – greatly increasing coverage and transfer opportunities (including intersections with regional services), and placing the bus stop on the school side of every elementary, middle and high school.
  • All eight routes were placed on the same 40-minute cycle and designed to converge, simultaneously, at a single point (a regional shopping mall) at the City’s center – effectively eliminating transfer time and providing a single location for the transfer of schoolchildren from route to route, where monitoring was conducted by all the drivers. While students could obviously transfer at multiple points, elementary school students were taught to switch routes only at the system’s center.
  • To simplify system comprehension, multiple route intersections were incorporated into the route design while, at the same time, crisscrossing of routes was minimized. This approach presented the system as an interconnected collection of distinctly-recognizable routes, and enabled students to understand, view and use the system as a whole rather than learning about or focusing on only the particular route they needed most.
  • The map and schedule not only identified every other regional bus and rail line running through the City, but depicted their entire alignments throughout the Region, provided operating hours for each line, and identified every connecting point where each line interfaced with a route in the local system.
  • A nonlingual, user-centric, color-coded, one-piece map and schedule was created which depicted not only all system routes and connecting regional lines, but all the schools and major trip generators accessed by schoolchildren. Map/schedules were mass-mailed to every household in the City.
  • While service was provided by competitive contract, the RFP contained vehicle specifications encompassing key features essential to student rider safety. These included: heavily-padded, forward-facing seats; pneumatic suspension; heavy-padded vertical stanchions; on-board video surveillance cameras; rear-view dash-mounted cameras (to view the area behind the bus); and school-bus-type modesty panels – in addition to roof hatches, wheelchair lifts, air conditioning and other special features typical of transit buses.
  • Continually-running video surveillance tapes were retained for a week (indefinitely when needed) and, in the event of an incident, forwarded directly to the Sheriff’s Department, which then coordinated review and enforcement with the appropriate school and transit system officials.
  • The five-year operating contract included a semi-automatic five-year renewal conditional on the operator meeting specified performance requirements. This opportunity created a longer amortization period with less risk, thereby permitting the operator to invest in a better vehicle with more features. To further encourage these objectives, the contract permitted the operator to deploy the buses for other purposes outside of the transit system’s scheduled operating hours.
  • A special marketing/information dissemination program was developed for the school system, including system usage and safety presentations in all the schools. The new system was introduced on “Transit Day” – right before the school year began.
  • The original system’s fare structure – 50 cents, free unlimited transfers from route to route, and no fares for elderly or disabled persons (initiated in 1983) – was supplemented by a 25-cent transfer fee to other regional bus and rail services. As a result, it was cheaper to first use the Carson Circuit and then transfer to other services than to use them independently – a mechanism which increased student ridership on regional lines as well as local routes.

It must be noted that this community receives no Federal, State or discretionary County funding assistance whatsoever. Yet it managed to maintain the system’s same low 50-cent fare it began with in 1983. Because of the system’s extraordinary coverage (few residents lie more than three or four blocks from a stop), and its free-fare for elderly and disabled residents, this City of 83,000 people continues to meet its ADA complementary paratransit requirements – including serving satellite points in seven surrounding cities – with a single vehicle.

Almost every route on this system is heavily overcrowded during both peak periods. Fortunately, the P.M. peak period for non-students is later than that for other system users. So, in a sense, the system enjoys three peak periods. (The narrower A.M. peaks overlap, and would be terribly overcrowded were it not for elementary school breakfast programs which, to some degree, spread out A.M. peak student ridership.)

Perhaps of greatest interest to the transit community in general, many of the features incorporated into the system’s design primarily or specifically for schoolchildren ended up benefiting other system users equally as much or, in some cases, more. Along with free fares, system officials consider the presence of on-board surveillance cameras the most attractive feature for elderly riders, and the feature that permits them and other non-student passengers to co-exist with the often wild and intimidating high school and junior high school riders. As a barometer of the system’s perception as safe and reliable, a number of elementary school students ride it (mostly 5th and 6th graders) – even through many of these students lie within reasonable walking distance of their schools.

With additional funds, there is no doubt such a system could improve even more. Peak service could be expanded considerably. Marketing efforts and safety programs could penetrate the school systems even further. More luxurious, low-floor buses could speed up the loading and unloading of wheelchairs (which on a few routes compromises the reliability of the timed-transfer and cuts into drivers’ recovery time). And European-style queuing approaches, equipment and personnel could speed up loading and unloading at schools and further enhance system safety. But even without such features, the system demonstrates what can be done to enhance a U.S. transit system for schoolchildren and, in the process, improve it for riders in general.

As much as the U.S. transit community is learning from systems on four other continents, it is reassuring to know that valuable lessons can be learned from some of our own systems. And while some innovative transit systems reflect strong leadership and institutional coincidences – Palm Desert’s SunTrans comes to mind, whose General Manager also chairs the School Board – it is comforting to know that systems like the Carson Circuit stem largely from efforts to stretch the creative limits of system design.


To examine these issues, one must separate them from the hidden agendas which, for so long, have permitted transit and pupil transportation services to operate side-by-side in their own separate worlds, with relationships that can fairly be described as hostile, if not paranoid. As recently as 1995, 35 of the 47 State Directors of Pupil Transportation attending the once-every-five-years National Standards Conference voted to prohibit the Transit Use Committee from presenting its agenda. Not to be outdone, APTA responded to entreaties from the school bus community by openly stating that “transit is fine just the way it is.” From this author’s experiences as a consultant in three accident cases where schoolchildren were maimed crossing in front of their transit bus (more about this below), it is apparent that this is not the case – at least as far as transporting schoolchildren is concerned. Of course, pupil transportation is not perfect either: This author has also consulted on one death and one maiming of a student crossing in front and in the rear, respectively, of a school bus. The point is, both modes can become safer – even if they are already significantly safer than other modes of transportation.

It is noteworthy that considerable progress has been made by both communities since 1995. Shortly after the last National Standards Conference, all 50 State Directors of Pupil Transportation unanimously ratified a Policy Statement calling for a dialog with the transit industry.(1) Both APTA and the FTA have taken a number of important initiatives to explore the opportunities for, and approaches to, making transit systems even safer for schoolchildren than they already are. And with a sensitivity to its understandably pro-yellow school bus audience, the pupil transportation community has begun to provide what it hopes is useful guidance to the transit community. One cannot yet characterize these efforts as a honeymoon, much less a marriage. But at least these communities are dating.

Among the genuine issues involved in the transportation of schoolchildren on transit, a few are noteworthy:

Crossing. School bus passengers cross in front of the bus. This behavior is highly reinforced as a central theme of school bus operations:

  • Students are taught to cross in front of the bus
  • School bus vehicles and equipment (flashing lights, stop arms, crossing gates, etc.) are consistent with, and facilitate, this behavior
  • Laws reinforce motorist compliance (motorists must not pass a school bus being loaded or unloaded)
  • Operating procedures mirror it (drivers or monitors often accompany K-8 students across the street, or drivers “wave them across” when traffic has stopped in both directions)
  • Bus stops are design and placed to reinforce it

In contrast, passengers are taught to cross in back of transit buses – except where buses are stopped by a red light at the near-side of a signalized intersection. And while drivers are trained to expect this behavior, and to engage amber “loading/unloading” lights when they stop, no special technologies, laws, training or practices reinforce it. A smattering of schools or transit districts have, on their own initiative, made efforts to explain the difference between “yellow” and “other” buses. Of course, the problem is daunting: A K-2 child has enough trouble remembering to cross in front of a school bus. Must he or she now (a) remember which type of bus he or she is on and, then (b) what type of crossing correlates with that type of bus?

Security. While only a minor concern in many countries where schoolchildren routinely use transit services alongside other riders, many U.S. parents are fearful of, if not hysterical about, this exposure. Thankfully, technology (e.g., video-surveillance cameras), driver and student training, route design and other approaches and mechanisms exist to greatly reduce the risks these concerns reflect. But implementing them all will take a serious effort. And it will not alleviate the fears and concerns of many parents – particularly in urban and suburban communities where many riders are “strangers.” And it will not address the concerns about younger children.

Operating Safety and Crashworthiness. No knowledgeable vehicle designer or automotive engineer would argue that, all things being equal, a monocoque structure with pneumatic suspension is not superior in handling and crashworthiness to a body-on-chassis vehicle with leaf spring suspension – a construction which characterizes most school buses. Of course, when comparing a school bus to a transit bus or motor coach, all things are not equal:

  • School buses have a distinctive color making them conspicuous as a vehicle with a special mission
  • School buses have emergency flashing light systems, stop arms and crossing gates engaged whenever passengers board or alight
  • Laws in every state and province require motorists to stop in both directions (there are exceptions, as for example, on a four-lane artery separated by a double white line or median barrier) when a school bus is loading or unloading
  • School buses have specially-designed compartmentalized seating systems, and are increasingly being required to contain three-point seat belts along with modified seating systems
  • School bus drivers, or in some cases additional personnel called “monitors,” either cross K-8 students once traffic is stopped, or the driver “waves them across”
  • School bus drivers receive special training, including passenger management, specifically for this class of riders
  • Passengers receive special training for safely using school buses
  • In most states and provinces, passengers participate in safety drills, like emergency evacuation
  • School buses must meet a number of FMVSS requirements which other buses don’t – including standards for side-impact crash protection (to ensure fuel system integrity), roof loading (to ensure rollover protection), window retention, joint integrity, and flame retardancy.

These latter requirements are not synonymous with non-school buses not meeting them. Many transit buses and motor coaches have indeed met many of these requirements for some time without making special efforts to do so. And many more have designed their vehicles to satisfy certain requirements – particularly FMVSS #301 (fuel system integrity) and #220 (rollover protection). Yet how many of these characteristics must transit buses and their operators meet in order to convince pupil transportation officials, parents and educators that they are “safe” for student riders? How many must be met for transit industry members to consider them safe enough? How many must be met for U.S. courts and juries to consider them safe? Resolving these questions to everyone’s satisfaction is a difficult task. Yet their resolution is clearly necessary.

Liability. To their credit, both APTA and NASDPTS (the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services) have recently focused considerable energy in the reconciliation of accident data – an effort so frustrating that the National Safety Council recently abandoned its public transportation data collection and analysis efforts until the information can be rendered useful and meaningful. In the meantime, many of the consequences of this shortcoming compound the already capriciousness nature of our legal system in its dealings with public transportation accidents. In one of the most twisted episodes (details below), a Florida school district is being sued because it did not teach its students how to cross in front of a transit bus. Apart from the severity of damage awards which appear to depend far more on the quality of legal efforts than the facts of the case, this environment has severe repercussions for the insurance industry: One major insurer of school bus operations recently claimed that its pay-outs are 15 percent over its premiums, and, as a consequence, the company is no longer accepting new applicants.


To demonstrate the vulnerability of transit systems transporting schoolchildren in terms of safety and liability, one has only to look at a handful of crossing accidents. This author has served as an expert witness in three of these, and two others involving school buses (two cases are still pending). Neither the results (one dead, four maimed) nor the legal implications are encouraging:

  • Thinking the front of a transit bus was a safe place to cross a street, a ten-year-old pedestrian stepped into a crosswalk in front of an unloading transit bus (she was not intending to board) and was struck by a motorist.
  • A high school senior dashed off his school bus into the rural highway in front of it. The bus driver noticed a speeding motorist approaching, about to bypass the bus’ emergency flashers. But instead of hitting her air horn to warn the decedent, she stuck her head out the driver’s window and yelled “stop.”
  • Playing hooky, a high school senior alighted from a transit bus and immediately ran into the street in front of it where he was struck by a motorist traveling in the adjacent lane.
  • Deterred from crossing in front of his school bus on previous occasions, an 11-year-old was struck by a motorist travelling in the opposite direction when he crossed several vehicles behind the bus from which he had just alighted.
  • Another 11-year-old alighted from a transit bus and dashed in front, only to be struck by a motorist travelling in the same direction in an adjacent lane.

These summaries don’t begin to tell the story. In one transit case, the transit agency had been formally teaching schoolchildren the difference between crossing with a transit bus versus a school bus for almost 15 years. And while K-2 children are clearly the most vulnerable with respect to school bus crossings, the youngest victim in any of these accidents was 10; two of them were high school seniors. And in one case, the plaintiff injured after dashing in front of a transit bus is also suing the school district. Apart from demonstrating institutional failures and human frailties, these accidents – on different types of buses, with different crossing rules, involving motorists travelling in different directions – illustrate the difficulty and complexity of addressing the problem from a safety perspective, much less a legal one. Particularly in the latter case cited, these accidents also demonstrate how difficult – and how potentially dangerous – coordination or integration efforts can be if not designed, implemented and operated with unusual, if not extraordinary, care. With respect to legal implications, the plaintiff’s victory in the last case described above could force school districts and transit agencies to compromise safety in order to limit liability.


The traditional positions of both communities with respect to schoolchildren riding transit are easy to understand:

  • Pupil transportation officials feel strongly that all schoolchildren should be transported on vehicles designed and operated specifically to meet their needs, and which have a plethora of special characteristics and features designed to optimize their passengers’ safety and security.
  • Transit officials design and operate a mode of transportation for everyone, and efforts to optimize service for special ridership groups (i.e., disabled individuals) have added greatly to transit costs, complexity and liability.

There are, of course, layers of sub-agendas smoldering beneath these positions, the most obvious of which is the fact that both modes are effectively in competition with one another. Transit needs schoolchildren to “thicken its density” and reduce subsidy costs. School bus service considers transit a heavily-subsidized threat which undercuts pressures to fund the former. But the paramount concern about transit among the pupil transportation community’s leadership is that it is not as safe as it can be and, for the most part, hasn’t been seriously adapted to accommodate the specific needs of schoolchildren to the degree possible, given its other responsibilities and constraints.

Both communities are beginning to acknowledge that it is transit’s accomplishment of this objective that will define its future destiny with respect to these riders. Along with this acknowledgement, the pupil transportation community has also recognized that:

  • Despite enormous efforts, all schoolchildren have not been, and are not now, riding solely on school buses
  • Millions of schoolchildren now walking, bicycling or travelling by automobile would be safer off riding transit – even with no changes made to it

The separation of these competing modes into two separate and highly-duplicative systems has largely been the result of different funding sources, different regulatory environments, different institutions, different laws, different vehicles and, of course, different passengers. Nevertheless, both communities have recently made considerable strides to address the issues related to schoolchildren using transit services:

  • APTA has been tracking transit incidents and accidents involving schoolchildren since late 1997.
  • Under a TRB grant, the University of Michigan is conducting a study called “Data Collection for Pupil Safety on Transit Bus Systems.”
  • APTA recently conducted a poll of its member transit agencies which have made outreach efforts to students regarding their use of transit services.
  • APTA and the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Safety and Security have held meetings on this subject.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board has conducted an inquiry into the subject, and generated some unusual conclusions
  • APTA has been looking carefully at crossing accidents

Mirroring this effort, the Non-School Bus Use Committee (formerly the Transit Use Committee) of the upcoming Year 2000 National Standards Conference is in the process of refining a set of recommendations for presentation to its Conference this coming May – the very week after APTA convenes a panel on this subject at its Bus and Paratransit Conference. Despite the sensitivities of many pupil transportation community members understandably cautious about helping transit “carry our passengers,” this Committee has outlined what may become the “first wave” of recommendations for the transportation of schoolchildren on other modes and services – particularly transit. These recommendations include:

  • Working definitions – including a simple capacity-related differentiation between a “non-conforming passenger vehicle” (10 or fewer, including the driver) and a “non-conforming bus” (more than 10)
  • Recommended driver training requirements (including pre-service and in-service training for non-conforming passenger vehicles and buses)
  • Seating, occupant restraint and emergency equipment, systems and training requirements
  • Vehicle and equipment requirements (including some FMVSS certification requirements which many transit buses already meet)

In what may remain the most controversial element of the pupil transportation community’s decades-long position, the Committee is recommending that the provision of home-to-school transportation for K-8 students on any modes other than certified yellow school buses be strictly prohibited. This “concession” is a dramatic reversal from previous position whereby this community objected to the transportation of any schoolchildren on other modes! While certainly not recommending that schoolchildren travel on other modes, this position recognizes that they have been and are still using them, and further, that these passengers’ journeys to and from school would be considerably safer on any kind of bus than were they to travel as pedestrians, bicyclists or automobile passengers. Given some of the law suits noted above, a transit agency may be risking exposure if it aggressively markets K-8 students at all – much less without at least adopting this Committee’s recommendations for older students.

Regardless, the efforts cited above are encouraging in the sense that the stream of activities underway will, unavoidably, lead to members of both communities working together. Both communities’ sensitivities to their expanded roles is indeed reflected even in their organizations’ name changes: The American Public Transportation Association, and the Non-School Bus Use Committee. APTA’s new name formally recognizes the fact that service providers, vehicle and equipment manufacturers and dealers, planners, consultants, riders, and other APTA constituents are heavily involved with modes other than transit. And the National Standards Conference’s Non-School Bus Use Committee formally acknowledges the fact that schoolchildren use modes and services other than school buses and special education vehicles.


In years to come, members of the public transportation community will likely look back on these efforts as primitive – just like many disabled Americans may view the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and the early days of “full accessibility.” As the ADA requirements have demonstrated, efforts to improve public transportation services for one ridership group is a difficult one that may genuinely require a generation to reach some semblance of maturity and general acceptance. But when the developments unfold, the changes will likely benefit the complete spectrum of riders – not to mention the constituency they build, and the funding levels they help justify. Low floor buses and TEA 21 are testimony to this process. The adaptation of transit services to better accommodate schoolchildren will affect a larger transit-dependent ridership group – at far less cost, and possibly with more far-reaching benefits – than did the ADA.

This is not to say that this development will be easy. The completely separate provision of complementary paratransit and special education services with virtually no coordination demonstrates how resistant are the forces of integration for services which are practically identical in design and operation, duplicative or broadly overlapping in service area and operating hours, and neither having a user density sufficient to render it remotely self-supporting. Similarly, the integration of transit and pupil transportation services – regardless of the form it takes – will be slow. But the transit community can do much to accelerate this process to the advantage of everyone within and outside both these communities. While a separate pupil transportation system, particularly for K-8 students is a safety luxury of which all Americans – including members of the transit community – should be proud, efforts to increase transit ridership by further improving transit safety may be an equivalent accomplishment.


The views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Public Transportation Association or any of its other members.


  1. Kinney, Ron L., and Einstein, Ned B., “Transit’s Role in Student Transportation:

    Partnerships in the Transportation of Students,” presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, November, 1995.
Publications: In Proceedings of the Bus and Paratransit Conference. American Public Transportation Association.