In rural areas, children spaced far apart were once transported to school by horse and wagon. After the first day of school, the horses learned the routes and simply repeated them day after day, eliminating the need for drivers. The vehicles were cheap, and the engines ran effectively on oats. As our nation changed, pupil transportation’s development reflected our increasing urbanization and, later, suburbanization. These developments included a new phenomenon known as traffic. As a safety matter, the need for pupil transportation grew to reflect a child’s inability to cross streets or negotiate intersections, as verified by studies like the 1968 Swedish study “Children in Traffic.” In simple terms, children below age 13, and particularly below age 10, do not possess the physical, mental and emotional skills necessary to cross streets and intersections.
Interestingly, these age benchmarks correspond to the structure of our modern U.S. school system, dividing students among elementary, middle and high schools. This division has grown, even more so in recent years, to reflect a reality of limited funding, higher vehicle costs, poverty-level driver wages and spiraling fuel costs. So, while ridership has mushroomed, costs have exploded since the horse and wagon days. The result is an exodus from school bus to transit service for many high school students and, to a lesser degree, junior high students.
The transit industry has made at least token efforts to accommodate these riders: a recent turn-of-the-century survey found that 80 percent of U.S. transit agencies engaged in some form of passenger training or system change to accommodate and/or protect student riders. Many in the pupil transportation community have applauded this training. Yet, I am particular concerned about K-5 students, for whom I draw a line in the sand insofar as transit usage. This is partly because of the data, but it is largely because half of all crossing incidents of all kinds, involving individuals of all ages, involve “crossing orientation.” And crossing orientation for transit bus ridership is the complete opposite of what is appropriate for pupil transportation.
“Crossing orientation,” my term for the relationship between the crosser and the vehicle, is neatly segregated by procedures reflecting respective bus equipment and passenger roles with respect to them. Namely, passengers should cross in front of school buses and behind transit buses, the latter which includes letting the transit buses pull away from the stop before crossing the street. Occasionally, situations make even this stratification problematic, as, for example, when a transit bus stops at the near side of a signalized intersection, and the just-alighted passenger has a green light intersection to cross in front of the bus. Once in the intersection, the light can change, and a third-party motorist can drive right by the bus and nail the passenger stepping out in front of it. Otherwise, the impact that incorrect crossing orientation has on both school bus and transit passengers of all ages is both devastating and haunting. In roughly half of all transit-related crossing incidents, the passengers cross in front of the bus. In the other half, the passengers cross behind it.
A common response to this problem has been a call for training children to use transit. Even Buster the Bus and his Type-D cousin Barney have a transit cousin, Toby the Transit Bus. Their merits notwithstanding, a K-5 kid already has enough trouble remembering to simply cross in front of the school bus. If you trained these kids how to also ride transit, they would be faced with two daunting questions for someone of their age group: What type of bus was I just on? What type of crossing correlates with that type of bus?
This is too much for K-5 students. The alternative is to keep them on school buses, and I say this having designed this nation’s only transit system used primarily to transport school children, a necessity when funds for that community’s general education school bus transportation evaporated overnight. I feel so strongly about this that I believe it is worth retaining even if we must coordinate or consolidate service for school children with service to other passengers, effectively permitting adults to ride school buses (rather than having school children ride transit). But while two federal-funded projects have tried (and failed) to examine this consolidation, the dynamics of our radically-changing economy will force us into developing some new approaches in order to keep the K-5 kids on the yellow bus.