Last week, Wendell Cox penned an interesting blog post about school buses. School buses are an odd target of Cox’s affection, given that they represent many things that transit critics (of which Cox is usually one) would seem to despise – an expensive entitlement provided regardless of income, without the charging of fares or, in many cases, any form of revenue from users at all.
Cox is correct, though, that school buses are too often ignored and his post does a great service by bringing that oversight to broader attention. It also leads to some observations that might be relevant for transit more broadly, among them the following:
- We spend more public money getting kids to school than on all other bus transit combined – Cox doesn’t get into the cost of running what he calls “America’s largest transit system”: an estimated $23 billion in 2010-11. By contrast, total national spending on all bus modes of public transit was about $24 billion in 2012, according to the National Transit Database. If you deduct fare revenues, however, net public spending on bus transit totaled a bit over $18 billion. It’s hard to make a firm comparison between the two types of bus service, but we clearly spend a ton of money to support our dedicated school transportation system.
- Fare-free transit costs less on a per-passenger basis than transit charging fares – Why do school buses carry so many passengers? In part, because they are free! Even those school districts that do charge transportation fees typically do so on an annual, rather than per-trip, basis, meaning that any individual trip comes at no additional cost to the user. At an average annual cost of $915 per pupil for school bus service, and assuming 360 one-way rides per pupil per year, the average school bus trip costs about $2.50 per passenger. Some public transit systems that have gone fare-free post similar costs per rider – Chapel Hill Transit, for example, reports per-trip costs of $2.53 for its fare-free fixed routes (PDF). A 2012 Transit Cooperative Research Program report found that ridership on transit systems that go fare-free typically increases by 20 to 60 percent within a matter of a few months, driving down the cost per passenger of providing that service considerably.
- School buses serve areas where transit isn’t supposed to be viable – School buses are unusual in another way: they are often the only kind of transit available in rural and exurban areas of the country. These are areas that we are repeatedly told do not have the population density to support fixed-route transit service, and yet they do support fixed-route transit service for schoolkids. How is this possible? I’d imagine that the reason has to do with school buses lacking the “last mile” problem that plagues many fixed route systems. The origins of school bus trips may be widely dispersed, but at least the destinations of those trips are concentrated, making it easier and less costly to provide good service than a public transportation system that must serve both a variety of origins and a variety of destinations.
All of this leads to a few trains of thought:
1) There are clearly some circumstances in which Americans are willing to support – at great expense and with little political debate – universal, fare-free public transportation. The question of why we are willing to do so for school public transportation, and for virtually no other purpose, is one worth talking about.
2) We spend vast amounts of money on parallel transit systems for schoolkids and the rest of us. Are there efficiencies that can be achieved by combining the two – possibly creating better service for both? For at least older schoolkids, riding on regular transit vehicles would have to be a comfort upgrade over rides in bone-jarring, often poorly climate-controlled school buses. For transit systems, income from school contracts could help balance the books and enable better, more frequent service. Where might synergies be possible?
3) Do school bus systems provide a model for where and how transit systems could work in suburban and rural communities? School buses serve those communities now because they funnel lots of riders to a few discrete locations. In towns that retain strong town centers, or boast major centers of employment, the existence of school bus systems suggests that public transit may be feasible even if residential population density is very low.
4) Given the fact that school bus ridership is so high, perhaps we should revisit the question: Should transit be expensive, cheap or free?
 School buses provide local transit service, not long-distance commuter service, so a comparison of buses with buses is more apt than, say, comparing the cost of running a school bus with the cost of running a commuter rail line.
 It’s unclear whether those numbers back out revenues from transportation fees, account for the cost of school staff used to support the bus system (monitors and such), or include the cost of providing passes to students in districts that use public transit systems for student transportation.
 Yes, I know the idea of putting kids on general transit buses gives many parents the heebie-jeebies. That was certainly true in Boston where a recent proposal to end yellow school bus service for 7th and 8th graders created a stir. (My own kids have both been taking either general or chartered MBTA service to school since 7th grade.) I understand all that and can relate to it as a parent, but still think there has to be some more efficient way to do it than we do now.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.