An American Bus Makes Sense To Us (Education Telegraph article 15/06/05)
Yellow school buses will save parents and commuters time, and the economy money explains Peter Lampl.
Traffic congestion is a hot issue. A big part of the problem is the school run, which accounts for 20% of peak traffic during the morning rush hour and is increasing every year. In America, most children who live more than a mile from their school travel for free on a yellow bus.
Research by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust has shown that the number of children travelling to school by car has doubled over the last 20 years, resulting in an enormous waste of time for parents and other commuters. The school run also leads to 40 deaths and 900 serious injuries a year, and harms the environment by releasing 2 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Contrast this with the North American experience. There, almost every child who lives more than a mile from the school is entitled to a free place on a yellow school bus. As a result, more than half of pupils go to school by special bus service, compared to less than 10% in Britain. I have ridden on yellow school buses both in America and in the first trials in Britain. They were good experiences: each bus has trained drivers assigned to specific routes, allocated places for each child and numerous safety features, such as CCTV.
Unlike public buses, they also pick up close to home and drop off at the school gates. This can reduce truancy and crime, while children get their chatter out of the way on the bus and arrive at school ready to learn. They are popular with parents, pupils and schools and – crucially – they are very safe. British statistics show that while a car is about 15 times safer than going by bike or on foot, a regular bus is 50 times safer and, based on the US experience, a school bus is likely to be well over 100 times safer.
It makes sense for one bus to pick up 50 or so children and deliver them to school in less than an hour, rather than having large numbers of cars driving each child to and fro. Economic analysis confirms this. The Boston Consulting Group calculates the cost of providing school buses for primary school pupils who live over a mile from school would be £184 million a year. The benefits to parents in terms of time saved and reduced car costs are estimated at £350 million. The benefits to the rest of society in terms of safety, environmental improvements and time saved by other road users amounts to another £100 million. That’s a total saving of £450 million a tear – or almost 2½ times the £184 million cost.
But the lack of school transport has a social cost too. Research shows that children from poorer backgrounds are likely to attend the school closest to their home, regardless of it’s suitability or standard. Families in the top 20% of income own on average 2 cars, and their children travel 2½ miles to school. Those in the bottom 20% of income own on average ½ car and their children travel a mile to school. The government promise of school choice has little meaning unless children are able to get conveniently to and from their chosen school each day.
So tomorrow (16/06/05) at 11.30am, MP’s, transport campaigners and supporters of school choice will board a yellow bus at the Houses of Parliament to launch a new report written by us, the Sutton Trust, and published by the Social Market Foundation and Policy Exchange think-tanks. It urges the government to introduce a national network of school buses and to place a statutory requirement on local education authorities to provide access to school transport for every pupil. Specifically we propose that the scheme be based on the yellow bus, although subsidised access to public transport systems for older children could be substituted if appropriate.
The guarantee of school transport cannot be open ended. We propose that the statutory obligation should apply to a limited number of schools (say 5) that are situated nearest to the pupil’s home. Local authorities should decide on fare levels, although the government should recommend a flat rate that amounts to no more than £1 per day per pupil. Councils should waive fares for the first few months of any new scheme to encourage take-up. Even a £1 per day fare would act as a disincentive to parents on low incomes and to those with more than one child. On that basis, we propose that pupils who are eligible for free school meals should be eligible for free school transport. In addition, fares for a parent’s second and third child should be reduced to around half the full fare.
We also propose that the start times of schools to be appropriately staggered – which would in any case spread the school traffic – and that provision be made for at least 2 afternoon journeys per school to allow pupils to participate in after-school activities. Yellow school buses would be more cost-effective if they made more than one journey in the morning and afternoon, and served both primary and secondary schools.
They sight of yellow buses on the streets would be a powerful visual demonstration that the Government is doing something practical about the two big areas of public service concern – transport and education, whilst at the same time acknowledging the real fears that parents have for the safety of their children.
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, which provides educational opportunities for children who come from non-privileged backgrounds.