Greater Greater Washington

Education


Arlington Public Schools must think beyond buses

Arlington County residents rely more and more on a wide range of transportation choices to get around the county, but Arlington Public Schools (APS) still focuses solely on buses in its transportation plan. A recent controversy around which students could ride the buses exposed the weaknesses and omissions in APS's transportation planning.


Photo by afagen on Flickr.

Current Arlington policy provides bus service for students living more than 1 mile from elementary school or 1½ mile from middle and high school. In-mid August, the school district sent letters to each family with APS students informing them that the school district would more rigorously enforce these "walk zones."

The letters informed families whether their students were eligible and, if so, where their bus stop was. Because of this, many students who previously rode the bus were suddenly designated as walkers just as the school year was set to begin.

Parents were upset that the changes came without much notice. The process was a serious problem, and this episode also highlights how a singular focus on buses versus no buses doesn't effectively serve all Arlington residents.

The APS transportation department website reveals almost no information beyond how the buses are operated and who is eligible to ride them. Even a document with the encouraging title of "Transportation Demand Management" is mostly about the parking at schools, and has only a short list of vague phrases about how to help students get to school any way other than driving or riding the school bus.


Photo from Arlington County.

These statements and documents reveal that the transportation plan for APS is essentially a bus plan and little else. In the 21st century, a mid-20th century school bus plan is insufficient. A good transportation plan should address the transportation system as a whole and every student's transportation mode, whether it's bus, bike, skateboard, car, or shoes.

It should also address issues of traffic, environment, and even land use. A comprehensive plan should look forward in time, set goals, and put in place strategies to meet those goals. If it proposes changes, it should look at the effects of those changes on traffic, environment, timing, and safety.

Those are all things that the Arlington government (as distinct from the schools) has decades of experience with. Arlington's transportation department is often held up as a national model for how jurisdictions should develop and implement long-term transportation plans. At least 40 years ago, the county was already planning for transportation and land use in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Arlington has effectively managed enormous growth in commercial development and multi-family residential development with virtually no increase in traffic for several decades. Now, similarly, the schools are experiencing rapid growth in student population and APS needs to plan for that growth to continue. It's time for APS to call Arlington's transportation department and request their expertise in developing a real, 21st-century transportation plan.

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver. 

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Other than walking, biking or riding buses or other automobiles, what other commutes should they account for?

by selxic on Oct 16, 2012 3:53 pm • linkreport

I think the autonomous nature of school districts possibly made a lot of sense historically, but it adds an extra layer in terms of coordinating with officials and planners. Barring students from riding the bus if they are within the 1 mile radius seems very difficult to enforce beyond just not having the bus stop in those areas. It could even have negative effects if it encourages more parents to drive kids to school. Emphasis should be put on educating parents and students about the positive benefits of walking or biking and taking steps to ensure safety when doing so.

by Alan B on Oct 16, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

I don't get why this is an issue in Arlington. The entire rest of Virginia has had these walking distances for decades.

by dcseain on Oct 16, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

FWIW, I have written about this twice recently. But I would argue that the Arlington Transportation Partners can also reach out to APS.

FWIW, I suggested this last year too, and to some advocates, and even to WABA in the Fall of 2009 (I had a meeting with them when I was working as a bike and ped planner in Baltimore County), as part of their leadership of regional SRTS issues funded by a grant from the RWJ Foundation. I don't know if they ever followed up.

I argued that given ArCo's regional and national leadership on sustainable transportation that they can do the same with SRTS. And that this could help up the game on walk and bike to school visibility and programming in the DC region, not just in Arlington.

And your post is a good example of why I find GGW posts frustrating in terms of providing people with resources so that they can develop more intelligent agendas for social change. The post doesn't provide any such resources. Mine on the same topic do, substantively.

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/10/an-international-walk-to-school-day.html

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/09/next-week-is-international-walk-to.html

by Richard Layman on Oct 16, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

Superintendent Murphy's "transportation initiative" which effectively barred 1,500 students from riding the bus to school as they did last year was announced a couple of weeks before schools opened. Murphy has defended his plan as necessary to prevent unsafe overcrowding on buses even though a transportation consulting firm he hired said that APS buses were operating at 45% of capacity, far below the level of other school systems.

The school bus debacle continues without relief. APS school buses are even less crowded this year than last year, and parents, students, teachers, and school administrators are stressed and distracted.

In this matter as in others, Superintendent Murphy has demonstrated a cavalier and callous indifference to children's safety and educational best interests. And the APS School Board which is responsible for "superintending" the Superintendent makes excuses for Murphy's mess and condones his arrogance, incompetence, and indifference. Meanwhile streets are needlessly clogged with parents transporting toddlers who could be riding the bus!

Murphy needs to resign, and if he doesn't, the school board should fire him! If no one budges, they all should be replaced as quickly as possible.

by James Lyons on Oct 16, 2012 6:03 pm • linkreport

While I can understand the reasons to get kids off buses, doing it a few weeks before the season starts, and without a big picture of alternativers, is grossly incompetent.

by SJE on Oct 16, 2012 6:43 pm • linkreport

If Arlington wants to really make a point, it should start creating a lot of bike lanes from neighborhoods to school, so that kids can start biking to school safely.

by Jasper on Oct 16, 2012 8:19 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: I'm not putting my 5 year old on a bike on a 4-lane arterial. Even crossing Lee Highway isn't something I'm trusting him with.

It's easy to restrict bus service to those living more than a mile away. All the kids got issued bus IDs that you have to show to ride.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 17, 2012 8:17 am • linkreport

And isn't that the point --- the kids were already WALKING to a more distant bus stop?

I suspect the net result of this is more kids being DRIVEN to school rather than walking to the bus stop.

by charlie on Oct 17, 2012 9:10 am • linkreport

Charlie, I know of nobody who walked more than a block or two to a bus stop in previous years. They simply walked to the nearest bus stop. Information on those bus stops was sent to them before school started every year. People who didn't have a bus stop nearby walked. People who had a bus stop nearby rode on the bus. Simple. The whole "walk-back" lie was created by Murphy and his staff as a CYA maneuver.

by mjp on Oct 17, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins:I'm not putting my 5 year old on a bike on a 4-lane arterial. Even crossing Lee Highway isn't something I'm trusting him with.

I did not suggest that bike lanes need to be on 4-lane arterials, not that your 5 year old needs to go to school alone on his bike.

I will say that I biked to school alone before I was 8 [we moved when I want 8, so that's an easy benchmark - I don't know how much before 8]. If an little town could build such infrastructure 30 years ago, surely, Arlington can imitate that.

One thing that helps a lot in Holland (and Europe) with the kids crossing the larger roads is that volunteers (parents, teachers) supervise intersections. They wear orange vests and have a similar sacred status when blocking the road as school buses. These 'klaarovers' (=Ready? Cross!) are also strongly protected by law.

https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=feB&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&q=klaarover+wiki&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&bpcl=35277026&biw=1340&bih=785&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=-cZ-UNG8G4Ss8QSbnoCgBQ#um=1&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=WKW&rls=org.mozilla:en-US%3Aofficial&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=klaarover&oq=klaarover&gs_l=img.3...3435.4314.0.4633.2.2.0.0.0.0.236.437.2-2.2.0...0.0...1c.1.XIdZNF0D904&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=4f04cd06e77866c7&bpcl=35277026&biw=1340&bih=785

by Jasper on Oct 17, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

"Walking buses" and "biking trains" are a great option for younger kids. Adult supervision for groups of kids going to school from each neighborhood. It takes a little bit of coordination with your neighbors, but the enjoyment and health benefits for kids and the peace of mind for parents is well worth it.

by Chris Eatough on Oct 17, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

"It takes a little bit of coordination with your neighbors, but the enjoyment and health benefits for kids and the peace of mind for parents is well worth it."

something I am sure the dual income couples who live in walkable parts of arlington have plenty of time for.

by charlie on Oct 17, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

@ charlie:something I am sure the dual income couples who live in walkable parts of arlington have plenty of time for.

But their nannies do.

by Jasper on Oct 17, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

How arrogant, Jasper. Yes, a lot of families have "nannies" but they aren't live in Alices like in the Brady Bunch. They are college kids and immigrants who work part-time and generally cover after school activities only. What we can't afford, and would have a heck of a time finding, is someone with a schedule flexible enough to will come to the house every morning for an hour to walk the kids to school, go somewhere else for the middle of the day, and then return at 3:30 to pick them up. Except for a lucky few, parents take their kids to school. One parent is always late to work, or has moved their schedules around to do this.

by Arl Dad on Oct 17, 2012 12:24 pm • linkreport

@ Arl Dad: How arrogant

Snarky? Yes. Sarcastic? Yes. Arrogant? Nah.

What we can't afford, and would have a heck of a time finding, is someone with a schedule flexible enough to will come to the house every morning for an hour to walk the kids to school, go somewhere else for the middle of the day, and then return at 3:30 to pick them up.

I don't know what the rules are in Arlington but many schools require parents to be present when kids get on and off the bus. If you have that time, you can also walk or bike your kid to school.

Again, this is not something impossible and new. It's been done that way for centuries in Europe. It's the school bus system that is the outlier. And while I understand the need for school buses in empty rural areas, it makes no sense to waste education money on such a system in a dense place like Arlington.

Except for a lucky few, parents take their kids to school.

Thereby increasing their chance of getting hurt in a car accident, one of the largest causes of death for young kids [sorry, no time to look up a reference], and taking away valuable exercise improving your kid's health. Oh and you're causing massive congestion around schools, costing even more money and air quality.

by Jasper on Oct 17, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

No, I stand by my statement, Jasper. Not only are you arrogant (and preachy), but you also fail to read. You proposed nannies as the solution. I rebutted that as being arrogant, and I now add condescending, as well as factually in error. You respond with a screed about what you think I do, which is also completely counterfactual.

I live in a walk zone. We have never had busing where I live. I have always walked my kids to school (or biked with them), every single day. I'm not letting my 6 and 4 year olds take themselves. But I have an office where, when I waltz in at 9:45, after dropping my kids and busing MY OWN SELF to the Metro to get downtown, I won't lose my job. I am not the problem, I assure you. But your facile solutions will not work for everyone.

Tell the poor workers at Campbell School who literally cried at the School Board meeting that they have lost their jobs because they cannot be to work on time and still walk their kids. Tell them to get a freakin' nanny. Not everyone goes to Nottingham and lives on McLean border. Arlington is more diverse than you apparently know. So unless you want to show up and walk those kids for them, or intervene with their bosses, why not show a little more sensitivity to what is actually a more complex situation than you apparently care to understand?

And one more thing, I know a hell of a lot more about environmental policy and planning than you do, having been involved professionally and civicly in both fields for more than 20 years. Guaranteed.

by Arl Dad on Oct 17, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Strong post Arl Dad.

Especially the part where you demonstrated your complaint stemmed from championing other's concerns.

Jasper, sorry but life isn't as cut and dry as you want to make it. Being cavalier comes across as being an asshole.

by Crabhands on Oct 17, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

Oh I'm glad somebody calls Jasper out. Jasper you chill bro. Chill.

by eindhoven on Oct 17, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

@ Arl Dad:You proposed nannies as the solution.

No, I did not. I made a snarky comment. You took, and take it seriously. I can not help that. Reading my post might help.

So unless you want to show up and walk those kids for them, or intervene with their bosses, why not show a little more sensitivity to what is actually a more complex situation than you apparently care to understand?

I was proposing that Arlington make the situation less complex by improving its infrastructure, and giving other options than expensive buses and driving, which both have significant negative externalties.

And one more thing, I know a hell of a lot more about environmental policy and planning than you do, having been involved professionally and civicly in both fields for more than 20 years.

Pulling rank is generally not a great way to win an argument. I am only agreeing with the premise of the article and relating my experiences from when I was a little Jasper.

@ Crabhands:Jasper, sorry but life isn't as cut and dry as you want to make it. Being cavalier comes across as being an asshole.

Or preachy. That's the risk of being cavalier and participating in a discussion. No offense intended, nor taken.

@ eindhoven:Jasper you chill bro. Chill.

Oh don't worry. I am very chill.

by Jasper on Oct 17, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

dcseain, Arlington has also had these walking distances for decades. However, as the area grew and certain walks became unsafe, buses were added inside the "walk zone" and on the periphery of the walk zone. One problem in Arlington is that many schools are tightly packed into residential areas with limited road access, creating huge traffic jams (for cars as well as buses) if too many cars descend upon them. Murphy's mass eradication of bus stops and bused students ignored decades of careful consideration of safe walk paths, and the only option for many families is now private vehicle.

by Loocy on Oct 19, 2012 9:57 am • linkreport

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