Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Routes To School


Reducing school traffic would help rush hour congestion

Here's a simple suggestion to improve the morning rush hour: Get more kids to walk, bike, and bus to school.

Photo by The Bywaters on Flickr.

It is estimated that 20% of morning traffic congestion in Fairfax County is related to parents driving kids to school, and despite the availability of alternates, drop-off lines are only getting longer.

No one wins under the current system. Taxpayers pay too much for kids to get to school, parents lose valuable time serving as chauffeurs, and kids forfeit an opportunity to learn independence and healthy habits. And, of course, everyone suffers when traffic swells.

For the time being, there are almost no programs or policies in Fairfax that promote an alternative to the curbside drop-off. In fact, at several schools, principals prohibit students from walking or biking to school, even though Fairfax County has endorsed these options.

Within the county, elementary school students living more than a mile from school, and middle and high school students living more than a mile and a half, are entitled to bus service. Those within close proximity of their schools have the option to walk routes deemed safe by the county, with buses provided if the journey is deemed hazardous, no matter the distance.

And yet, despite these accommodations, according to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), nearly 60% of designated walkers and just over 30% of designated bus riders frequently use the kiss & ride method instead.

As a result, taxpayers pay multiple times for students to get to school. They pay teachers and administrators to staff large-scale kiss & ride operations, while at the same time they pay for the empty bus seats that students and their parents choose to forgo. Meanwhile, they also pick up the indirect costs associated with increased traffic congestion and on-road incidents.

There are many reasons why walking and biking to school benefit children and the community. Children develop independence at an earlier age, they get the health benefits of exercise, they are more alert in school, and they develop a lifelong healthy habit of walking or biking.

While there will always be many parents who need to drive children to school for a wide variety of reasons, FCPS can encourage more students to walk and bike by addressing the safety and logistical concerns of parents that lead so many of them to drive their children to school.

MWCOG is working to address this issue by experimenting with a new system called School Pool that will help parents find other parents to form bike trains, walking school buses, and regular car pools.

Likewise, FABB, Fairfax's bicycle advocacy group, and others are working with FCPS to develop a more streamlined process for applying for Safe Routes to School funds. FABB is also trying to communicate to parents the costs of driving kids to school, as well as the benefits of walking and biking.

If you want to learn more about Safe Routes to School activities in Fairfax visit the Fairfax Safe Routes to School Facebook page.


Are DC-area schools winter weather wimps?

I once asked a retired school superintendent who had worked all over the Northeast what was the hardest part of his job? Knowing all the challenges of running large urban school systems, I was surprised when he said it was the wrenching decision of whether to close schools for weather-related reasons.

Photo by Christina's Play Place on Flickr.

Closing schools means lost critical learning time and parents having to provide impromptu child care, often missing work. Keeping schools open can be dangerous for children and staff trying to get to school or resulting in them getting stuck at school. (The superintendent I spoke with recounted horror stories of a school full of people huddling in a gym with limited food and no electricity).

Suburban school systems are more vulnerable than DC. The city tends to get slightly higher temperatures and less precipitation, but more importantly, a densely settled city should require fewer and shorter motor vehicle trips to transport kids to school.

This is where people in walkable neighborhoods can get their gloat on. (I happily dragged a sled around the corner to pick up fresh groceries during the snowpocalypse of February 2010, while suburbanites survived on canned goods).

But even DC schools have teachers who live in the suburbs and students exercising choice who attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

As a New England native, I would say as long as cars and buses can move (albeit slowly), they can get to school. (The only hazard for kids who walk to school was the strong temptation to stop and play in the snow). That usually meant anything less than one foot of snow was fine. Black ice, the worst non-snow impediment, slows down vehicles but doesn't stop them.

There will be car crashes, but there are crashes every day on the roads. Just drive carefully. Be flexible on arrival times. Fear of power outage or actual power outage or loss of water is reason to close a school. Anything less, however, is just wimping out. If we can't find our way to school during messy but passable winter weather, we should re-evaluate our school density and planning.

What is your cutoff? When is it too cold or too messy on the roads to keep schools open?


Weekend video: The bike bus

A group of high school students in Orlando started riding to school in a big caravan, making the ride to school fun, healthy and sustainable.

Tip: Jeff.


Traffic on and around WAMU

On Wednesday, Diane Rehm talked traffic with Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt, Deputy US Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, and Brookings fellow Robert Puentes.

WAMU. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

They discussed how much of the increased congestion in recent decades comes from non-work trips, like parents driving kids to work where once they walked, and because land use became more spread out. Porcari touted big stimulus projects like freeways in Southern California, but also talked about how a "transportation system"not just roads aloneand TOD are key to mobility. Tom Vanderbilt also added that traffic congestion isn't really that bad compared to many other nations and that 90% of roads are not congested 90% of the time.

Vanderbilt brought up the issue of congestion pricing, which Puentes said our international "competitors" are experimenting with (note the phrasing there). Porcari brought up the ICC as an example of congestion pricing, noting it's easier to do it for new facilities than existing areas like New York. The panelists also touched on the decline in carpooling, the pros and cons of roundabouts ("modern roundabouts," not the circles like Dupont), and distracted driving.

As for new infrastructure investment, Puentes noted that a lot of congestion comes from crashes blocking up the road network, and that we have to think bigger than just adding infrastructure. He said, "We have to stop thinking that we're going to be b able to build our way out of congestion." On transit, Porcari said that USDOT is encouraging new transit, streamlining the approval process, and trying to improve the cost effectiveness calculations.

Porcari arrived a few minutes late, saying that while he rode Metro to work, he "made the mistake of driving" to WAMU, two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro. When WAMU invites you to be a guest on a show, they offer a free parking pass. Not a Metro pass, just parking.

Before my last appearance on Kojo, I asked why they can't give out free Metro passes as well; the producer noted that it's easy for them to email out parking passes for their garage, but not to offer free Metro passes. Once Metro upgrades SmarTrip to allow people to check and reload their cards online, perhaps they should consider a program to let organizations email free ride coupons that people can redeem and load onto their SmarTrips via the Web site.

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