With budget situations not looking rosy at public school districts across the country, school transportation has become a popular target for school boards looking to cut costs. As a result, many transit properties have begun partnering with local school districts to provide students with a cost-efficient alternative to yellow buses.
Although safety concerns come to mind at the mention of unsupervised students riding public transit vehicles to and from school, the average transit bus presents a far safer option than riding a bicycle, driving a car or walking.
As transit authorities continue to build relationships with their local school districts, more and more student transit programs have evolved in this fast-growing transportation market.
How do partnerships between transit agencies and school districts develop? Sometimes, transit agencies approach school districts to offer their services to students. Such was the case for the Muncie Indiana Transit System (MITS).
MITS, which operates 30 fixed-route buses within a 22-square-mile service area, approached its local school system with the idea of transporting high school students to avoid the problem of duplicate service.
“We were seeing more and more where our buses on our regular fixed-route service were following the school buses along a lot of the same routes,” says Mary Gaston, assistant general manager for MITS.
The transit agency secured a two-year contract in 1997, which they have since renewed after each term. The partnership, says Gaston, was easier to develop because a MITS board member who was also the president of the school board had already established a communication path between the two agencies.
Transit agencies also have opportunities to offer their services to schools when students do not have any alternatives or do not meet certain requirements to ride the school bus.
Two and a half weeks before the start of the 2004-05 school year, Unified School District 501 in Topeka, Kan., cut transportation service to students who lived within a 2.5-mile radius of school as a cost-saving measure. “We had 6-year-olds walking through horrible neighborhoods to get to school,” says Nancy Johnson, director of media and community relations for Topeka Transit.
In addition, the school board awarded its school transportation service to a school bus contractor that was apparently not well prepared. “The first couple of days they ran three or four hours late, and a bus loaded with students got lost,” Johnson says.
To alleviate the situation, Topeka Transit, which has 14 fixed routes and carries just more than one million passengers a year, stepped in. “We first mapped out how many of our fixed routes passed the schools within the 2.5-mile radius and we drove them to see how many blocks these kids would have to walk if we did fixed route,” Johnson says.
Next, the transit agency distributed to the schools laminated maps and brochures on how to ride the system to the schools and reinstated a $15 monthly student rate. In the first five weeks of program implementation, Johnson says student ridership on the system increased by 25% to 30%. “We offered an alternative [to school buses] that was already there,” she says.
Transit fills the gaps
Additional opportunities for transit agencies include providing student transportation services to special schools, such as magnet programs that do not offer transportation. Nashville’s (Tenn.) Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) revamped its youth program, called Quest, to cater to students in this particular market.
“We have optional schools and academically challenging institutions that did not provide transportation to students, so there was a market to fill,” says Patricia Morehead-Harris, MTA’s communications director. Under the new program, anyone age 19 and younger can purchase any pass or ride any MTA bus for a dollar or less.
Magnet programs and special classes can also be created because of the availability of public transportation. “Transportation can be provided for those isolated students who would otherwise be unable to attend the programs due to their distance from the school and the inability of the yellow bus to go that far out to get the student,” says Liliane Agee, marketing and community relations manager for Palm Tran in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Parents require education
In addition to courting the school districts, transit agencies have to curry favor with parents in the community. Providing parents with information about the service helps quell their fears and preconceived notions they may have about public transportation.
Every year, MITS dispatches staff members to school orientation meetings and registration days with schedule information and maps showing parents where students would board the bus. “It took a while for parents to be comfortable with students riding the bus as opposed to the yellow school bus, or their personal vehicles,” MITS’ Gaston says.
Topeka’s Johnson agrees. “Parents did voice their concerns. We needed to educate them and work through the stereotypes.” Parents were also encouraged to ride the bus with students before school started to help with the transition.
Some transit agencies, however, are not able to overcome parental concerns when it comes to transporting students. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) met with resistance when it tried to devise a student transportation program.
“A couple of years ago, the school district approached us about developing a student transport program,” says RTC spokeswoman Ingrid Reisman. “Once a little bit of negative feedback came out at the public meetings, the school district decided it didn’t want to do it.”
Parents at the meetings voiced their concerns about their children riding public transportation to school. “It’s a general concern that I think that people have across the country,” Reisman says, adding that the RTC would be open to pursuing a partnership in the future.
The difference in safety
While educating parents is key for acceptance of a program, educating students on safety and the differences between transit and school buses is paramount.
The City of Rome (Ga.) Transit Department goes to local schools to train students on lessons of safe riding. “We tell them how we don’t have stop arms on our buses, and that they have to be safe when they are crossing the street,” says Transit Director Kathy Shealy.
Safety was also an important issue for Topeka Transit, which developed an intensive marketing campaign to educate the public about the importance of safety. The campaign included TV, radio and newspaper interviews, as well as signs affixed to the backs of buses cautioning drivers of children crossing. “We tell all kids that they need to cross at crosswalks and that they can’t just run out in front of traffic,” says Johnson.
Johnson is also developing a program that will employ older students to become mentors to younger students.
Monetary, ridership benefits
Once a partnership between the transit agency and school district is enacted, schools stand to benefit by saving money, while the agency boosts its ridership figures.
By contracting its high school student service to MITS, Muncie Community Schools (MCS) saved approximately $200,000 in 2004. “We’ve eliminated 14 or 15 bus routes, so financially it’s a win for us,” say Bill Reiter, director of facilities and operations with MCS.
“We do not charge them for the service and the students do not pay to ride the system,” MITS’ Gaston says. The philosophy behind MITS’ program is that the transit agency could save taxpayers in the community from paying for the duplication of service. “Our gamble is that the revenue will come back to us through the state funding formula through the increased ridership,” she says.
When it began offering rides to high school students in 1997, MITS carried 500 to 600 trips a day. Today, it carries up to 1,000 one-way trips.
Palm Tran’s Agee says that its program is very cost effective for the school district and taxpayers. “The district approached Palm Tran about 12 years ago and it has snowballed ever since,” she says. Annual passes through the system cost students $255 for the year from July 1 to June 30. “We are receiving more inquiries about the program and look forward to increasing our ridership in the coming years.”
Another plus for the use of public transport is that transit agencies have access to capital monies to replace equipment, says Dan Jensen, general manager of the Sioux City (Iowa) Transit System.
Training future riders
In addition to the cost savings to the school districts and increased ridership for transit systems, student transit programs help create future riders of public transportation.
Gaston says students become accustomed to using public transit and know how to use it in the future.