July 23, 2019

The Challenges and Opportunities in School Transportation Today

By Phillip Burgoyne-Allen | Katrina Boone | Juliet Squire | Jennifer O’Neal Schiess

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Every day, America’s fleet of roughly 480,000 school buses transports about a third of students to and from school. This fleet is more than twice the size of all other forms of mass transit combined, including bus, rail, and airline transportation.

To access the public education system, students must get to school safely and on time, and be ready to learn. As such, transportation is vitally important to school systems, with implications for equity, student success, and well-being.

In this slide deck, “The Challenges and Opportunities in School Transportation Today,” we examine the scope and importance of the school transportation sector, analyze the challenges that districts and contractors face when providing transportation services, highlight the critical decisions system leaders must make in allocating limited resources, and identify opportunities for improving service and reducing costs.

Our brief focuses on six key challenges facing the school transportation sector:

  • Regulatory landscape: The intersection of federal and state laws related to school transportation means that districts and contractors often operate in complex regulatory environments.
  • Funding: State funding for school transportation is subject to legislative appropriations and has often been stagnant, requiring districts to offset costs by reducing service, delaying upgrades, or other means.
  • School choice: With the growth of school choice options and complex enrollment patterns, more students are crossing town to get to and from school, which places new demands on traditional transportation models built around neighborhood schools.
  • Data use: School transportation systems typically have access to less and lower-quality data than other transit sectors, reducing their ability to provide service that is efficient and responsive.
  • Safety: School buses are the safest mode of student transportation, but safety agencies and advocates believe they should include seat belts, and students may face other risks related to traffic and personal safety.
  • Environmental impact: Diesel exhaust has negative effects on the environment and children’s health, but districts are often slow to replace older buses and make technological upgrades that could mitigate harm.

Despite these challenges, there are a number of opportunities to improve and innovate in school transportation. States and districts should invest in the tools and technology needed to make informed decisions about school transportation systems. States should provide adequate funding for school transportation services and prioritize capital investments — like new buses and other infrastructure — that can lead to substantial long-term savings. And districts should consider innovative ways to collaborate on providing school transportation services, including partnerships among districts, or improved coordination across sectors.

On August 27, we’ll release three policy briefs to supplement key components of this deck: one on school transportation and student safety; a second on school transportation and environmental impact; and a third on the intersection of school transportation, school integration, and school choice. Alongside our 2017 report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation Into the 21st Century,” our combined resources serve as a fact base for policymakers, industry leaders, and others who want to improve their understanding of the school transportation sector.

Download the full report here or read it in the viewer below.


There are three additional policy briefs that build on this body of research. The three briefs are:

  1. Intersection Ahead: School Transportation, School Integration, and School Choice
  2. From Yellow to Green: Reducing School Transportation’s Impact on the Environment
  3. School Crossing: Student Transportation Safety on the Bus and Beyond

This suite of resources build on our 2017 report “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century” and our 2017 video “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes.”

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