May 2, 2017

Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century

By Jennifer O'Neal Schiess | Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

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Every day, nearly 25 million students ride a big yellow bus to school. These iconic vehicles are so entrenched in American school culture that their likeness is the predominant symbol for education.

There’s good reason for this. Since the yellow school bus came on the scene decades ago, almost nothing has changed about the vehicles or how school systems use them to transport students. 

But do school transportation systems still meet the needs of current students, families, and schools? In “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” we analyze school transportation on a national scale through three lenses:


  • Efficiency: Are current school transportation systems efficiently, cost-effectively, and safely serving schools’ needs?
  • Education: Are those systems meeting the needs of students and families as well as supporting their ability to access schools equitably?
  • Environment: Are student transportation systems minimizing their environmental impact in the communities they serve?

The image emerging from our work is grim. School districts struggle to provide efficient service in the face of escalating costs and increasingly complex education systems where more and more students attend schools outside their neighborhoods. Stagnant state funding streams force districts either to sacrifice service quality and forego system upgrades or divert funds from other purposes. Federal and state regulations concerning student safety and special student populations’ educational rights are at odds with strategies to improve efficiency. All those competing priorities must be carefully balanced.

Factors such as a shortage of qualified bus drivers and fuel market volatility further complicate these matters. Also, districts have largely failed to adopt even basic technologies to improve data collection as well as operational and cost-efficiency, much less major overhauls, such as replacing diesel with alternative fuels.

To improve current school transportation systems, we recommend three types of innovations:

  1. Invest in robust data and technology systems. School districts need more information about their own transportation systems. Therefore, states should invest in technologies that enable districts to collect, analyze, and use data to improve operational efficiency and customer service to families.
  2. Create funding incentives for efficiency. Despite the transportation budget problems outlined above, districts have few incentives to make short-term investments that yield long-term efficiency gains. States could incentivize these investments through targeted funding.
  3. Allow for more flexible system design. An optimal student transportation system is highly context-dependent; what works in an urban school district may not work in a rural or suburban district. Protecting the rights of students who require special transportation services must remain a priority, but local communities should try to customize transportation systems to meet all students’ needs as effectively as possible.

Beyond considering the current district-dominated approach to student transportation, we should also think about whether schools need to run transportation systems at all, particularly in communities with robust regional transportation planning infrastructure. 

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


Click here to watch video from our May 2 panel at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Since 2017, we’ve released several other resources on school transportation:

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