So, How Much Does it Really Cost to Get Students to School?

A study by: Noreen McDonald, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Ruth Steiner, Ph.D., University of Florida; and Thomas Cook, Ph.D., North Carolina State University
(STRIDE Project 2012-022S - Quantifying the Costs of School Transportation)

Big yellow buses are an integral part of the American school experience. But have you ever stopped to think about how much it actually costs to get children to school?

Researchers from two STRIDE universities, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined together to analyze the total costs of school transportation in Florida and North Carolina. While the first thing that might come to mind is the expense of each trip, including the purchasing and fueling school buses and paying for drivers,  many other factors  influence the cost of school transportation especially when all modes of travel are considered. How much does the state reimburse communities for school bus transportation? What is the average distance that students travel to school? What is the cost of congestion to the community related to parents driving children to school?  What are the health costs associated with children not getting enough physical activity?  How many school-aged children are involved in crashes and what are the costs of those injuries to the community?

In the past year, the research team examined 19 recently constructed elementary schools in Florida and North Carolina. For each school, the team estimated the cost of public infrastructure, which includes sidewalks, crosswalks, bike racks, school buses, parking lots, and drop-off and pick-up lanes. Non-infrastructure costs were also quantified; operations and maintenance, parents’ value of time, injuries or fatalities associated with different travel modes, air and noise pollution, and congestion all have a cost. These calculations allowed the research team to compare both total and per-student transport costs of each mode for each school.

The project is now heading into its next step, which is to develop a decision support tool that can be used in school siting and infrastructure investment decisions. The tool will allow school planners, especially those in the southeastern states, to better evaluate the tradeoff between the cost of a particular school site and the cost of transportation to that site.  The results should provide the information for decision makers to understand the tradeoff between the inexpensive land at the periphery of a community compared to the on-going transportation costs for busing children longer distances to school.