Art Carden  

A Public Transportation Patch: Why Not School Buses?

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Last month, I read Randal O'Toole's Cato Policy Analysis on rail versus buses in which he concluded that high-capacity buses are preferable to rail in part because they can share roads and highways with cars and trucks and don't require a lot of new infrastructure. This got me thinking: why don't cities use school buses for mass transit? As capital goods go, they seem to spend a lot of time sitting around, especially during the summer. I can't imagine they would need to charge much and/or need that many riders to cover the marginal cost of commuter rides. If you're asking "would you really want to ride a school bus to work," my answer is "if the price is right and if the trip isn't too long."

So what gives? One of the lessons of economics is that there aren't a lot of dollar bills on the sidewalk. Why wouldn't this work? What are the regulatory roadblocks, if there are any?

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CATEGORIES: Microeconomics , Regulation

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Miguel Madeira writes:

Well, it is difficult, in that kind of things, to make transpositions from one country to another, but in Portugal children go to school in the regular city buses (not in any specific "school bus") - in the end, it is more or less the same thing as using school buses for mass transit.

mucgoo writes:

School buses are a very American invention. In the UK you'd either use regular public transport or a privately provisioned school route maybe subsidized by the school.

Steve writes:

I'll bite. School busses run at peak times in the morning. So do regular busses. So, there's an excess of capacity with both during off peak, so why bother deploying school busses elsewhere.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Steve nails it.

Incidentally, a major reason most school systems have elementary schools start an hour or so later than middle and high schools is so that the buses can do double duty, running two routes in the morning and then two in the afternoon.

Chris writes:

Couple reasons other than the ones mentioned above:

  • The cost of transit is overwhelmingly for the driver, which wouldn't be any cheaper in this case, meaning operational costs would be about the same.
  • School buses are typically on a 30-40 year replacement cycle, where transit buses are usually on a ~20 year cycle. Doubling or tripling the amount of use for school buses would bump them into the same replacement cycle, and thus would move capital costs to roughly the same amount as well.
Chris S writes:

One possible explanation:
Municipalities aren't profit maximizing so don't spend a lot of time thinking about how to get more out of their capital investments.

RPLong writes:

I've seen private functions (such as marathon races) charter school buses during the off-season. So it does happen. My main objection to this is that the seats aren't built for adult bodies. Sure, it's better than nothing, but it is an extremely uncomfortable ride to sit in a child's seat for more than, say, fifteen minutes at a time.

As mentioned above, outside the states, students ride the public buses anyway. I bet American public budgets could be substantially improved by scrapping school bus systems entirely.

Jardinero1 writes:

I don't think that you ask the right question. The better question is why do metros monopolize the provision of mass transit in the USA? Other countries license many, multiple smaller carriers to provide mass transit. The result is more routes served by a wider variety of vehicles at lower costs to the public. The best example of this is Buenos Aires. Some US cities are finally getting the message. In Houston, Houston METRO and the city are now licensing Jitney buses to run on routes which METRO doesn't serve.

JKB writes:

Well, the answer might reside in why school busses weren't satisfactory to evacuate residents of New Orleans. As some intimate above, school busses are considered low class, low amenity, oddly even below city busses.

RPLong - in America, school busses run where city busses don't go, i.e., suburban and rural routes. Now days, parents put their kid on the bus, then take the kid off the bus and expect the school to be responsible from end to end. I do remember a story about a kid who rode the Metro in DC (I believe) to and from school. She was cited for having food and the school claimed the right to punish her as well since she was commuting from the school. But then that is just petty harassment by the school as I'm sure they'd fight any expectation of responsibility if the child was injured or killed while commuting that way.

Jeff writes:

At least where I grew up, this would not have been possible, as the buses were owned and operated by a private company. Why this company didn't do a better job of finding stuff to do when school was out is a different question, though. Maybe there are a just a lot of such bus companies looking for work in the summer and they bid down the price until there's really no profit in it anymore.

Then again, school's not really out of session that much anymore, when you factor in summer school and all the sports stuff that goes on in August these days, like football and soccer camps.

Granite26 writes:

wow, power of the internet in 10 comments.

As an aside, there's a lot of companies in town that buy old ratty school buses to mass haul contractors in and out of secure facilities (refineries, etc) from off-site parking facilities during large turn arounds. They are usually rented for the day, and the trips are no more than a few minutes each way.

gwern writes:
As some intimate above, school busses are considered low class, low amenity, oddly even below city busses.

There's nothing odd about it, Long nails it: have you sat in a school bus lately? They are not built for adults, to say the least.

Also, one interesting consequence of school districts getting as much utilization out of their fleets as possible is that it screws over the high school students: because they don't have enough capacity to transport multiple levels simultaneously, the elementary/middle/high schools *have* to start staggered by hours, and so some group has to open at ~8AM; you can't leave the elementary school kids at home until 9AM because their parents are all leaving for work but you can't pick them up too early either, so the natural ordering is high school then middle school then elementary... except high schoolers are undergoing big circadian rhythm shifts so waking them all up at 6AM screws over their mood, cognition & learning, and increases fatal car accident rates. Oops. But if you try to change the schedule, then the bus thing interferes, since you don't have the bus capacity to transport the elementary & highschoolers simultaneously (and you'll also have complaints for teachers - *their* circadian rhythms have shifted back to normal so *they* don't have such big issues waking up at 6AM, the students must be lazy and/or Tumblrbooking too much and their sleepiness is their own fault - and from the sports people).

silly sailor writes:

This happens in the UK. The difference is the schools don't tend to own busses and contract out to bus companies to provide them. Bus companies have share holders to keep happy so they put their resources to best use. Schools don't.

PaulS writes:

Another factor: government-enforced helicopter parenting.

Simplest would often (not always) be to give students transit passes free or at a discount, and let the positive network externalities of the transit system do their thing. New York City used to do this starting at some grade I no longer recall, for distances over a (theoretical, long story involving the official 19th century map) mile. (I used to walk 0.6 mile; that started in second grade after we moved house.)

But any such would conflict with a fashionable bit of the USA's permanent moral panic: the helicopter parenting / "safety" notion that all kids must be imprisoned and closely monitored 24/7/365 - because, you know, crime, which we all know is so enormously higher than it used to be. Vide the now-endless stream of news stories of parents arrested because their kid found his or her way to their town's ice-cream shop or whatever. Oh, the horror!

Indeed, I'm a little surprised that the parents of JKB's Metro-riding student weren't arrested, instead of "only" the kid being harassed by the school system after already being properly cited and penalized by Metro itself.

RohanV writes:

Also, there are issues with disabled and elderly people. The majority of school buses are built for young, healthy children. So we have have high stairs to climb up and into the normal school bus. A disabled child usually requires a special school bus.

In contrast, a lot of disabled people, elderly people, pregnant women, mothers with babies, etc. use public transit. So transit buses often have floors quite close to ground level. The bus can "lower" itself to make it easier to board, or extend a ramp to allow a wheelchair access. The seats at the front of the bus often fold up so that wheelchairs or strollers can be placed correctly.

In my opinion, Mr. Carden, you and your fellow bloggers on this site have a bad habit of only considering the most common case. I believe you do so because optimizing for that case gives you the biggest numeric improvement. But that is not good enough when designing things. Very often the limiting priciple in design is not the most common case, but a less common case that must still be satisfied for the project to be considered a sucess.

Mark Brophy writes:

This would be a good question for Quora, as it attracts a wider audience.

Ricardo writes:

The answer is coercion.

In general, kids who ride school buses don't have other options. That's why school districts can get away with putting kids on really crummy buses. Most adults, however, do have options. If the bus becomes intolerable, they find ways to carpool, maybe buy a cheap used car, etc.

When coercion is an option, quality declines. A variant of price discrimination, I guess.

Miguel Madeira writes:

After reading all the comments, perhaps the best question should be, not "why don't cities use school buses for mass transit?", but "why don't cities use regular buses for school transit?" (and perhaps the answer is of PaulS)

Fred writes:

I thought it might be illuminating to discuss some actual cases that I have seen.

At UT Austin in the 1990's the University used a private firm to run privately owned school buses to transport student from off campus to campus, where student fees paid 100% of the fees to provide the service. In comes the local transit agency that sells transit quality buses and arranges for Federal grants to create a "better service".

A City develops a plan to place a pedestrian bridge across a stream so students can safely walk to school. The school announces that school bus service will be removed from the neighborhood because the safe walking distance is now less than 1/2 mile. Political uproar ensues and the bridge project is scrapped.

There are many excellent technical reasons listed above why it won't happen, but the biggest reason is that neither bureaucracy will be willing to give up its budget. Most enacted reforms to government don't cut cost they can only slightly redirect them to be more efficient, and even that is rare.

Mark Bahner writes:
There's nothing odd about it, Long nails it: have you sat in a school bus lately? They are not built for adults, to say the least.

Yes, I've also never seen a city bus without air conditioning...and I've never seen a school bus with air conditioning. (Even here in NC...though maybe I'm just missing them.)

Ak Mike writes:

Great set of comments. I would love to see a school transportation administrator weigh in.

My own belief is that, in addition to Steve's point, buses, like other commercial motor vehicles, cost in accordance with miles driven rather than chronological age. Thus no money would be saved by using school buses instead of buying additional transit buses. The cost of a bus is in operating costs plus depreciation which is mostly not incurred when the bus is sitting in the parking area, but is incurred when the bus is moving, whether it is hauling students or transit passengers.

Seth Ariel Green writes:

Art - this is very common in Central America. "Chicken Buses" are repurposed, often very colorfully painted, American school buses, and they're everywhere. Here is a brief write-up/pictures

Peter writes:

My school board 30 years ago gave bus passes to high school students. If you missed your bus then there would be another one along in 15 minutes or so. And getting young people riding city buses before they get their first car is just smart. The average city resident took 124 transit rides a few years ago.

Aside from the benefits to students and transit ridership, it probably also has a flattening effect on the after-school spike in ridership. Instead of 30 buses leaving all at once, you get the regular city buses plus maybe 20 city specials, and then regular buses after that. After school study session? No problem. Sports? No problem. Wanna just hang out at school for a while with friends? No problem.

Shane L writes:

I'm not entirely sure but I think public school buses were introduced in Ireland partly to help rural children get to distant schools. Some are serving very sparsely populated areas. Since the children must attend school (to my knowledge home schooling is legal but fairly uncommon) there is a reliable supply of kids in the morning but it is unlikely that there would be a steady stream of bus-users during the rest of the day. Hence it would be expensive to hire the drivers and expend fuel driving a mostly empty bus around the countryside.

Nice thinking, though.

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