I drove my son to school this morning, and I felt guilty about it.
Hardly an event worthy to dissect on a blog devoted largely to weightier matters of politics and economics, right? There are, however, definite political and economic dimensions to how my child – or anyone else’s – gets to school.
Our community, like most, is served by school buses. Last year my son, then a freshman, rode it each day to his high school, 5.5 miles away. He left the house at 6:40 a.m. to walk a third of a mile to the street corner where he caught the bus 10 minutes later. The driver would pull ahead a few yards to meet him where he climbed through a fence on a shortcut across the pasture behind our house. Such customized service is the norm when you are one of two kids who regularly rides – or used to ride – this route.
This year the district reversed the routing, and the bus now comes at 6:18. School doesn’t start till 7:35. Lucky for him, it’s on the way to his dad’s workplace, so he avoids the lengthy commute on the bright yellow Vehicle of Shame. Today, when his dad had an early meeting, I gave him a lift. Ridership on our bus route may be down to one teenager now, for all we know.
How do kids get to school? More often than not, their parents drive them. Or, if they are 16 and up, they drive themselves, and often by themselves, parking their cars in the sprawling asphalt acreage of the student lot. It’s a norm that is little questioned in our town, despite its veneer of hard-core environmental correctness.
Despite the pasture, we don’t live in a remote rural area where the state mandates transportation for a handful of students. Our suburban neighborhood is filled with kids who attend Fairview High School. Fairview is in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most eco-conscious towns in the nation. We have more cyclist commuters per capita than nearly any other U.S. city. There’s always been a waiting list for a Prius at the Toyota dealership. The University of Colorado and other major employers provide eco-passes for employees to ride the extensive local bus system. And the call to halt global warming is a mantra in this community filled with some of the world’s most prominent climate scientists at several major federal labs in the area.
And yet, the Boulder Valley School District’s yellow buses seem to run mostly empty, most of the time, at least on the high school routes. My son is the only one in our neighborhood who still takes it home when he doesn’t have sports practice.
When we moved into our neighborhood two years ago we were surprised at the invitation to join a carpool to the local middle school – it’s only a mile away. Our new neighbors were likewise surprised when we opted out: our son would be riding his bike.
We were the exception last year, too, when he rode the school bus to high school. If it were not on his dad’s way to work, he would probably be riding it again this year, despite the inconvenient schedule and utter nerdiness of the practice, which was a major sticking point for him.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that his younger sister attends a charter school not served by school buses. She gets a ride each morning, too. But were the schedule and location not compatible with her dad’s work commute, she would be riding her bike to our neighborhood school. And we do carpool.]
My son thinks that when he turns 16 he’ll be driving to school. I work from home, so there’s usually a car free, he reasons. “Not happening,” I tell him.
I won’t prohibit him from riding with a friend, but we will not be the household putting one more vehicle into the student lot. Though I risk sounding self-righteous, it’s time other parents made a similar commitment. If we can’t rally together in Boulder to push bus ridership, bicycle commuting and good old-fashioned walking, there is definitely no hope for less environmentally minded communities.
What are the main obstacles? I see two. Both are soluble with parental resolve.
First, there is the matter of convenience. It is an issue when students are asked to board a bus in the winter darkness, 75 minutes before school starts, to travel less than six miles. It’s a Catch-22: as more kids are driven, fewer remain to ride the bus. Bus routes must be consolidated, to serve fewer students over more miles.
But in most situations, the school bus leaves within 20 or 30 minutes of when a student would leave anyway. Is that such a small sacrifice to take hundreds of private cars off the roads? In Europe, and in larger American cities such as New York or Washington, D.C., commuters including students craft their lives around public transportation schedules. What’s required is a shift in values: to recognize that what is gained by doing so is worth more than saving a handful of minutes at home.
In circumstances of more justifiable inconvenience, i.e., a 75-minute drive to go six miles, carpooling may be a legitimate alternative. It’s far better than three or four kids from the same neighborhood all driving independently, and it’s the compromise we have opted for, in part, this year.
The second problem contributing to low ridership is the perception that riding the school bus is about the most uncool thing any self-respecting teenager could do. It’s a view that perpetuates itself: as long as only a handful of poor souls ride the bus, it will continue to be regarded as an option solely for losers.
While parents may never be able to make the school bus desirable, we can exercise our authority and simply insist that our kids ride it, or walk. I had no choice, growing up. Why do so many parents spend 30-40 minutes twice a day driving to and from school so their kids can avoid feeling embarrassed? If parents banded together and said, “My time is important, saving energy is important – there is a bus, and you can take it,” there’d be a whole lot more community-in-hardship among student riders. And maybe, eventually, riding the bus would become as unquestioned an act as driving independently is now.
Ditto for walking. Most kids don’t like to walk. Mine complain when I park at the far end of the parking lot at the mall. But walking is good for them, it’s good for the earth. In a society where childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, rising to nearly 20% in 2008, we’d be doing our kids a favor by making them walk to school, when it’s a mile or less away.
Kids aren’t the only ones who resist such crazy notions, though. I’ve noted subtly raised eyebrows from other parents when we’ve insisted our son ride his bike home from soccer practice, or walk to the bus stop in the snow. I get the sense they think we’re unsympathetic parents, maybe even mean.
It is parents who need to shift their perspectives. Parents are the ones who should be making the decisions about how kids get to school, not kids. We have the right –- and the responsibility — to insist that they ride the school bus, or walk, or at the very least drive with a minimum of three friends, rather than solo. When we abdicate that responsibility, we are doing nothing but exacerbating the environmental problems we have already created for them, and in that regard, I sympathize deeply with what they are facing.