American Culture

Mean parents unite: make kids ride the school bus

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.

11 replies »

  1. Our backdoor neighbors drive their kid 5 BLOCKS to school. And he could use the walk. I wonder how much of the driving is due to parents not being able to get the kids ready in time to walk, bike, or ride the bus. Many parents (or should I just say “adults”) seem barely able to get themselves around in time to make it to work, much less trying to get someone else ready also.

  2. My only caveat would be adult supervision at the bus stop, at least for younger ones. The moms (yes, it’s all moms, I know, different post) in my neighborhood take turns staggering out there at 6:45 with a cup of coffee.

  3. We’re in a different part of the same school district. My kindergartner is a bus-riding oddity. Most of the others in the neighborhood are driven to school. I’ve been working on a couple of those other parents to get them to choose the bus next year, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m sure this sort of attitude partly explains why there is no bus service to our high school.

    @Ann, yes we supervise the bus stop. There are usually 3 adults there for about 10-12 kids.

  4. Jennifer, I think Ann’s comment sheds some light, from my experience. I have known many moms of elementary-age kids who do not let their children ride the bus out of safety concerns. I remember walking about 1/2 mile to school as a 1st-grader, usually with a few other neighbor kids. Parent never accompanied us. No one in my suburban neighborhood was worried about us.

    Statistics show (with some time, I could round up data I know exists) that children today are actually no more likely to be harmed or abducted than they were in when I was a primary student at the end of the 1960s. What HAS changed, and dramatically, is the level of media coverage of those extremely rare incidents, as in the Lacey Dugard case.

    I’m pretty sure a whole lot of parents yanked their kids from bus stops when that story reappeared a few months ago. It comes down to risk management, I suspect. Even if the risk is infinitesimal, if it comforts parents to accompany young children to a bus stop, then by all means they should do it. But to opt out of using the bus entirely is irresponsibility of a different sort.

    Though my mother never thought twice about my walking to school at six or seven, or riding my bike a mile or two to friends’ houses by the time I was nine, she was appalled that I allowed my daughter and her 6th-grade friends to ride the city bus from school to a movie one recent Friday afternoon. She was ready to call CPS on me (well, not quite, but you might have thought so) when she learned that I let my kids browse in the children’s section on their own at our local book store while I was around the corner in a different department — they were maybe five or six at the time.

    I’m not impervious to concerns for my children’s safety. But I do think we need to assess risk realistically. In less than a year’s time I am going to allow my son to get into a car and drive away by himself. I’m pretty sure there’s a whole lot more risk to him in that situation than there was when I let him read books out of my sight when he was a kindergartner.

    If readers aren’t already familiar with the woman dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” (yep – as she says, Google it and you’ll find her), check out Lenore Skenazy’s blog and book, both titled Free Range Kids, for more on this controversial topic. She is the New York journalist who granted her 9-year-old son’s wish to ride the subway by himself. Read a recap of the brouhaha here:

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Down the line, I’ll send my kids to the bus stop unsupervised. I’m not worried about predators–more about the fact that she’s the kind of kid who will step off the curb without looking! At the time the bus picks up, there are a lot of people driving pretty fast through our neighborhood as they head off to work. I’m teaching her, but the lessons sink in pretty slowly sometimes.

  6. Like anything else, it’s a matter of common sense and personal comfort level.

    I’m fortunate to live in a neighborhood with what seems to be a remarkably high percentage of good, sensible parents. The Swarm (the kids in our cul-de-sac and nearby) divide themselves by age – the little ones stay in the roundabout, where there’s always a mom or dad outside. The tweens stay within the subdivision, which includes some exciting overgrown ditches and a greenbelt. They’re within sight by dark or else, very much the way I grew up, although my range was more rural and wider.

    However, I wouldn’t have been allowed the bus-to-movie at that age, nor was I allowed to roam the mall with friends until 13 or so. That was thirty years ago… and it sounds remarkably like your mom’s comfort zone, doesn’t it?

    @Jennifer: Bingo.

  7. I suspect I wouldn’t have done the bus to the movie in 6th grade, either, Ann, though I do remember getting to ride the bus from Everett to Seattle (30 miles) in 8th grade with a girlfriend, to have fish and chips and wander the waterfront for a few hours. I don’t know if my mom thought I was exceptionally responsible or if she was just tuned out (maybe a bit of both!). In the case of Boulder, we have a compact and safe town where (and this is ironic, considering low school bus ridership) lots of kids grow up riding the excellent community transit system we have. I’d definitely insist she be in a group at this age, though. And no mall roaming. Yet. (Ever?) BTW, SO excellent to see you back at S&R. Not like I’m posting at any remotely responsible rate.

  8. In most other countries i’ve been to, kids ride public transport to school. In Korea, i saw children as young as five (some of them i knew the age because i taught them during the day) out basically alone after dark. Of course, culturally it was expected that a child outside is everyone’s child to look after and if the kid did something bone-headed and was punished for it by a stranger, the parent would thank the stranger…as opposed to threatening legal action.

    I always wished that i got to ride the bus. My parents had a sick, nasty habit of choosing houses that were just inside the “you’re on your own” circle. My elementary school was in the neighborhood, so that wasn’t bad. It was a long walk to middle school (and included a pedestrian overpass spanning a six-lane interstate…one kid while i was there tried to actually cross the freeway and met a rather grisly end by 18-wheeler bumper). The walk to high school was about 3/4 of a mile into the teeth of a winter wind tunnel, but that was better than walking 3/4 of a mile in the wrong direction, earlier to catch a bus. Student parking permits were hard to get, but it didn’t matter. My mother would have laughed in my face at the idea of needing a car to get to school.

    We’ve got our priorities with kids all out of whack. For example, if you buy the DVD covering the first few seasons of Sesame Street, it comes with a warning that the content is not suitable for preschoolers. Mostly, the warning is because of the very first SS scene where the little girl meets Gordon and he shows her around the neighborhood, followed by cookies and milk with Gordon and Maria. Gordon, you see, is a stranger and strangers are dangerous…never mind that Gordon was a school teacher. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me, i watched all those dangerous Sesame Street episodes when i was a preschooler.

    A fearful, coddled nation we’ve become. Decadence…and then the fall.

  9. This winter, I moved into a house that’s two blocks from my son’s elementary school. I would normally pick him up on my way home from the office, but be couldn’t wait for the weather to warm up this spring so he could start walking to my place. He prefers the shoe-leather express to the car.

    Our district is pretty rural, and it’s 110 square miles in size, so bussing is a huge issue. Middle and high school students don’t even have the option to walk because the school is so far out of town. Only seniors and students taking classes at the local college are allowed to drive, and that seems to work out just fine.

    Nice piece, Wendy.

  10. A few of the comments remind me of the lady in NYC who taught her very young son how to navigate the subway system. Safe? He seems to be.

    I am always amazed at the great amount of traffic the school year brings. I think every parent must be taking their kids to school. But I still see buses and kids walking, depending on the neighborhood. Of course having about 7 colleges/universities in town doesn’t help much.

    What I absolutely detest about school buses here though, is that they don’t pick up a group of students at various spots throughout the neighborhoods, but they stop in front of each individual house and everyone behind it and in front must wait while the kids dart out of their houses. It can be quite enraging getting stuck behind that. One guy here at work called in once and said he couldn’t make it in because he got stuck behind a school bus lol.