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The Disappearing School Bus?

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Last month, the Washington Post ran this engaging if not sensationalistic headline: “The school bus is disappearing. Welcome to the era of the school pickup line.” The article relied on the Post’s “Department of Data” analysis of the 2022 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Last year, I wrote about previous data FHWA released for 2017, which indicates that the number of students transported nationwide via the yellow school bus is estimated to be about one-third less than the figure used by this industry.

The discrepancy is intriguing to say the least. The 25 million students claimed by the school bus industry can be traced back to the 1989 Special Report 222 published by the National Academies on improving school bus safety. Fast forward to April 2002, and the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cited 23.5 million student riders in its report to Congress on School Bus Crashworthiness Research.

As of the 2018-2019 school year, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) cites 24.245 million students riding school buses. It must be noted that dating back to the 1980-1981 school year, NCES has relied on data provided by trade publications—this one included that was gathered from state student transportation departments. But some states no longer report school bus ridership numbers, resulting in reused and recycled data.

While some states continue to publish reliable figures, elsewhere, the practice has become akin to hitting a moving target amid the rise and flux of students with Individualized Education Programs and students experiencing homelessness that require transportation service. Back to the NHTS. Despite a global focus on environmental sustainability, it shows more students today are transported to and from school in a private vehicle. No surprise there. Yet we know that NHTSA statistics from its 2002 congressional report say students riding to and from school in the school bus are nearly eight times safer than when riding with their parents.

Still, the Post points out that the increase in students riding in cars can be explained, at least in part, by the increase in ride share services. As STN has reported, more school districts are turning to non-yellow buses for reasons ranging from driver to budget shortages. These can be contracted vehicles or owned and operated by the district. Fast growing school districts and construction of new schools is also outpacing the ability to transport students to them, with an over reliance on parents as a result. And let’s not forget about the impact of COVID-19.

Yet an analysis of the FHWA’s household survey, conducted every five to eight years since 1969, indicates that the dwindling school bus ridership is nothing new. With the statistical help of Stacey Bricka, a senior research scientist for NHTS contractor MacroSys, 2009 showed for the first time that the number of students riding the school bus to and from school might not be what we all thought it was.

Though still extrapolations from a survey conducted with partners the Federal Transit Administration, AAA, the Public Policy Institute of AARP, state departments of transportation, and regional planning agencies/metropolitan planning organizations, a national sample of 150,000 households indicated slightly more than 16.1 million students rode the school bus. The next NHTS in 2017 sampled about 130,000 households and saw school bus ridership increase to nearly 19.7 students, which is still over 21 percent fewer than assumed by industry stakeholders and interested parties.

In November, NHTS released its 2022 data. FHWA changed its methodology to account for  more frequent data collection every two years. This time, 27,000 households were surveyed. The figure fell again, to about 17 million students.

The range of numbers from the three surveys of course doesn’t paint the complete picture. As Bricka noted, the detailed methodology results in data confidence of plus/minus 10 percent. But even if the true 2022 figure is 10 percent higher, it remains 25 percent less than what the industry has come to believe. At worst, it is nearly 39 percent less (remarkably close statistically speaking to the Post’s figure of 15.1 million students riding the school bus, albeit that result only tracks students ages 6-17).

The NHTS, though not a perfect metric, is a valid benchmark for industry consideration.
Fourteen months ahead of the next National Congress on School Transportation, tracking the true number of school bus riders needs to be one of the top five discussions. In the meantime, the regulatory process has begun to begin surveying households and collecting data for 2024.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

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