How students get around
The USA Today headline was "Schools move to eject cars from campuses." The article gave examples of schools, from high school up through university, that were making moves to redistribute the transportation mix on their campuses in favor of pedestrians and cyclists. "Aha, good!" I thought, as some of the descriptions echoed ideas friends and I had tossed around for encouraging and amplifying the student-led movement toward walking and cycling we saw developing back in May.
The tactics are not necessarily as negative as the title implies, entailing more incentives than penalties, including new bike repair facilities, safe paths, walking school buses, loaner bikes, bike shares, even free bikes. The cars aren't being ejected so much as gently eased out by a lower speed limit here and there, or a parking lot foregone. It's an institutional complement to the decisions those schoolkids were making.
My friends and I saw this shift as a good thing - youth leading the way toward decisions that could result in more livable communities, better health, lower emissions and less fossil fuel dependency. And when I read that article's quote "Today's teenagers deserve a lot of credit. They're socially aware, they're environmentally conscious... they're smart," from Mike Martin, of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, I assumed he approved as well.
And there, I learned that Mr. Martin thinks walking and cycling to school is impractical and dangerous, borderline ridiculous. The real crux of the issue? He thinks that increases in these modes will threaten school bus ridership and funding.
He's right that the school bus is an icon of our public school system. And that icon is indeed in a weakened position these days, with school districts shaving days off the school week and games off the season - or dropping field trips - to save on fuel costs. But I don't think he should feel threatened by this particular movement to promote alternate modes.
Those students in Alabama were protesting high fuel prices; they were drivers before they grabbed their bikes, part of the 60% of U.S. students who get to and from school in private automobiles (NY Times, 11/2007). If students are moving to human-powered transportation for fuel price reasons, that probably means more demand for publicly-funded buses for those who don't feel fit or confident enough to go under their own power. School buses can be a good fallback for those who walk or cycle on those cold snowy days that Mr. Martin stresses.
Although the price of fuel is a real threat to maintaining affordable bus services, the real threat may well lie in something a little less volatile: land use decisions. Land use arrangements designed around private vehicles lead to prohibitively long and expensive bus routes, and make those who can't afford a car (or are too young to drive) reliant on the budget and goodwill of their parents to get anywhere.
The lesson for me? There are a lot of different parties with entrenched interests and different understandings of the public good. People may get defensive even at the advent of something that may benefit them. Luckily, the land use-transportation-fuel use-environment connection is coming ever closer to mainstream understanding. Let's make a point to support services, like school buses, that will allow us to wean ourselves from car-centric lifestyles - and to support and reassure people who find changes threatening.
Laurel Hoyt is the Program Coordinator of Post Carbon Cities, and walked to school when she missed the bus.