Arlington’s 26 square miles are a honeycomb of more than 150 school bus routes and approximately 2,500 school bus stops (pre-pandemic). The majority of APS students are bus-eligible, but thousands walk, bike, drive, or are transported to schools each day in a family car or carpool.
Transportation matters to me for several reasons. These include:
1. Cost: APS’s transportation budget is just over $22 million, or approximately $832 per student. Five years ago, the cost was approximately $650 per student. There are more than 3,000 parking spaces for staff and students on APS property, each of which costs between $15,000 - 75,000 to construct; in addition, APS leases parking for staff at some facilities.
2. Congestion: Nationally, 54% of school-age children are driven to school in a private vehicle, accounting for about 15% of traffic on the road during the morning commute.
3. Student health: Kids exposed to significant traffic pollution run a higher risk of developing asthma, other lung problems, and heart problems as adults. On the positive side, kids who walk, bike, or roll to school are generally more alert and engaged in learning during the day.
4. Climate: As a longtime local Sierra Club volunteer, I’m aware how our transportation choices (mine included!) contribute to climate change. As a mom, I worry about what climate change means for our kids. The transportation sector (within-County and through-County) is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Arlington.
I think Arlington does a great job encouraging residents to use public transit, walk, and bike--for example, we are one of only 15 communities nationwide to be designated a Gold Level Walk Friendly Community.
Arlington Public Schools is also working hard on the same front. In 2013, it launched APS Go!, a transportation demand management (TDM) program for the school district. The 2016 APS Go! Plan, even though it’s a few years old, is still a valuable read and many of its recommendations remain relevant goals for us to pursue. Additionally, APS participates in the national, grant-funded Safe Routes to School program to conduct projects and activities that improve safety, enhance accessibility, and reduce traffic and air pollution in the vicinity of schools. To support these efforts, APS provides families with resources like safe walk zone maps posted on each school website and a “SchoolPool” website that helps families form carpools, walking groups or biking groups. Additionally, the iRide program offers APS students a 50% discount on public transit via ART, Metrobus, and Metrorail.
All of this is great, but we can make it even better: more efficient, more convenient, more environmentally friendly, and more cost-effective. Here are some suggestions:
1. Fully utilize school bus capacity. More than 16,000 APS students are eligible to ride the bus, but only about 65% of these students actually do so on a regular basis (again, pre-pandemic data). At the elementary school level, 40% of school bus trips occur under 50% of bus capacity. We could improve upon this by:
2. Teach transportation as a life skill to all students. Gillian Burgess, a member of the Advisory Committee on Transportation Choices (ACTC) comments: “We teach kids how to swim--and nobody’s going to swim to their job.” Gillian believes we should ensure that all kids know how to ride a bike and that by fifth grade, all kids should know how to use public transit. Gillian shared the example of another school system that teaches about transportation choices and then sponsors a scavenger hunt field trip for its fifth graders: each small team is chaperoned by an adult and must use community public transit to search for landmarks and other scavenger hunt items.
3. Use ART and other public transit options to bus kids to school, particularly older students. The iRide program is a good start, but we can do more. In Alexandria, for example, students ride free on DASH buses and there are no school buses provided for older students where DASH bus routes enable easy commutes to and from school. Washington, DC, has gone a step further and doesn’t provide school buses at all, except for students with disabilities, field trips, and school-sponsored trips to and from extracurricular events. DC’s students ride free on the city’s public transit, including MetroRail.
I’m not arguing that we need to adopt DC’s solution, but we should certainly investigate when and how we could coordinate service with ART and WMATA and reduce fares for students.
For example, I live on McKinley Road just a few blocks from McKinley Elementary. There used to be a Metrobus stop, and then an ART stop, right in front of my house. Those routes ran to the East Falls Church Metro, and both routes were ultimately cancelled because of low ridership. Next year, the Arlington Traditional School will move into the McKinley building. Twenty-five percent of ATS students are from lower-income families, some of whom will rely on public transportation to reach the school and participate in things like parent-teacher conferences and PTA-sponsored events. Restoring a bus line that runs along McKinley Road past the school would help ATS, and it would help nearby residents who had lost their public transit access due to previous low ridership.
This is just one example of the ways that all community members could benefit from collaborative County-APS transportation planning and coordinated public transit service to schools and other destinations.
If you believe we need School Board members who understand all the issues facing us over the next four years--including transportation--then I hope you'll vote for me in next week's School Board Caucus. Voting happens online May 17-23, and you can find more information about how to vote here.