On Development: It’s not the buses – it’s the cars

Recent issues with school busing are rooted in decades of city development that have prioritized automobiles over safe walking routes for Columbus children.
School buses
School busesHarrison Kugler for Unsplash

Pre-holiday chaos. More than 47,000 students in the Columbus City Schools district scattered throughout more than 100 public, charter and private schools flung across Central Ohio – and the vast majority are bused to school every day. Ongoing bus driver shortages. Pledges by CCS to reconfigure school-bus routes and schedules. 

Result: A reduction of chaos in an inherently complex system and a solution to the driver shortage.

Long-term solution: Get rid of school buses.

Well, maybe that’s a bit radical and simplistic. Eliminating buses won’t improve school access any more than defunding the police will eliminate crime and policing problems. But in either case, it’s important to first figure out how we got to where we are.

Ohio is the first place in the world established with a mechanism and intent to ensure public education (though it took Ohio leaders half a century to do anything about it). The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 defined how territories – future U.S. states – would be divided into counties and townships, with townships divided into sections and quarter-sections, with one quarter-section in every township of every future state set aside to fund public education. Ideally, a school in every township would be a walkable distance from every child.

But today, walkability has little to do with distance and everything to do with the likelihood of interaction with the multi-ton, glass and steel, four-wheeled projectiles hurtling along a system of residential streets crisscrossed by collector roads and arterials – a hierarchy in which each successive level accommodates more and faster vehicles on ever-widening roads.

“Walking distance” becomes a mere theoretical term. Instead, we are challenged to emphasize safe walking distance.

CCS provides education for 45,000 students enrolled in its district. It also is required to provide transportation to 12,000 students who live in Columbus but attend charter and non-public schools. Out of that combined total of 57,000 students, two-thirds ride school buses. That is, 38,000 school-age children living within the boundaries of CCS ride district-operated buses from all over the city to 113 CCS schools and an unavailable number of charters and private schools. 

Of the 19,000 students who don’t ride buses, it’s almost impossible to determine how many walk to school. How many could safely walk to their schools? How many actually do walk? How many are driven to school by parents who clutter up school parking lots and drop-off lanes, and who, by driving, make streets less safe for kids who have no choice but to walk?

Until recent decades, Columbus schools were oriented to neighborhoods and were safely walkable. Busing was something for smaller, rural school districts. But the 1977 Federal court order to desegregate Columbus schools led to urban busing for racial balance. It also led to suburban white flight at a time when households were getting smaller and neighborhoods therefore less dense. Many schools in urban neighborhoods closed, and students had to go further to reach the nearest schools. Also, in the decades since then, our automobile-driven city became even more auto-centric with new and expanded freeways, heavier traffic, wider avenues and outward growth.

CCS exists to provide education for the populace – but now with the added burden of more than $50 million annually on its own transportation department. Much of it comes from the same tax dollars that were intended to make our kids smarter than we were when we turned our cities over to road and freeway interests.

Columbus and its suburbs built new schools in car-oriented neighborhoods where busy roads bisected neighborhoods: Students who lived on one side of the road had to take a school bus because the road was considered too dangerous. In other words, our society valued speedy commutes over the safety of schoolchildren.

We don’t have a holistic city or region. We have different entities – some of them elected, some appointed – in charge of different vital organs that are dependent upon each other. As Central Ohio faces unprecedented growth that puts a strain on municipal governments, county governments, school districts, public transit agencies and state and county road departments, we need those entities to collaborate at every step. Cities need to recognize that their fates are closely tied to their school districts and make policies accordingly. Likewise, cities, schools and COTA need to work more closely together – as they are beginning to do with LinkUS. CCS, likewise, is taking bus transportation seriously. It may not have the luxury of addressing deeper challenges over the long term, but expanding its COTA student bus pass partnership district wide is a very encouraging sign.

Columbus and Central Ohio leaders love to think they’re on the cutting edge. But until they start looking at the interconnectedness of today’s challenges by looking at the past, they will not be able to chart an innovative future.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. 

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