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Traffic Congestion Around Schools

Guide No. 50 (2007)

by Nancy La Vigne

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The Problem of Traffic Congestion Around Schools

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing the factors that increase the risks of school traffic congestion. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and local practice.

For the purposes of this guide, schoolrelated traffic congestion is defined as the overcrowding and blocking of streets on or near school property that is typically associated with car transportation of children to and from school. While routes to and from school are examined in the context of this problem, most of this guide is devoted to problems occurring in the immediate vicinity of the schools that generate trafficrelated problems. A thorough review of the research indicates that the vast majority of problems pertaining to school traffic congestion occur in middle and elementary schools. This guide therefore focuses primarily on causes of and ways to prevent traffic around these subsets of schools, although most responses could apply to a wide range of educational institutions.

School traffic congestion is but one aspect of a larger set of problems related to school traffic. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms school traffic congestion creates. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

  • Speeding in residential areas. Sometimes school congestion creates speeding in the larger vicinity, as frustrated parents and commuters try to make up for lost time associated with the congestion.
  • Reckless driving, speeding, and traffic violations associated with high school students driving themselves to and from school.
  • Cruising
  • Street racing
  • Loud car stereos

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that this guide assumes that you are interested in solving a school traffic problem that already exists. As with many crime, disorder, and public nuisance problems, the best way to prevent school traffic congestion is to "design it out" during the school site-planning stage. While the issue of new school construction is beyond this guide's scope, several resources offer guidance on the best way to design parking, drop-off, and pick-up areas, and procedures to ensure children's safe and speedy transport to and from new schools in the planning stages 1.

General Description of the Problem

School-related traffic congestion and the risks such congestion poses to the safety of the students, teachers, parents, residents, and motorists in and around school locations is a significant problem in communities both throughout the United States and abroad. The most obvious cause of traffic congestion around schools is vehicles, and the biggest source of those vehicles is parents' dropping off and picking up their children from school. In the United States, roughly three-quarters of school-aged children are taken to school by car 2. In the United Kingdom, the share of children taken to school by car is estimated to be between one-third 3 and one-half 4. In both countries, the rate of increase in car transportation of children to school has been significant, often creating serious traffic congestion problems 5. As described below, an increase in children taken to school by car is just one contributing factor to the problem. Other factors include changes in school purposes and populations, new school construction, the addition or elimination of busing, and the overall physical infrastructure, street layout, and traffic signs and signals surrounding a school.

Traffic congestion alone causes inconvenience to drivers, leads to lost time from the job, and can contribute to "road rage." In addition to affecting parent drivers and other commuters, school traffic congestion is a source of problems for students, school staff, residents in and around schools, and local police charged with enforcing traffic laws and responding to problems raised by residents and schools. More importantly, congestion can be a source of traffic crashes and child pedestrian injuries and deaths 6. Child pedestrian injuries due to traffic are more likely to occur in settings with high traffic volume and on-street parking, with children's often emerging "masked" from behind parked cars 7.

Factors Contributing to Traffic Congestion Around Schools

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine effective measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses to the problem of school traffic congestion. The following factors contribute to school traffic congestion.

Population Trends and Changes in Transportation Modes

While many factors contribute to the problem of school traffic congestion, according to experts, the single greatest explanation for recent school traffic congestion is the growth of the school-aged population over a relatively short time, combined with urban sprawl 8. Both factors have led to an unanticipated volume of students' being taken to school by car, rendering original school drop-off and pick-up schemes (including guidelines for when and where parents may drop off, pick up, and park), street layouts, and traffic control measures ineffective in controlling congestion. A related factor is the growth in car ownership and use, which has been associated with a decline in parents' willingness for children to walk or bike to and from school independently 9. Indeed, far fewer children are walking or biking to school, with official statistics' showing a 40 percent decrease in school-aged children walking or biking between 1977 and 1995 10. This may be explained by changes in the workforce, with more working mothers' taking their children to school by car on their way to work 11.

When asked, parents who choose to take their children by car cite distance, traffic hazards, time constraints, and bad weather as the most common reasons for selecting this transportation mode 12. Other research has asserted that both road safety and "stranger danger" are the key explanations for why parents are increasingly taking their children to school by car 13. One can view such threats to child safety as both a cause and a symptom of school congestion. On the one hand, parental concerns about traffic hazards could lead more parents to drive their children to school, thereby increasing congestion. On the other hand, traffic congestion could lead to more child pedestrian accidents, with backed up cars' blocking the views of small children crossing the street to enter school.

High school student drivers may also contribute to traffic congestion problems around schools, particularly because they are inexperienced drivers who often disregard traffic and parking signs 14. However, this source of the problem is easily addressed by requiring students to get parking permits or to park in remote lots, or to prohibit students from driving to school altogether 15. Perhaps for this reason, the literature on this topic rarely attributes traffic congestion to student drivers. (Related problems, such as vandalism, litter, and disorder around high school parking lots, are quite common 16 but are not addressed in this guide). Nonetheless, most of the effective responses in this guide apply in the high school context.

In some jurisdictions, reduced budgets have led to the elimination of busing systems, thereby increasing the use of cars and the congestion they create. In other school districts, busing has increased to promote more racially and socioeconomically balanced student bodies. In some cases, however, busing can contribute to congestion problems, such as when buses share the same drop-off and pick-up lanes as parents' vehicles. Even in districts that provide busing with adequate space and effective loading and unloading arrangements, some parents may prefer to drive their children to school, thereby exacerbating traffic congestion.

Physical Design Issues

As described above, the use of cars as a major means of transportation of children to and from school is inextricably linked to the design of the area surrounding the school. Narrow streets or those that allow parking on both sides are unlikely to provide ample room for cars to maneuver. Areas that are "landlocked" by cul-de-sacs may offer few alternative routes into and out of the area surrounding the school, and streets that become one-way during peak school arrival and departure times may create confusion rather than resolving congestion issues.

Poorly timed traffic lights, entry and exit routes designed without consideration of overall commuting patterns, and a lack of temporary parking spaces may also be sources of congestion problems. In addition, congestion may be caused by too many children's being dropped off or picked up at the same time. Furthermore, the absence of pedestrian and bike pathways and crosswalks and the presence of cars parked along the major thoroughfares leading to and from the school can increase the harm traffic congestion causes by blocking the children's visibility.

New Schools, Residential Subdivisions, and Changes in School Assignment

If not well planned, building a new school in an area may result in traffic congestion. New schools may be constructed to anticipate the growth associated with new home construction, but there may be no adequate plan for the traffic the school generates. Indeed, even new developments designed to be pedestrian-friendly with walkways through the neighborhood have encountered congestion problems around schools, due to parental concerns about child safety 17. Conversely, the construction of a new residential subdivision may lead the school system to change the school assignment process. Such changes can alter the school composition, with younger students' generating more parent drop-offs and pick-ups, and students' arriving from more remote destinations leading to an increase in congestion caused by the addition of school buses. Similarly, increases in the school population caused by changing demographics may lead to the use of temporary "relocatables"—trailer classrooms that by necessity are placed in parking areas that would have otherwise served to decrease congestion. These are just a few examples of how school traffic congestion problems can be caused by the ever-changing size, capacity, and population of schools and how, like squeezing a water balloon, changes in one or two schools in a school system can affect traffic congestion around others.

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