Understanding Your Local Problem
The information provided above is only a generalized description of school traffic congestion. You should use these basic facts to help develop a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
The following groups have an interest in the school traffic-congestion problem and should be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it.
This guide is written for police, not because they are the biggest stakeholders in solving traffic congestion problems, but because they are often one of the first to be called when traffic congestion develops around schools. Police are more likely to be contacted only after tensions have developed among residents, school staff, and parents over who is responsible for the congestion. Police therefore are in a unique position to serve as mediator between these groups, helping them to seek common ground in developing and implementing effective solutions and ultimately making their jobs easier by reducing the number of calls for service generated by congestion, and the traffic violations and traffic safety issues that often accompany it.
When it comes to both understanding the underlying source of the congestion problem and developing responses to it, parents may be the single most important stakeholder you identify. This is because parents' decisions to drive their children to school, their concern for their children's safety, and their regard for existing traffic rules can tremendously affect the problem.
While research indicates that most school traffic problems occur around elementary and middle schools, in cases where congestion is around high schools, students are significant stakeholders given that their driving and parking habits are likely contributing to the problem. Student input in lower-grade schools is equally important, and can become critical if a response strategy includes encouraging children to walk or bike to school.
School Administrators and Teachers
School staff often experience the aggravation of school traffic congestion in equal measure to parents. Some staff may be inconvenienced by congestion in their own commutes to and from the school. Others, such as the principal and school administrators, bear the brunt of complaints by parents and local residents. Given that most congestion occurs in and around school property, the child safety concerns associated with traffic congestion become the school's responsibility, as well.
Residents living near schools with congestion problems are very much affected by the problem, and may also be contributing to it. Imagine being late for work and pulling out of your driveway, only to realize that school traffic is at its peak and it will take another 10 minutes just to travel a tenth of a mile. Residents may become so frustrated by repeated complaints to the school or local police with no sign of resolution in sight, that they deliberately ignore signs prohibiting street parking or making streets one-way during drop-off and pick-up times, further contributing to the congestion problem.
In some areas, school traffic congestion is caused or exacerbated by commuters whose routes take them past the school or those who use residential roads around schools as shortcuts to reduce travel time, despite the congestion they may encounter around schools.
Transportation and Planning Department
Your local transportation and planning department is also a critical partner in understanding and addressing the problem of school traffic congestion. This agency can change or add traffic signs, create one-way streets, and change the traffic-light timing to increase traffic flow and reduce congestion around the school.
School Bus Companies
In cases in which congestion occurs around schools that have busing, the bus companies are an important partner in developing responses to the problem. For example, if buses are perceived as contributing to the congestion problem, the school may determine that the best approach is to stagger bus drop-off and pick-up times and/or schedule those times so that they do not coincide with parental drop-off and pick-up times.
Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and School Boards
Formal entities such as PTAs can conduct surveys of their membership to better understand the nature of the problem, to enlist their participation and support in developing and implementing responses, and to aid in administering surveys designed to assess the response's impact.
School Building Architects and Landscapers
School architects and landscapers may need to be enlisted to better understand possible and feasible changes to school property, as well as to aid in drafting plans to reduce congestion. In addition, while most of the literature on school traffic congestion pertains to schools already existing when a traffic problem emerges, it is important to note that school architects can play a critical role in designing out traffic problems before new schools are erected.
In some cases, schools are located near retailers or businesses that generate their own traffic or that suffer from school-generated traffic. These businesses represent another important stakeholder group in understanding and addressing the traffic congestion problem.
Asking the Right Questions
The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of school traffic congestion, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.
Incident data will enable you to measure the level and type of traffic congestion problem occurring around the school(s) affected by congestion. To answer these questions, it is useful first to learn whether the school system and/or police department has a mechanism for recording traffic congestion complaints. In some cases, police calls-for-service data may provide the necessary details to extract this information. In the case of school-generated data, however, the school system is likely to document only traffic safety issues, such as crashes involving the injury or death of a child. It is likely, therefore, that the police officer assigned to the school (or the patrol area in which the school is located) is the best source of incident data. The questions to ask to obtain incident data include the following:
- How many complaints does the school receive about traffic congestion?
- How many complaints do the police receive about traffic congestion?
- Who is making the complaints—residents, school staff, parents, or all of the above?
- How many vehicular crashes have occurred around the school?
- How many pedestrian injuries and deaths have occurred around the school?
- How many traffic violations have occurred around the school? What types of violations are occurring?
- To what degree is the traffic congestion caused by parent drivers, and to what degree by nonparent drivers, including bus drivers, commuters, and residents? Why are each of these drivers in the area, and what are heir motivations for driving?
- To what degree do pedestrians contribute to traffic congestion?
- What are the main access points to and from the school (main drive, pedestrian entrances, side streets, etc.)?
- Where are the existing drop-off and pick-up areas?
- Are there alternate drop-off and pick-up sites that could be used?
- Where are the crosswalks and associated limit lines?
- What speed zones exist in and around the school? Do they appear to affect traffic flow?
- Where are no-parking zones, bus-parking areas, bus-loading/unloading zones, and student drop-off and pick-up areas located?
- Does the neighborhood have features that draw traffic into the area at school drop-off and pick-up times? For example, are there area retailers or businesses whose customers and/or employees contribute to the problem?
- How many parking spaces are located on and around school property?
- What is the average time it takes to drop off or pick up a child during peak congestion hours (including wait time and time entering/exiting car)?
- How far is traffic backed up entering and exiting school at the busiest times (minimum, maximum, average)?
- What is the maximum number of students who could walk to school (distance is less than one-half mile or other standard by student age)? Do the children who walk to school live closer to the school than those who don't?
A useful means to assist in answering these questions about setting is to conduct field observations at and around the school at different times of day and days of week to find out where most traffic is coming from, where people park, and where pedestrian pathways and flows are located.§ Such observations may also reveal whether any nonschool commuter traffic cutting through the school area is contributing to the problem.
§ You can find a useful resource to guide such field observations in a document produced by the National Highway Safety Transportation Board that provides advice to those conducting pedestrian and bicycle crash analyses. See http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/ped/pbcatjan01/index.html.
- At what times of day is congestion at its worst? What days of the week? What times of the year?
- Do peak congestion hours correspond with other events?
- Are incidents clustered in time, or spread over time?
- Is congestion seasonal, with most problems' occurring during cold winter months, and no problems' occurring during summer recess?
School System Context
In most growing school systems, school assignment is reevaluated each year. As a result, even if your particular problem is congestion around an individual school, the problem must be considered in light of the larger school system context. This includes identifying and anticipating any significant changes, including the following:
- Have there been, or are there plans for, changes in school assignment at both the school of interest and neighboring schools?
- Are there plans for residential and commercial development in the surrounding area?
- Are there anticipated changes in traffic patterns and physical infrastructure around the school?
- Does the school have plans to add relocatable classrooms, and if so, where will they be located?
These questions underscore the importance of understanding that any efforts to address school congestion problems must be considered in light of the larger system, and that congestion issues and your responses' effectiveness must be reassessed and may need to be amended each year.
When studying the issue in your local jurisdiction, it may be useful to conduct a survey of parents to learn how often they drive their children to school, their openness to other forms of transportation, and their perceptions of the incidence and severity of the congestion problem. In analyzing the problem, a survey of parents can shed light on why they take their children by car, including the following response categories:
- It is quicker/more convenient.
- It is on the way to/from work.
- There is no other transportation.
- The weather is bad.
- It is too far to walk.
- My children are too young to go to school alone.
- I drop off/pick up other kids.
- I have concerns about child safety and "stranger danger."
If the chosen response to the problem is to reduce parental driving, such a survey can help in developing a response that speaks to parents' motivations and concerns. Conducting a similar survey after implementing your response will also assist in your assessment of whether the response was effective (see "Measuring Your Effectiveness" below).
Other important questions to pose to parent drivers include the following:
- How often do you drive your children to school? Daily? Special occasions only?
- What alternative modes of transportation are available?
- Why do you choose particular routes and pick-up and drop-off points?
A "windshield survey" posing similar questions to parents and other commuters stuck in congestion around schools may also be fruitful.
- What are the current practices in place to control traffic congestion? What are the existing guidelines for student drop-off and pick-up?
- What are the current street signs in and around the school? It is important to note the locations of all stop signs, traffic lights, speed limit signs, and directional signs (one-way or street closure signs), as well as any associated hours of operation (e.g., "No entry between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.").§
- Is there a crossing guard on duty, and if so, at what times of day?
- What are the existing police patrol patterns? Are patrols assigned to coordinate with school arrivals and departures? Does the school have a police resource officer assigned to it?
- What responses have worked in the past, and for how long? What past responses have yielded limited or no effectiveness?
§ For guidelines on appropriate signs, see the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices at http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/Caltrans Traffic Manual.
Once you have gathered information on street patterns, traffic flows, and signs, a useful means of integrating all this information in a way that leads to potential solutions is to map the locations of these factors, either by hand or through the use of Geographic Information System software. Such mapping can be useful to understand the flows and nature of congestion within the larger context of the surrounding area.
At this point in the process, you should begin to develop a list of possible responses designed to address the underlying cause of your school traffic problem. It is often useful to survey parents, teachers, staff, and even students to obtain their feedback on which of the proposed interventions they like best. While the popularity of the response should not be the only criterion for its selection, if you have identified an array of equally effective responses, it is only logical to implement the one that most people will support, particularly because their compliance is critical to the intervention's success. Such a survey not only serves to narrow down the list of possible interventions, but also will help to justify the response ultimately implemented.
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area.(For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems.)
The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to school traffic congestion:
- Fewer vehicles around the school
- Reduced time spent by parents' dropping off and picking up children
- Fewer complaints received by the school about traffic congestion
- Fewer complaints received by the police about traffic congestion
- Fewer vehicular crashes around the school
- Fewer pedestrian injuries and deaths around the school
- Fewer traffic violations around the school
- Lower percentage of parents' using cars to take children to school
- Improved perceptions of congestion among parents and staff
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Traffic Congestion Around Schools
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