School Transit-Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, means building more stuff in places with good access to public transportation, typically the immediate vicinity of a train station. This way people have more convenient access to transit and are encouraged to take it because they live or work near the train, or ideally both. In practice, American implementations heavily focus on residential TOD, and secondarily on commercial TOD, the latter focusing more on office than retail. I covered some retail issues here; in this post, I’m going to look at a completely different form of TOD, namely public-sector institutions that government at various levels can choose the location of by fiat. These includes schools, government offices, and cultural institutions like museums. Of these, the most important are schools, since a huge share of the population consists of schoolchildren, who need convenient transportation to class.

This principle here is that the state or the city can site public schools where it wants, whether it’s by diktat or by inducements through funding for school construction. This occurs even in situations with a great deal of autonomy: American suburban schools are autocephalous, but still receive state funding for school construction, and if anything that incentivizes moving to new suburban campuses inaccessible by public transit. Other cultural institutes are usually less autonomous and more strapped for cash, and getting them to move to where it’s easier for people to access them without a car should be easier.

School siting: central cities

Urban schools tend to spread all over the city. There are more schools in denser and younger neighborhoods; there also are more high-end schools (Gymnasiums, etc.) in richer neighborhoods. But overall, there isn’t much clustering. For example, here is what I get when Googling both Gymnasiums in Berlin:

There are many Gymnasiums in rich areas like Wilmersdorf and few in poor areas (the map shows one in Neukölln and none in Gesundbrunnen and Wedding, although a few that aren’t shown at this zoom level do exist). But overall, the school locations are not especially rail-oriented. They’re strewn all over the middle-class parts of the city, even though most students do not live close enough to walk. Only the most specialized of the elite schools is in city center, the French school.

The situation in New York is similar to that of Berlin – the schools in the city are all over. This is despite the fact that there’s extensive school choice at the high school level, so that students typically take the subway and bus network over long distances. New York’s school stratification is not the same as Berlin’s – its Specialized High Schools serve the top 3% of city population, Germany’s Gymnasiums serve maybe 30% – but there, too, schools that explicitly aim to draw from all over the city are located all over the city. Only the most elite of New York’s schools, Stuyvesant, is in the central business district, namely in Lower Manhattan; the second and third most elite, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, are just outside Downtown Brooklyn and in the North Bronx, respectively. A huge fraction of Bronx Science’s student population commutes from feeder neighborhoods like Flushing, Sunset Park, Chinatown, Jackson Heights, and the Upper West Side, and has to wake up early in the morning for an hour-long commute.

If schools are not just for very local neighborhood children, then they should not be isotropic, or even middle-class-isotropic as in Berlin. They should be in areas that are easily accessible by the city’s rapid transit network, on the theory that the time of children, too, is valuable, and replacing an hour-long commute with a half-hour one has noticeable benefits to child welfare and educational outcomes.

Urban school nodes

So to improve transit access to school in transit cities, it’s useful to get schools to move to be closer to key nodes on the rail network. City center may be too expensive – the highest and best use of land around Times Square or Pariser Platz is not a school. But there are other useful nodes.

The first class of good locations is central and near-center areas that don’t have huge business demand. In New York, Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn both qualify – business prefers Midtown. In Berlin, there are a lot of areas in Mitte that don’t have the development intensity of Potsdamer Platz, and to some extent the French school picked such an area, on the margin of Mitte.

The second is key connection points on the rail network that are not in the center. Berlin is rich in such connections thanks to the Ring. To some extent there are a bunch of schools close to Ringbahn stations, but this isn’t perfect, and for example the Europasportspark shown on the map is between two Ringbahn stations, at one of the few arterial roads through the Ring that doesn’t have an S-Bahn station. In New York, there is no ring, so connections are more sporadic; desirable nodes may include Queensborough Plaza, Metropolitan/Lorimer in Williamsburg, and East New York.

East New York supplies an example of the third class: an area that is rich in transit connections but is commercially undesirable because the population is poor. (The Berlin equivalent is Gesundbrunnen – non-German readers would be astounded by the bile Germans I know, even leftists who vote for anti-racist politicians, heap on U8 and on Gesundbrunnen and Neukölln.) Since everyone goes to school, even working-class children, it is valuable to site schools and other cultural amenities in such areas for easy accessibility.

One important caveat is that freeways, which make office and retail more attractive, have the opposite effect on schools. Air pollution makes learning more difficult, and children do not own cars and thus do not benefit from the convenience offered by the car. If rail lines are near freeways, then schools should be set somewhat away, on the principle that the extra 5-minute walk is worth the gain in health from not sitting hours in a polluted environment.

The suburbs

Outside the cities, the place for schools is the same as that for local retail and offices: the town center, with a regional rail station offering frequent access by train and timed connections by bus. Even when the student population is local, as it is in American suburbs, the density is too low for people to walk, forcing some kind of mechanized transportation. For this, the school bus is a poor option – it is capital-intensive, requiring what is in effect a second bus system, one that is as useless for non-students as the regular buses are for students if the school is far away from the local transit network.

Instead, a central school location means that the suburban bus network, oriented around city center, is useful for students. It increases transportation efficiency rather than decreasing it – there is no duplication of service, and the school peaks don’t usually coincide with other travel peaks, like the office worker peak and the retail worker peak. The bus network, designed around a 15- or 30-minute clockface schedule, also means that students can stay in longer, if they have on-campus club activity or if they have things to do in the town center, such as going shopping.

In some distant suburbs the school peak, arriving around 8 in the morning, may be the same as the peak for office workers who take the bus to the train to go to the central city. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for parents who insist on driving, this makes it easier to drop off children on the way to work. If this turns out to create real congestion on the bus, then the solution is to move school start time later, to 9 or so.

It’s crucial to use state power to effect this change when possible. For example, Massachusetts funds school construction through state funds but not renovation, which has encouraged schools to move to new campuses, generally in harder-to-reach areas. Fitchburg’s high school used to be in city center but recently moved to a suburban location close to nothing. Even in environments with a lot of local autonomy, the state should fund school construction in more central areas.


  1. Max Wyss

    One question is whether those gymnasiums are private or public. Could it be that several of the schools located in the “better” areas are actually private, therefore serving the area.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t actually know? But I’d imagine private schools draw widely too. Lots of rich people in (say) Prenzlauer Berg who might send their children to fancy private schools… This is especially true if the Gymnasium is specialized, for example religious, or the French school again.

      • Max Wyss

        Definitely; I presume that most students will nevertheless use transit, or come on a two-wheeled vehicle.

  2. Max Wyss

    I am not quite sure whether the proximity to the major transit network is necessary for lower grade schools, as they usually have their own district, which is very often within longer walking/bicycling distance. (maybe have a look at some of the gynmasiums about how many students actually come in by bicycle).

    When I was in the age to go to the gymnasium, living in a suburban village in the Zürich area, the choice was either slightly off-city center on this or on the other side of the Limmat river. In my case, I used a bicycle to the train station (about 1.5 km), 25 minutes by train, and a good 10 minutes walk (or 5 minutes by tram and 3 minutes walk). There was no transportation organized by the school at all (most students lived in the city anyways). Most of my classmates came by tram; some by bicycle or moped. (also note that in Switzerland, because of its “dual track” educational system, only about 25% of the children go to a gymnasium or equivalent).

    FWIW, there was an elementary school, one tram stop before I had to get off, and I still remember a pair of twins, about 8 years old, who commuted to that school by tram… no big deal…

    • Eric2

      Agreed, I think trips to primary school and adult trips to work/fun have little in common in terms of distance or direction. Perhaps a higher priority should be to minimize the number of dangerous street crossings around the primary school, which probably means keeping it away from dense TOD.

        • Eric2

          I would say make the streets have dead ends at the school, so those who need to drop off kids by car can do so, but no kid has to cross a street near the school.

          But either way this is incompatible with a busy commercial center where transit vehicles, deliveries, taxis, and whatever private cars you tolerate need frequent access.

          • Alon Levy

            Sure, so don’t put the school on Brunnenstrasse or Hermannstrasse or Frankfurter Allee, put it a block away with good S-Bahn access. The way Berlin train stations specifically work is, they have an exit on each side of the island platform, and usually one exit gets to the main street and the other doesn’t, so put the school near the other exit. This is generally good practice and New York has it on IND and post-IND stations, including Second Avenue Subway.

            (Side note: the Frankfurter Allee S-Bahn station entrance isn’t quite on Frankfurter Allee but a few tens of meters away on a pedestrianized street, facing the tracks on one side and a shopping center on the other. So clearly you can have some pedestrianization even at a commercial node that isn’t at city center. At city center you of course have Times Square and such.)

          • michaelrjames

            Eric, all of those suggestions are so old-school and regressive! It’s the same thinking over the past century that all pedestrians and especially school children must adjust their behaviour to give total priority to one mode, that of motorised transport that should have exclusive use of about 30% of the surface of our cities. Instead, it is must be reversed. It is the motorised traffic that needs to be tamed and some of that surface needs to be reallocated to priority walking & cycling (scootering etc) routes that are safe. I don’t agree with “Safe Routes to School” because it absolutely needs to be safe routes to everywhere (where significant numbers of people are active.) That has to be the design ethos behind a true TOD.

            Sure, it won’t be easy to achieve, especially in some parts of the world. But covid-19 has turned out to accelerate this building movement, towards essentially the ‘shared zone’ concept.

            Incidentally, even with existing road structure the concept of ‘protecting’ children by locating schools in cul-de-sacs or providing school buses etc. is simply counterproductive. They have to learn how the actual world operates and the sooner (younger) the more likely for it to be effective. The loss of the walking-to-school habit in the last half-century in the US has been a total disaster, and not just in car-dependence but in public health (obesity, diabetes, hypertension etc). But it’s even beyond the physical. Alon mentions the inefficiency of school buses but it has a much greater negative impact than mere economics of that type. More than a decade ago I wrote a piece (naturally can’t find now) attributing some of America’s social dysfunction to school buses, because they isolate kids from the real world. In places where young kids travel on public transport they will be far more socialised, both by correction by the other adult travellers and by passive osmosis of observation of how adults behave in such situations. Remember the pseudo-scandal of “free-range kids” about a decade ago (it was what provoked my musings) when some people berated a mother for allowing her young (8 yr?) child to travel alone to school on the NYC Subway. The reality is that, far from being dangerous, it was–to use an advertising slogan–priceless.

          • michaelrjames

            I wrote my first comment before reading all the comments that came after this one, and discovered discussion of many of the same themes by others. (Just to say I wasn’t ignoring them.) For example in Richard Layman’s linked article he wrote the same thing: “The best way to develop healthy sustainable transportation behaviors is to start young, with walk and bike to school programs. See the walk to school guide from Rutgers for more information along these lines.”

            Then I refreshed my memory on the free-range kids thing, to discover it was only 5 years ago; weird since I was convinced it was a decade or more. I think the Trump presidency and this covid-10 thing is seriously distorting time relativity. Here is the mother’s editorial after she was attacked:

            I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone. I got labeled the ‘world’s worst mom.’
            By Lenore Skenazy, January 16, 2015

            In the same file I found:

            Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?
            In Japan, small children take the subway and run errands alone, no parent in sight. The reason why has more to do with social trust than self-reliance.
            Selena Hoy, 28 Sept 2015.

            What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.
            This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance,” Dixon says.
            Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.
            Japan has a very low crime rate, which is surely a key reason parents feel confident about sending their kids out alone. But small-scaled urban spaces and a culture of walking and transit use also foster safety and, perhaps just as important, the perception of safety.
            “Public space is scaled so much better—old, human-sized spaces that also control flow and speed,” Dixon notes. In Japanese cities, people are accustomed to walking everywhere, and public transportation trumps car culture; in Tokyo, half of all trips are made on rail or bus, and a quarter on foot. Drivers are used to sharing the road and yielding to pedestrians and cyclists.

            Of course these two things–safe public realm and use of the public realm by children–are mutually reinforcing. It is a bit of a chicken and egg thing so is going to be very difficult to reverse trends in the US to (re)create this virtuous circle compared to the current vicious circle, exemplified by the exurban+rural versus urban divide. One would hope that the Trump presidency represents the nadir because he is the ne plus ultra in self-centred narcissism on just about every issue. (But then we thought that of the GWB era ….).
            Equally, pointing to East Asian societies is not much use and even progressive urbanists don’t really aspire to the somewhat extreme groupism seen there. In fact, plenty of European societies show the acceptable balance, and where you will see plenty of school children on transit, including the megacities with their crowded transit like Paris. Incidentally the CityLab article on Japan generated a huge number of very hostile, and aggressively racist comments–CL is on various far-right and white-supremacist watch lists that direct a swarm of toxic comments to invade the site, and is why Bloomberg have discontinued comments on CL after they completed their recent takeover. These creeps will screech “Cancel Culture” but it is they who are causing it.
            Speaking of BloombergCL, in the latest edition:

            To Fight Racism, Transit Has a Key Role
            Black Lives Matter protests are showing how city leaders and transit agencies must reprioritize infrastructure investments, a public transit official argues.
            Darnell Grisby, July 20, 2020

          • Aaron Moser

            “CL is on various far-right and white-supremacist watch lists that direct a swarm of toxic comments to invade the site”

            Yes this be why I can’t take “transit people” seriously. Why I am I wasted my time when I know this comment will not be “approved”? Heck I know?

          • Richard Layman

            The best works concerning SRTS make the point that it is really about neighborhood improvement more generally. When I worked in Baltimore County, the planner at Towson State was intrigued about SRTS to include colleges and universities, even to the extent of including off campus housing.

            This is one of the best manuals on SRTS.

            Click to access ATD-School-Walk-Bike-Routes-Guide.pdf

            But yes, I’ve extended the idea to transit (SRTT) and the night time daypart, because most cities don’t look at lighting in a systematic way, e.g.,

            WRT car-centricity, this 1929 ad by General Motors promotes driving your kid to school:

            Drive children to school ad, Chevrolet, Saturday Evening Post, March 3, 1923, General Motors

      • AJ

        Seems also there is a difference between primary schools, where safety for young children is a priority but also schooling is more general so schools can be smaller & scattered around the city with an emphasis on walking access, vs secondary schools where size/specialization is more important and a central location is move valuable plus the students are older and more able to both navigate transit and cross streets safely.

    • Yom Sen

      Another Swiss example, in canton Vaud (800k people including Lausanne, a urban area with 400k) in which transit was clearly an important factor in deciding high schools locations.
      There used to be until the 70s only 2 gymnases in Lausanne centre. Then 9 gymnases were built in the rest of the canton and 3 are planned for 2030. Most (but not all) of them are located near train stations which are often served by multiple bus feeder lines from neighbouring villages.
      If I take the example of Nyon, small town of around 20k people, the gymnase was built in the 80s right behind the station, I guess on purpose. Almost all students have a direct train or regional bus or urban bus. As far as I know, very few students are dropped by their parents, none come with their own car since the parking lot is reserved to teachers.
      All 3 planned gymnases are in very small towns (Aigle, Rolle, Echallens) and have the common point of being in transit friendly locations.
      Primary schools and middle schools are not managed by the canton but by the communes or intercommunal associations and transit does not seem as important. In cities and even small towns, nearly all pupils can walk to primary school and often to middle school. In rural areas, primary schoolers often take school buses while middle schoolers (starting the age of 10) take regular buses.
      Many private schools have their own van/bus systems to pickup the students from the whole region, but the ones I know in Nyon or Geneva are in quite well connected locations so I guess older children or teenagers can take regular transit.

    • Sascha Claus

      »I am not quite sure whether the proximity to the major transit network is necessary for lower grade schools, as they usually have their own district, which is very often within longer walking/bicycling distance.«

      Aahh yes, ye goode olde tymes! When the amount of children in an area was always a constant.

      And then a certain city quarter becomes the new hip location, quickly fills up with yuppies or millienals or whatever, sees a lot of children some years later and then you have no room to build a new neighbourhood school.
      In the meantime, the next quarter over became the new hip location, quickly filled up with millienals or hipsters or whatever, …
      And in the first quarter, the later children move out of the lower grade schools and no new ones come in, because the local parents don’t want any more children and new families can’t move in because the area is full.
      One would need movable schools that can follow the caravan of ‘birth-bulbs’ that follows the wave of young people through gentrifying inner-city quarters. Though container buildings exist, one just needs movable space for these schools.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        It actually is the opposite. San Francisco (very very hip and very very yuppie/millennial for 20+ years) has the lowest number of kids per-capita of the 100 largest US cities. It has about half of the US average. AND, 30% of the school-age kids in SF go to private school. New York City is a McDonalds Playhouse in comparison.

  3. RossB

    In my experience (in Seattle), departments largely ignore public transportation when it comes to deciding which schools will have an all-city draw. The schools simply evolved without it being a major consideration.

    There are a number of different reasons why a school would have an all-city draw. This website, listing New York City schools, lists several reasons: These include:

    1) Specialized schools based on tradition. This is the actual name for them in New York ( and they include the three schools you mentioned, along with schools for the performing arts.

    2) Newer specialized schools — These include language immersion schools as well as “Alternative Schools”. Both are relatively recent, and the latter was created in the early 1970s. They typically don’t have grades, and some involve concepts that are otherwise not found in the city (e. g. a small school with a K-12 system). I would put schools that are entirely for “gifted” students in this category as well (I happen to think gifted programs are largely B. S., but that is neither here nor there).

    3) Racial integration. (Once again, it is hard to talk about anything in America without bringing up race). As an alternative to mandatory busing, schools often have “magnet” programs. The idea being that several schools will have special programs. People of color can gain access by going to a school in a white neighborhood, while white kids can do the opposite. Sometime the gifted programs are part of that, other times there is some other draw (e. g. special technology focus).

    I don’t know how common it is to build a new all-city-draw school in the city. In Seattle, it has largely been a case of taking old buildings — that were used for administrative purposes — and converting them to a special purpose school. When the department does build a new school, it is usually because the neighborhood is growing. For example, Seattle public transportation has long had a hub-and-spoke pattern, with downtown as the hub. Yet there are no schools in the heart of downtown. They are in the process of building one — but not as an all-city draw, but because the downtown population is growing very fast (much of downtown Seattle used to be almost exclusively commercial).

    Rather than put a lot of all-city draw schools in convenient locations, the administration has scattered them across the city, minimizing the distance to them, even if the school is in an awkward location. My guess is this is common. I don’t think there are many cities that structure their schools so that those who are going out of their neighborhood have an easy way to get there via public transportation. And this is without considering magnet schools (trips taken across town to improve racial integration). This is not only tough on students and parents, but tough on the faculty.

    Within cities, I think it is the public transportation system that must follow the public school system, not the other way around. That is the case in Seattle. Three of the high schools will be on the (new) main subway line. Most of the high schools have good connecting bus service. The city recently gave out transit cards to all the public school students and I’m sure a fair number of them use them to get to school. It is not easy to get to every school, but in general it is better than a lot of commutes.

    I think the biggest chance of school oriented development lies in the suburbs. It is far more likely that they will build a new school from scratch. As mentioned, it should be part of the overall mix for the area.

    • Henry Fung (@calwatch)

      The trend is to decouple schools from residences, which is unequivocally a good thing for purposes of choice, diversity, and specialization, although not necessarily from the environment. San Francisco takes it a bit too far with their confusing school selection process that can default people to the school clear across town.

      I’ve seen more high schools co-sited with college campuses, although generally in its own corner rather than completely integrated. This is good for transportation since college campuses tend to draw off enough riders to be a hub of the transit system, even if most community colleges and regional four year schools are not located in the historic city center. For elementary schools, they should probably be located in neighborhoods like today, walkable to the neighborhood but also within a 1/2 mile distance of an arterial, where there is bus service (the path from the arterial to the school need not be accessible to vehicles).

      • FDW

        Yeah, I can attest to that. I was commuting across all through my high school years, didn’t really mind it though. One more thing to note is that San Francisco (and Oakland, Marin and San Mateo county) have no special school bus service, instead relying upon the public transit system. MUNI, AC Transit, Samtrans and Golden Gate Transit do operate special services serving the schools however. Though MUNI runs its school services as a part of their normal routes while ACT/GGT/Samtrans operate special school routes with their own number and schedule.

        • R. W. Rynerson

          Rules are interpreted differently by the Federal Transit Administration in different regions. In Colorado we were required to footnote school trippers with a note that (currently) reads “This trip operates only on school days and is open to the public.” We were not permitted to identify the buses themselves as “School Trippers” or in any other way, except for showing the short-turn destination signs. It looks like the Muni is doing it the Federal way and ACT/GGT/Samtrans are doing it the way that makes sense to the customers. This is all a spin-off from a move by the school bus industry to BAN pupils riding transit (for the kids’ safety, of course). There were so many ridiculous side effects to the draft rules that the compromise non-school trippers rule was adopted.

          • Richard Layman

            That’s because of a law passed by Congress (the Republican, John Mica, then of the Transpo Committee, always pushing privatization) that made these kinds of runs (also special bus services to sporting events, concerts, etc.) illegal, with the intent that the private sector would do them.

          • Max Wyss

            So, it is time to trash those laws, and shred them to single bits.

            Transportation is definitely no field for corporate welfare!

          • FDW

            @R.W. Rynerson: Its more a product of bus networks and school locations in SF vs the other three. Pretty much all of SF’s schools are adjacent to a frequent route, and if that’s the frequent route they need, then they transfer or walk a little farther. In the other areas, school siting is such that it pretty much required a mini network of routes feeding each school.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            @FDW – I lived on Pine between Hyde and Larkin for a while, so I understand what you mean about frequent Muni routes. The suburban routes only conform to the law if they are available to the general public and are not designated as school trippers. The biggest prosecution under that rule was in Rochester where they had numerous “Express” routes to Catholic schools.

            As I implied, the original wording would have resulted in the absurdity of having to screen children as to whether they were going to school or riding for some other reason. As the debate wore on, it developed that there were two types of school trippers: the Muni situation and some of ours in Denver and Boulder were needed to prevent an overload on a regular route or to keep from developing a crowd at a transfer point; the other type was flat-out a school bus running for convenience of the schools without an expense in their budget. We were glad to have the FTA’s rules for the latter, as there is no limit on how many of those would develop. When this went into effect we took a hard look at any school trippers, weeded out some and found a couple that did so well with other riders that we ran them year round.

    • AJ

      I think if Seattle was looking to build a magnet school, then there would be the clear argument for a downtown location. But you are correct – in Seattle, schools tend to follow the students, and families tend to prefer a housing stock which has more bedrooms and low price per square foot, both of which push them away from dense neighborhoods.

      For example, Seattle’s population is something like 1/8 students, while Issaquah’s population is nearly 1/3 students. The same pattern repeats within Issaquah (a small, 3rd ring suburb) … the school district has an excellent parcel for a future school in the valley floor (their old admin building), but that parcel is being land-banked for a future school while the new high school, junior high, and elementary schools all under development are being built in the ‘suburbs’ of Issaquah to follow the students. The school district is smartly holding on their land in the central neighborhood, but they are waiting until there is more population growth in the center before building a school there. (Mostly, they are unclear if they will need another elementary, Jr High, or High, or some combination, so they want the demographics to continue to unfold before committing in the next round of development ~10 years from now).

      So the suburbs are certainly building schools from scratch, but even then I’m not sure if smaller cities will choose the center (transit oriented) vs fringe (residential oriented). For example, Bellevue just built a new elementary school specifically to handle the anticipate population growth in its core, and the school (Wilburton) is several blocks east of being convenient to downtown).

      I agree the public transportation system that ends up following the public school system, particularly with community colleges, where campuses are large & establish and become logical nodes for future investments, rather than opportunities to move a campus to an transport node.

    • Richard Layman

      I lost an argument in DC on this. The city wide arts school is located 2.5 miles from a Metrorail station, but is served by bus, but it takes hours to get there from many places in the city. I argued that either high school in Ward 4 is within 1/2 mile of a Metrorail station, and could be converted, solving three problems: (1) decreasing in-boundary enrollment capacity within the Ward, which is much greater than demand (so we have two weak high schools instead of one strong one); (2) allowing the old Western High School building that is the arts school to become an in-boundary high school since Wilson HS is so over capacity; (3) making a city wide high school subway accessible.

      Too logical, I guess. Actually a big constituency committed to keeping the high school there, because they think that’s the legacy that’s important, not the legacy of an arts high school more generally.

  4. SB

    Isn’t the location of the school dependent on future of the area?
    In areas where school-age population is growing, you want schools with space for future expansion. Which does partially explain the relocation to less built-up areas.
    For declining regions, school consolidation means longer commutes.

    Also what about school staff? I guess they should take the same transportation as the students but It feels awkward to meet teachers outside of school.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      While I was working in Denver, into the new millennium, Denver Public Schools listed nearby bus routes for each school in their guides for substitute teachers. Most of the full-time teachers found free parking for their SUV’s. As a wild-guess from living next to a middle school, about 1 in 30 teachers used transit, walked or rode bicycles.

      • Richard Layman

        When I worked in Baltimore County, I realized that 99.99999999999% of school systems only take responsibility for bus transportation planning. I tried to get the state to require that at least the urban districts have to do what I called balanced transportation planning, including walking and biking (but scooter and skateboard too). But I couldn’t get anyone to take up the idea, and I was forced to remove such recommendations from the plan.

        I attended an SRTS webinar (2009) which featured the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, which has a planner tasked with sustainable mobility. Similarly, the State of Washington requires that all elementary schools (including private) have an SRTS map. They recommend but don’t require school districts to have a “traffic safety committee. A few school districts include SRTS planning for JHSs and SHSs, one is Palo Alto. (I didn’t know that when I wrote the plan.)


        But the Denver PS point about including public transit information for schools is a step forward. But yes, more needs to be done to get it used. E.g., why not as an inducement to be a substitute teacher, give them a transit pass. When I did the plan, one teacher made the point that schools needed shower facilities to accommodate sweaty bicyclists, etc. Most have inadequate and insecure bike parking, etc.

        Somewhere in a memo, one of my recommendations is the kind of map directory like Palo Alto’s be posted in front of schools and in school lobbies. Arlington County makes similar maps that it posts in libraries. I don’t know about schools or other civic facilities.

        Transportation Options Map at the Shirlington Library, Arlington County, Virginia

  5. Richard Layman

    FWIW, for probably at least 15 years I’ve made somewhat similar points (starting during the DC Comprehensive Plan update process). Usually schools are “matter of right” in most zoning categories. Like how the Dutch “ABC” approach to allowing/directing use locations to places where transportation infrastructure supply = demand, I’ve argued that schools shouldn’t be matter of right per se, but should have to be located in locations where transportation demand can be managed. In other words, located on an arterial or very near, rather than buried within a neighborhood, accessible by bus or other forms of transit, etc. 30% of rush hour traffic has to do with taking kids to and from school. Very few schools have TDM planning requirements. Sustrans in the UK does TDM work with schools. Anyway, when I worked briefly as a pedestrian and bike planner for a county, I was at one school on walk to school day, and they had it really down. I joked that the principal had figured out single school TDM to the nth degree.


  6. AJ

    How do you address the extreme peak of serving students? For a college, this makes great sense because people are coming and going all day, but for younger students they typically arrive and leave all at once. For high capacity transit this isn’t an issue, but for smaller cities the wave of students might end up necessitating an incremental peak oriented fleet that isn’t much different than the school operated bus fleet. It is indeed a 2nd bus fleet, whether it is operated by a school district or a public transit agency. In much of America, I’d wager the school districts move more people than the public transit system.

    From my experience in America, districts tend to already stagger bells times to get at least 2 morning runs in for each bus, but I’m not sure you can stagger much more without causes more problems than you cause, particularly when debates around start times seem to revolve around the best circadian rhythm for a child. (Afternoon is different where extracurriculars allow for more spread out departure). Optimizing start times to solve a transit capacity issue seems like a bit of hand waving. How do they handle this problem in the rest of the world where transit doesn’t have the excess capacity to handle a school peak?

    • Alon Levy

      You site schools so as not to overload a single bus line. If the school is embedded in the urban transit network, e.g. near a pulse point or at an intersection of two frequent grid routes, then the school peak is not enough to overwhelm buses.

      • Eric2

        Even at the intersection of two grid routes, a 2000 student school could generate 500 riders per line per direction. That’s 10 full buses which all need to arrive at the same time. Overwhelming to any bus line except some BRT lines in middle income countries.

        • Henry Miller

          If you have 2000 students in a school you are big enough to need more than two bus lines. If you are a hub and spoke model this is easy, just put the school near the hub.

          If you are a grid it is harder, but a frequent line will still handle all the students in half an hour, you just need to give kids a reason to want to be there early. This isn’t hard, just having staff to watch them and a place to play goes a long way toward making kids want to be with their friends. Early morning is a good time for some official groups to meet as well giving the early risers a reason to be there early.

        • AJ

          Right – if you are dealing with high capacity transit, this is not an issue. But most schools are going to generate that 10 bus need in a 30 minute window, which overwhelms all but the most frequent bus routes. There are plenty of quiet neighborhoods or small towns where a bus every 15 minutes or a train every hour is sufficient to provide good transit access, but a moderately sized school would overwhelm the system. You can scale the school size to match the neighborhoods, but at a certain point is makes sense to have a dedicated transit fleet to serve an area rather than give each neighborhood a micro-school. So I guess serving school with public transit requires the same density needed to sustain good transit in general.

          • Max Wyss

            Well, it would not be 10 buses, but 5. If the demand is that high on such a line, articulated buses become a necessity.

          • Henry Miller

            Run a school bus out for the farm kids and make the rest walk then.

            I live in a city with 2048 student enrolled in high school, they send the school bus to the town (trailer park on the other side of the river) without public transportation, but most kids either walk, drive or take the city bus system. Frequency on most busses is only half an hour, though there are special buses for some of the elementary schools.

            I can’t tell you how the kids like it, but (pre covid) I often shared a bus with half a dozen of them who transfered on. (not all to the same schools). If your city can’t commit to half hourly service in walking distance to everyone, and better serveice on the more used routes they aren’t serious about transit and should be running school buses and forget about anything else.

        • RossB

          Students don’t all head for the buses at once. A fair number walk. Others stick around after school. I don’t remember it being a huge problem went I went to high school, and there were lots of people who took the bus to school. My guess is the local agency (King County Metro) in this case just ran a few extra buses during that period, just like they run a few extra buses during rush hour.

          • FDW

            Yeah, during my middle and high school years I tended to leave school away, but there were tons of people who were staying for various things after school, so it was never a problem. And this was on Geary Blvd, one of the busiest corridors in the city.

  7. R. W. Rynerson

    In Denver the pre-1950’s high schools were built within 400 meters of one or more streetcar lines and an adult ed program of citywide interest was and still is located on the outskirts of downtown. After that, big parking lots and sites in places where streetcars had never run were common. Those new sites were in single family residential areas.

    I arrived in Denver toward the end of court-ordered busing and one transit planning problem for the newer schools is that kids would get busing for the school start and quit from the school district’s bus empire, but high schoolers need to come and go at odd times and so there was a trickle — but observable — demand for off-peak service for the students that did not match the neighborhood demand (or lack thereof).

    State laws requiring open enrollment came next, along with magnet programs that are so outstanding that there are suburban kids commuting into the city. Some travel with their parents part of the way and then ride transit the rest of the way. Other observable movements follow what the law was meant to do, taking kids out of urban schools and adding them to suburban schools. The latter group are easier to accommodate because they ride reverse peak to the closest suburban school.

    A few quirks: Denver’s Southeast Light Rail E, F, H-Lines serve Southmoor Station, close to Thomas Jefferson High, one of the auto-generation schools. But it’s a long walk because the neighbors demanded that there be no access from their side of the rail station. That prevents the kids from walking through their single-family neighborhood.

    Denver’s only never-a-rail-line local bus corridor is Federal Boulevard and the frequent (by Western sprawl standards) service ends at a set of street-side bus bays adjacent to the Lincoln High School athletic field. Half-a-dozen local 30-minute headway routes converge there. In 1988 when we restructured the routes in that area we were looking for a site and the principal — who foresaw the open enrollment trend — offered us access to an unused margin of his field. Amazingly, it worked for everyone except for supporters of two other Denver high schools that lose students to convenient Lincoln.

    Before court-ordered busing in the U.S. and special programs in Canada, urban school districts usually had no yellow buses. My mother (Class of ’42) rode Portland Traction Company’s Sandy Blvd. trolley coaches. A passing siding was lined with school trippers for the home trip and after they were clear, the siding allowed express trips to overtake locals. My father recollects the boys from Benson Polytechnic, which drew citywide, hanging on the outsides of streetcars to save paying fares in the Depression.

    One common thread in American cities that I’m familiar with for school transport (Portland, Denver) is the rarity of school district officials or principals communicating with the transit system about changes in class days or schedules. It required journalistic techniques to hunt down that information; even with the internet the school websites for parents were not all up to date until too late for the press deadlines for public timetables.

    My successors are going to go through hell with school transport needs in the current pandemic. If schools remain on-line only it’s not a big issue, but if they go to hybrid or full-time physical attendance the modified Saturday schedules that many cities are running will not be sufficient. In Colorado, where schools begin in mid-to-late August to get a jump on preparation for statewide tests, school districts are just now announcing their plans and it’s already the deadline for orderly service changes.

    • Max Wyss

      I may be radical, but about that Southmoor station… Don’t care about those neighbors, and build that access. Sneaky, but re-evaluate their properties based on the proximity to the station, and that would give some negotiation matter…

  8. Reedman Bassoon

    1) The elementary school (K-5) near me is along a residential street, going from a major US highway to another residential street. When kids are starting or leaving school (not during the summer, not during covid) it causes gridlock on the two residential streets. Parents aren’t allowed to pick-up or drop-off in the parking lot (staff only), so that all happens on the street. The normal 25mph limit becomes 15mph.
    2) In San Francisco, a non-trivial amount of the city street parking is governed by residential parking permits.
    Teachers are given special permission to get parking permits where they work, but don’t live. Romance novelist Daniel Steel (185 books, five husbands) lives in a 55 room mansion in Pacific Heights. It caused a stir in SF when it was revealed that she had 26 parking permits.

  9. Alex Cat3

    In the US, while this information would be useful for NYC schools or magnet schools that draw from large areas, I don’t think that we can get suburban kids to take public transit to school until a lot changes. First of all, many parents are afraid to let their middle schoolers even walk places alone, never mind getting on a bus with strangers, where if they fall asleep and forget to get off they could end up in Newark. Second of all, most kids have never been made to walk– when I was in middle school, only 10% of kids walked to my school, despite the fact that no student lived more than a mile away. Third, suburban school districts are often small– again, in my school district, noone lives more than a mile away from school, and for most kids, it would involve almost as much walking to take a bus to school as it would to just walk directly. Fourth, suburban public transit often stinks– while the buses in my town come every ten minutes at rush hour, 30 minute headway are common in other places, bus schedules are a joke– my bus to new york frequently takes twice as long to arrive at its destination as per schedule on rush hour, despite the fact that it has a dedicated Lincoln tunnel lane in the morning. And fifth, for families who already own a car, it would be much cheaper to drive kids to school directly– a minimum bus fare is $1.50, whereas a halfway decent 25mpg car can travel a mile for just 9 cents. As for regional rail, its 1 mile+ stop spacing makes it pretty useless for local travel, even if we convince US agencies to run things at better frequencies. It would make it convenient for teachers to get to schools, but since when do school officials care what is convenient for teachers.

    • adirondacker12800

      Unless they are exceptional and going to school in Manhattan, when the New York City bus arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal doesn’t affect when it passes the high school….

      • Alex Cat3

        I was just using the PABT busses as an example. While it is true that other busses are more timely, the average bus in my part of NJ is still pretty terrible.

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