Updated Feb 19, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How dropping the kids off at school became the norm

Illustration of a line of cars forming a spiral.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Say goodbye to yellow school buses and hello to school pickup lines.

The big picture: A majority of U.S. students now arrive at school in private cars, per a Washington Post analysis of U.S. government data. The long-term rise in parental school runs has been compounded since the pandemic by a shortage of bus routes and drivers.

Catch up quick: Across the country, school systems continue to face severe bus driver shortages, including Chicago Public Schools — one of the nation's largest school districts — which is currently at 55% capacity for drivers.

  • "Like many large urban school districts across the country, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) continues to grapple with a severe bus driver shortage," a district spokesperson said in a statement to Axios, noting the district's commitment to "finding a solution."
  • The district, which manages over 500 schools, is currently prioritizing yellow school bus services for students with disabilities and students who are in temporary living situations.
  • A few cities, including Baltimore, have even tried paying some parents to drive their kids to reduce demand for buses.

State of play: In 2022, 53% of U.S. students got dropped off or drove themselves in private cars while 33% took the bus, according to The Post's analysis of National Household Travel Survey data.

  • Only 11% of students walked or biked to school, a proportion that has been falling for decades.
  • The decline in bus ridership is a more recent phenomenon. In addition to the reduced availability of buses, The Post cites the rise in remote work as one reason parents are more likely to drive their kids.
  • But not all parents have that option, and bus cutbacks may be a factor in the rise of absenteeism since the pandemic.

What they're saying: "The school bus driver shortages are not going away," Joanna McFarland, CEO and co-founder of HopSkipDrive, told Axios.

  • "This is a structural decline in the industry. It's not going to be a 'solvable problem' unless school districts are really thinking about multimodal options and software to help them optimize across multiple vehicles."
  • HopSkipDrive, a child-transportation provider, developed an AI tool for helping districts optimize bus routes and other transportation options in the face of perennial driver shortages.

Between the lines: After the pandemic, the school bus became a "big juicy budget line item" for school districts, where they could start "chipping away to reallocate in other buckets," says Saravana Pat Bhava, founder and CEO of Pikmykid, a company that provides a school dismissal software.

  • Bhava also cited safety concerns among parents as a reason for opting to drive their kids. "Parents are demanding more accountability, coupled with their perception that safety is a little bit slack during the arrival and dismissal because it's chaos in schools."

The bottom line: There are major downsides to school drop-offs becoming the norm, for working parents and for the environment, with all those idling cars.

  • The trend has also led to longer lines outside schools. Parents have taken to online forums to vent their rage over the lengthy pickup process.

Go deeper: Bus driver shortage causes back-to-school chaos

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