Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Assigning the Traffic Costs for Alternative Schooling Choices

I know a young couple with two young sons who moved to the North Bay a few years back.  Coming from a snowy clime, they were excited by the walkability opportunities in the more clement North Bay, particularly the possibility of the older son walking to school.  So when they looked for a home, being within walkable distance of a good school was near the top of their list.

They soon found a home they liked, a little less than a half-mile from a well-regarded school.  The walk would be through a safe neighborhood and would pass by a park offering the possibility of post-school play.  The fit seemed fine.  They moved in, eager to begin their new lives.

As the new school year approached, they tried to register the son at the school.  For the first time, they learned that the school was designated a magnet school and that not all students, even those within walkable distance, were accepted for enrollment.  They were told that children from within the neighborhood were given preference, but that individual decisions were made about every student.

Even more confounding, the administrators who would make the decision about this young man were on vacation and wouldn’t return until shortly before the start of school.

With 24 hours to go before the school year started, the first day clothes were laid out and ready to be donned, the young man was eager to begin his new educational adventure, and the parents still didn’t know whether they could walk him to school the following morning or if the next day would be the first day of a year-long routine of driving him to and from a more distant school.

I’m not an educational expert.  Personally, I did fine with attending the schools nearest to the homes in which I grew up.  But I remember sharing classrooms with students who, in retrospect, might have fared better under alternative schooling approaches.  So I won’t suggest that the proliferation of magnet and charter schools is a bad idea.

But I will suggest that encouraging that proliferation without accounting for the resulting traffic is an unacceptable oversight.  Admittedly, it’s an oversight that is typical of much American thought about traffic, but it’s an oversight regardless.

To be fair, I’ll acknowledge that I often received rides to school when I was a student.  Playing the baritone horn led to that result.  But from first grade through high school, my total days of walking, biking, or riding the bus far outnumbered the parental rides.  Too few students can make the same statement today.

I remember the first time I became aware of the growing trend of parental rides to schools.  I was working with the Facilities Manager for the school district in a small Oregon town.  We were scoping site improvements at an existing elementary school.

The Facilities Manager noted the need for a separate bus route to the school, a route that would leave the public street nearly a block away and wind past the playground.  I was puzzled by the idea.  He suggested that I visit the site at the end of the school day.  I did.  He was right.  Cars were backed up a block away, with buses stuck in their midst, busting bus schedules for the entire district.  I was shocked.  It was a scene I’d never seen in my youth.

And, because the school wasn’t sited in a particularly walkable setting, many of the parents were likely from within the boundaries for the school.  The traffic problem is only exacerbated when the parents begin using arterials and freeways to reach alternative schools.

What is the cost of these miles?  In my last post, I suggested that a vehicle mileage tax (VMT) of ten cents per mile and a gas cost of $10 per gallon were first cuts at the charges that would accurately move the costs of driving from governmental general funds to the drivers.  If we assume a three-mile drive each way twice per day to an alternative school, the annual cost of driving would about $1,000.

Today, the cost would be about $300 in gas costs only.  We do a fine job of reimbursing the oil companies for the gasoline they provide, but we’re leaving about $700 to picked up the general funds of local government (road wear and tear), state government (addressing climate change), and federal government (managing the geopolitical implications of a petroleum-dependent world).

There is an equity issue that raises its head in the middle of this train of thought.  If we begin assigning costs of $1,000 per year for attendance at alternative schools, aren’t affluent parents more capable of covering those costs, resulting in the children of affluent families being more effectively educated and thereby perpetuating income inequality?

It’s a legitimate concern that I share.  Even though I largely view the world from the perspective of land use, the issues of income inequality are still evident to me.  And I believe that a solution is required.

But the challenge to lower income parents to pay the accurate cost of transporting their children to alternative schools is a downstream effect of inequality.  Good solutions should address causes, not effects.  In a world where we charge per unit for water, milk, and electricity, to not charge for road usage and its impacts isn’t a cohesive strategy, it’s a scattershot.

Before closing, I should also make it clear that I’m not criticizing parents who have put their children into alternative schools.  Parents who have made the extra effort to find the right educational setting and resources for their child to succeed should be praised.  But if we don’t accurately assign the costs of those decisions then we perpetuate a distorted world in which flawed decisions follow. 

Instead, those parents should look for ways to deliver their children to school by bike, on foot, through transit, or in carpools.  Living in urban settings where those options are more available and where the routes are less likely to include arterials that are more dangerous to walkers and bike riders is also a good idea.

If you’re wondering about the young man about whom I began this post, he was accepted, at the last minute, into his neighborhood school.  He’s thriving there.  His parents are now focused on ensuring that his younger brother has the same walkable experience.

Having touched upon the vehicle mileage tax in my last two posts, I’ll dig a little deeper into a high-tech approach to VMTs in my next post.  It’s an idea that has remarkable upsides.  And scary downsides.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. As a parent I'm currently struggling with this exact same issue in Sebastopol. My daughter has been walking to a local charter school for 9 years. For high school, she elected to go to an arts magnet program at Santa Rosa High. Why I'm excited about the opportunities for her, I struggle with knowing she could have gone to the public school in Sebastopol and continue to walk. We have a neighbor at the same school so carpooling is possible, and a public bus route is possible, although the times are not ideal. While I agree that generally school choice is a good thing, the impact to traffic is never discussed so thank you for bringing it up. The number of parents of children who do live within walking distance, yet drive their children to school astounds me. So it's not just school choice. It's just a function of our society that we automatically hop in a car to go anywhere, without considering the fact that many trips are walkable or bikeable.

    In a related issue, I've been trying to stop my daughter's elementary charter school relocation from a central site downtown, to a property outside the city limits. I've written several blog posts of my own on the subject. It still needs a use permit from the county, which I'm hoping to be able to stop, but it's an uphill battle.

    1. Smalltown, thanks for the response and the confirmation. I understand the conflict you're feeling. We've set up our world with all the wrong incentives and it's hard to know how not to succumb.

      And I certainly agree that we're too likely to hop into our cars even when other options are available. While out walking a family dog this evening, I bumped into a couple who was starting a mile walk into downtown for dinner. And it was dusk, so their trip home would be well after sunset. It was both surprising and inspiring.

      I know something about Sebastopol charter school relocation. I know one of the other parents who tells me that they looked everywhere for downtown solutions, but couldn't find the right fit. I should check in with him again.

      Lastly, I owe you an email about getting together in Sebastopol for a chat. I promise it'll happen in the next couple of months.