School site selection: considering transportation impacts on students

By Brian Lutenegger

Safe Routes to School programs help make it easier and safer for students to walk or bike to school. The problem is that schools are often sited on previously undeveloped, inexpensive land at the edge of the community, far from where students live. This means it may be difficult or impossible for students to walk or bike to school, limiting the effectiveness of Safe Routes to School and causing parents to drive their kids each morning and afternoon. Once the school opens and traffic congestion and safety problems develop, school district officials may call local or state transportation officials to fix the problems.

Nate Hood, a Senior Planner for Hennepin County, MN, highlighted this issue when he wrote on Twitter that Mankato, a community near the Twin Cities where Hood grew up, would need a Safe Routes to School grant if they built their new school on the edge of town, cut off from the rest of the community by a major highway. He wrote a longer essay for Strong Towns, titled “Death of the Neighborhood School,” that explained that building huge campuses on the edge of town actually financially burdens the school and actively discourages walking.

Recently retired Tennessee Transportation Commissioner, John Schroer, has discussed this issue. He cited countless occasions where a local jurisdiction has sited a new school that would be disconnected from existing transportation. The community then requests TDOT to build a new roadway to serve the school, out of concern for student safety.

In 2012, SSTI worked with the Kansas Department of Transportation on this issue. The report provides recommendations to KDOT on how to improve school site selection, reducing transportation-related costs, and how agencies can better coordinate. It includes a school transportation cost calculator to quantify these costs for school districts, families, and government agencies based on land use and the school’s distance from students.

Rather than looking to their state DOT to solve the issue after they select a site, local school districts may want to consider proactively including transportation as a criterion for locating a new facility. Safe and convenient access by students, parents, teachers, and other staff is critical to the school’s overall success. Further, encouraging walking and biking can make a positive contribution to public health outcomes.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.