Jan
17

On the costs of a yellow school bus vs. a Student MetroCard

By

I can’t say I’ve thought much about Student MetroCards in the years since the MTA threatened to do away with them entirely in late 2010, but something about that dust-up always struck me as wrong. As enrollment numbers in New York City public schools spiked at the end of the last decade, the MTA — and not the city or city — shouldered the increasing fare burden. Both the city and state have contributed $45 million a year each while the MTA’s contributions — once also around $45 million annually — have spiked to nearly $100 million. What was one an even funding agreement is anything but.

When the MTA threatened to do away with free student rides in 2010, I supported the idea. The MTA is a transportation agency and not a school bus company. If New York City wants its students to be able to get to school in the most cost-effective way possible, it should pay the transit fees. Word emerging from this week’s yellow school bus strike drives that point home.

In an article in today’s Times, Al Baker highlights a driving force behind the strike: It has simply gotten too expensive for the city to continue to pay as much as it does for busing for 10 percent of its students. Take a read at one great anecdote and some eye-popping figures:

The day before the start of New York City’s first school bus strike in 34 years, a long yellow bus pulled up at Public School 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the little bodies that popped out could be counted on one hand: Three. The big bus had dropped off part of its cargo earlier, at another school, but in all, 10 children had ridden on a bus fit for about 60. A similarly large bus pulled up with 17. Finally, a modern-looking bus whose side panel said it could carry 66 children arrived with its passengers: Five children.

“I think in some cases, we have one child on the bus,” said Kathleen Grimm, the city’s deputy schools chancellor for operations.

The strike that began Wednesday, which idled more than half of the city’s school buses and forced about 113,000 children to find new ways to school, was prompted by a fight over union jobs. But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.

Take whatever said you please in this labor dispute, but one thing is for sure: Those figures are insane. The city spends $7000 per student — per student — to employ yellow buses. Some reports cite the total city expenditure as topping $1 billion annually to bus around 150,000 students. Meanwhile, for the students who don’t arrive via yellow bus and request a free student MetroCard — approximately 500,000 cards are handed out per semester — the city pays the MTA a whopping $45 million. What’s wrong with this picture?



Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics

88 Responses to “On the costs of a yellow school bus vs. a Student MetroCard”

  1. Spencer K says:

    I’d like to see a better breakdown of figures. Some kids are just not old enough to take transit on their own, so student MetroCards wouldn’t make sense for them.

    • Miles Bader says:

      What do you consider “old enough”?

      It seems to me that it very much depends on the actual route and details.

      Even very young kids (early grade school) are capable of coping with many transit systems alone (and even better, when with friends), given proper instruction and practice.

      • Bolwerk says:

        It pisses off prudes, but it seems a mature 9-year-old has no trouble.

        And pissing off prudes is always a bonus. The same imbeciles probably prefer the greater risk of driving.

        • Someone says:

          The farther the school is, the older the kid has to be before he/she is allowed to travel home alone.

          Some parents discourage it, but some allow it based on the distance between home and school. A writer/NYC mom actually let her kid travel home alone and wrote about it.

          • Bolwerk says:

            It doesn’t much matter to me what they allow or disallow, but the absurdity is the expectation that society foot the bill for children’s transportation. Public education is well and good, but nobody forces anybody to live in hinterlands that aren’t near school.

            • Mary says:

              Well, no, nobody forces people to live far away from a school, but somebody might create zoning policies that benefit specific real estate activities that drive prices up that force people out of a neighborhood and increasingly further and further out in a metropolitan area. And somebody might allow a public education system to be really inequitable and in disrepair, which might lead a parent to send their kid to a magnet school that’s super far away but a better education.

              So no, society shouldn’t have to foot the bill for children’s transportation, but until society changes in a hell of a lot of other ways maybe we should try to like, take care of our own in whatever ways we can.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I guess to an extent, though this is a bit over the top. That $7000/pupil, if true, represents a big opportunity cost for other things that could go much further in helping kids like after-school programs. And, well, the public transportation is there and on a per-rider (=per-pupil) basis, it’s pretty cheap – but it doesn’t offer that much in a way of school bus driver supervision.

                I just don’t see a lot of added benefit to the supervision.

            • Henry says:

              A lot of the transport requirements are things like extracurricular activities, which can be out of school.

              Then you have cases like the Specialized High Schools, which are a select few high schools developed with the intent of nurturing the city’s best. There are similar middle and elementary schools that operate with this ethos – think Mark Twain in Brooklyn and Hunter College High School in the UES (Grades 7-12). Restricting access to these excellent high schools (of which, by definition, there are a select few) on location would be absurd (and is illegal due to a state court ruling).

              Also, Brown v. Board of Education mandates that schools must be desegregated. Most of New York City is comprised of ethnic neighborhoods, which is great because New York City has so much cultural diversity to offer. The downside is that this leads to ethnically homogeneous neighborhood schools – even with busing, New York City remains one of the most segregated school districts in the country. You have two options to reduce this – forcibly dictate where people should live, a la Singapore and apartheid South Africa, or transport students to other schools. Guess which one was picked.

              Finally, the school system has simply not kept up with existing demand. In certain neighborhoods, schools are operating at 200+% capacity. New school building isn’t keeping up with demand for spots, and the city is probably not going to build school capacity at a faster rate anytime soon, so neighborhoods that weren’t designed to house large amounts of school-age children have to be transported away from their bursting neighborhood schools. Being “near school” can be hard, especially if your local school is handling much more people than it should be.

              I would actually support expanding children’s transportation (using mass transit), provided that the city covers the bill, so that a generation of students can grow up to appreciate transit and hopefully make Albany and City Hall pony up money in the future.

    • Someone says:

      Some kids are just not old enough to take transit on their own, so student MetroCards wouldn’t make sense for them.

      But their parents take them, right? The parents don’t need to pay another fare just to get their kids to school. It makes perfect sense.

    • I think you may have misunderstood my point. I’m not saying the city should ditch yellow buses entirely. I’m saying that (i) the city needs to get yellow bus costs under control) and (ii) the city should more equitably compensate the MTA for the costs of student transportation instead of throwing fits when the MTA asks for a few more dollars.

  2. Patrick says:

    There is actually something in the NYCDOE rules that says when a child reaches the 11th Grade, s/he should be able to use Public Transportation & should be taken off of Yellow Bus Service unless a Mental Disability is present in the Child. 9th-10th Graders with permission from the Parent(s)/Guardian(s)

    With that said, why does the Student MetroCard with the Orange text even exist? Any child in & below the 8th Grade should be on a school bus no matter what hormones does to them

    • Someone says:

      Um… the Metrocard with orange text is for grades K-6?

      • Patrick says:

        I know that Orange is for K-6th

        • Someone says:

          Then why did you say that any child from grades K-8 shouldn’t be allowed to go home alone?

          • Patrick says:

            Because I think that the minimum grade for Green should be 9th instead of current 7th. Hell I’ll even accept 8th to prep & properly teach kids the ups & downs of NYC’s Mass Transit system. A system that can take you to/from school & any other place you want to go in the City, and NOT abuse this free privilege you’ve been given. Unfortunately, I understand it’s nearly impossible to deal with misuse of a Student MetroCard, unless a new fare medium with tracking is introduced, and that’s next to never gonna happen.

            • Someone says:

              Well, what about the middle schoolers that need to go to afterschool elsewhere, but can’t because they won’t have a MetroCard under your proposal?

            • ajedrez says:

              It’s cheaper to give the child the MetroCard in the lower grades, and accept a little abuse (I assume you mean non-school-related trips) than it is to put them in a school bus all the way up to 9th grade. Not to mention that the more they use the transit system, the more they’ll realize that system is useful for places besides going to and from school.

    • aestrivex says:

      In principle there might be some compromise to be found here, but prohibiting metrocards for 10-13 year olds because they are too young to ride the subways alone at 8 AM and 3 PM?

      Let’s call the line 5th grade — which, is about when I remember getting my student metrocard.

      • Alon Levy says:

        No, let’s not have any prohibition for any grade. If parents want to raise children who are afraid of their own city, it’s their choice. The MTA shouldn’t mandate that fear.

    • Someone says:

      Any child in & below the 8th Grade should be on a school bus no matter what hormones does to them.

      And since my parents were always working (and they earned quite a lot), I had to take the subway home since the 5th grade, not necessarily with a MetroCard.

      • ajedrez says:

        You jumped the turnstile? Or did you use tokens? ;)

        Unless you mean that you had to take the subway by yourself outside of going to/from school.

    • Eric says:

      Starting at around 8 years old, kids can navigate and pay transit fares on their own.

      Starting at about 10 years old, kids can reliably cross the street without getting hit.

      There is no reason for anyone healthy over the age of 10 to take a school bus. If paranoid parents are afraid of kidnapping, they can escort their kids themselves, the government should not have to pay for it.

      • Someone says:

        Back when I was in middle school, I had to take a yellow bus to go to gym class. This was necessary only because we had to be 5 blocks away in 5 minutes, and we had to cross a busy street.

    • Michael K says:

      I remember getting my first orange metrocard in 1996, when I entered the 5th grade – taking the B6 bus from midwood to Bay Parkway & 65th Street. I did it and every other kid in school took the B6 or the B9 or the N train, except those that lived far from a bus route – our school hired 2 private buses to take those kids.

  3. Chris C says:

    $7,000 a year per pupil just to a student to/from school?

    Think how much good could be done if even 1/2 of that were spent on teachers, books and computers in the classroom rather than on purely transporting students from home to school.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      That money could be used for better pensions.

      Actually, we already have the better pensions, so we’d better find some savings elsewhere, because every since the last big pension enhancement for teachers passed in 2008, there has been one cut to the classroom after another.

    • Eric says:

      Just for some perspective: $1 billion a year is about what East Side Access or the Second Avenue Subway costs for the duration of its construction. (And those are ridiculously high costs relative to transit construction anywhere else in the world.) Build such projects at twice the rate (or build more efficiently run projects at an even higher rate), and commuting would quickly get easier for students as well as for everyone else.

      • Someone says:

        Oh, no wonder we have the money to build any more subway extensions. The DOE isn’t efficient with its school buses! If we saved even half that money per year, we’d have enough money to build the Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 by now.

  4. Phillip Roncoroni says:

    We were getting student Metrocards in 6th grade, although most of the time I’d just walk home with friends because it was only about a mile and a half. This was in Queens (the bus would’ve been the Q43).

  5. Someone says:

    The city spends $7000 per student — per student — to employ yellow buses.

    Why would we waste that much money on school buses for students?

    Ohh, yeah, this is the city that was also in an economic crisis in the 1970s-80s.

  6. Jonathan R. says:

    The other issue is the tremendous waste of time for the kids who are being bused. I understand that there are 50,000 special-needs kids in the city, but it seems to me to be cheaper for the Department of Education to send the special-needs teachers and their cohorts to schools closer to where the pupils are. After all, teachers don’t get travel pay.

    • Eric says:

      I would imagine that some special-needs kids have extra-special-needs that only a few schools can handle, thus they need to be transported a long distance.

      • Someone says:

        I could imagine that special needs kids are clustered around schools in remote areas (like PS 58 in Maspeth, which has a sub-section for special-needs students), therefore requiring a long travel time, as well as a long traveling distance.

      • Jonathan R. says:

        I used to take those extra-special needs kids to school, in an ambulance. The big need that I saw was for a single helper per student; the kids come with their own chairs, for instance.

  7. Flatbush Depot says:

    the strike means no dealing with school bus stop signs for a few days if you are on the road (city bus or personal vehicle), enjoy it while you can

    • stairbob says:

      Or bicycle, of course.

      It seems like the traffic would be worse due to more kids getting driven in private cars and/or livery. But I forgot to notice today or yesterday, so it must not be too bad.

      I bike from Grand Army Plaza to midtown though, so perhaps many of the new car school commuters are going the opposite direction.

      • Someone says:

        No, the traffic is worse with the buses because the buses stop traffic. There aren’t significantly more cars on the streets today or yesterday, but there are now more passengers in the cars, as many people organised carpools or drove their kids to school, rather than driving to work alone.

  8. TP says:

    This is a complicated issue, but obviously another component is the fact that while the vast majority of public school students in the US attend the school closest to their home, that’s not the case in NYC. The rise of “school choice,” and the way it’s panned out in New York and elsewhere has increased transportation costs for education. You’re going to have lower transportation costs if kids just walk to the nearest elementary school and maybe have a couple mile transit trip to the nearest high school if they live out in Staten Island or Queens.

    • Someone says:

      That’s called “zoning.” In some cases, this will not work out, as students have a variety of special needs which need to be fulfilled. In other cases, parents send their kids to charter schools which benefit their kids, but those schools are often in other neighbourhoods or even other boroughs.

      • Eric says:

        Charter/specialized schools are a good idea for high school, when kids can transport themselves. I don’t see why they are necessary for elementary school.

        • Someone says:

          Charter schools might be a good alternative for some elementary school kids, who might learn more in charter schools than in traditional public schools.

          • Nathanael says:

            There is no evidence that this has happened in practice, however.

            • AG says:

              i can speak for my own child to tell you he does much better in a charter school…. than in his closest elementary “regular” school. His mother makes the effort to take him on the train. It’s not rocket science. The classes are much smaller which allows the teachers to be more attentive… and their is more discipline (they wear uniforms). On top of it the school days are about a little over an hour longer. All this adds up to them making the curriculum is able to be made more challenging (they are learning foreign languages). It’s not really rocket science – simple steps.

              • Bolwerk says:

                It’s also not rocket science that public resources going to the charter school, ceteris paribus, are resources not going to the public school.

                But that’s all besides the point. I don’t know enough to say charter schools are generally better/worse than public schools, but they certainly vary in quality a lot.

              • Someone says:

                I agree totally. I went to 2 public schools and 2 charter schools during grades K-8, and I can personally say that I learned more in charter schools (which are usually more structured than public schools). Sure, the school day for charter schools is usually longer than that for public schools, but a charter school student can learn a lot more during that extra time.

              • Nathanael says:

                “The classes are much smaller”

                Well, if you do THAT, of course you’ll get better results.

                I went to a private elementary school which had, at one point, a total enrollment of 7. GREAT results!

                Everyone knows that small class size makes for better results. But there’s nothing about charter schools which inherently causes them to have smaller class size. You could, you know, fund the regular schools properly and reduce class sizes.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  Everything’s wrong. They are massively funded, of course, but the funds are misused. The teacher’s union blows. The standards are shit. The most experienced teachers are in the cushiest classrooms while the least experience ones get hazed dealing with the ones that have behavioral issues and act like hellspawn. Administrators are authoritarian and contemptuous of teachers and students alike. Parents mainly want their kids to have good grades, and aren’t too concerned about learning. Nobody really cares about or advocates for those at the bottom.

                  It’s a good parallel to transit, policing, and urban planning really. Pretty much all the stakeholders are stupidly, phantasmagorically wrong about the solution to every single controversial problem, and it creates a feedback loop of continued failure as the same issues are rehashed again and again.

                  • Nathanael says:

                    “Administrators are authoritarian and contemptuous of teachers and students alike”

                    And prefer to raise their own salaries and hire assistants rather than pay attention to, you know, schooling.

                    There’s no substitute for competent administration, but I have no idea how to get competent administration in a public school system.

                    “Pretty much all the stakeholders are stupidly, phantasmagorically wrong about the solution to every single controversial problem, and it creates a feedback loop of continued failure as the same issues are rehashed again and again.”

                    I have to agree. Upstate, the big problem is school boards; they are large and staggered (just like corporate boards), so even if you manage to get some people to run who care about education and are paying attention to what’s actually going on, they’ll be outnumbered by people who either don’t care or aren’t paying attention or have completely whacky ideas.

                    In New York City, the situation appears to be as bad or worse, because the City administration doesn’t care any more than the upstate School Board members do, and is paying even less attention.

                    Fundamentally, the people who know best what’s going on in the schools are students. Nobody is listening to them except perhaps teachers. Neither teachers nor students have a direct voice in administration. Parents have no idea what’s going on and usually don’t care, and they’re the only constituency which the administration listens to….

                    …I also don’t see how to fix it.

                    By the way, the same damn thing is happening at the college level, in both public and private colleges and universities. The administration is disconnected from any interest in education, and the collapse follows logically.

                    • Nathanael says:

                      Frankly, the history of education in recent years has consisted of faddist school administrators coming in with phantasmagorically wrong ideas about problems which *aren’t* even controversial, and making things worse.

                      Apparently screwing up something which is working is how you get a better job in the world of school administration. I’ve watched it happen repeatedly.

                • AG says:

                  nathanel – if you check the teachers unions contract… its almost impossible to reduce class sizes and extend the school day.
                  Charter schools basically go by the rules of private school. Aside from my own child going to a charter school – I myself got a scholarship for 2 years to a private school. I hated it because I was away from my friends…. but I understand the difference. For one thing – our school days were about 2 hrs longer. As to class sizes…. you’d be surprised (as I was later when I was told these things by alumni board members as an adult) that counter-intuitively often-times the private school teacher gets lower pay… and almost certainly gets less benefits than their comparable district public school teachers.

                  • Nathanael says:

                    The teacher’s union contract most certainly does NOT prevent smaller class sizes.

                    Longer school days are actively harmful. It’s just a fetish among people who like to “keep the kids off the street”.

                    Which, I’ve come to realize, is the main problem with public schools; they’re viewed by most local governments as prisons for children, rather than as, you know, schools.

                    • AG says:

                      Yes it does prevent it… because the city could never hire enough personnel to make classes smaller.

                      As far as your last 2 comments. Have you raised children??? Did you yourself go to a school with extended days??? If not – don’t even attempt to understand. There are reasons ppl will do anything they can to get into such schools. I guess they are the fools in your eyes.
                      I will make one statement – longer days actually does more good for students who don’t have as much aptitude as others because they can get more instruction time. Not everything is a conspiracy in life.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      AG really seems like a stereotypical product of the Amerikan public school system sometimes. All empiricism, no rationality!

                      But, yeah, more and shorter school days are definitely preferable, anecdotes about street urchins notwithstanding. That, however, is something actively prevented by contracts. And neither after-school nor summer programs are effective or even practical alternatives.

                      As for what I’ve come to realize, it’s that American bureaucracy is mostly about preserving American bureaucracy – which is to be expected, but ultimately the staff in such organizations feel no obligation to anything but that. That is, again, why schooling, policing, and even transport are all parades of failure. (Curiously, social security and medicaid largely aren’t failures, even if they’re imperfect, which is leading so-called conservatives to attack them.)

          • Bolwerk says:

            Charter schools are a backdoor way to gouge public resources by handing them over to private entities, which in turn skim some off the top before providing more or less the same substandard solutions.

            In fact, that’s what most “privatization” is.

  9. BrooklynBus says:

    What’s wrong with this picture? It’s that we have done away with neighborhood schools. When I went to school in the 1950′s and 60′s, everyone walked to their neighborhood school which was 10 minutes away. Riding a school bus was the exception not the rule. There were 30 students in my first grade class. Five came by bus. The others walked. In the higher grades, the only ones using transit to go to school were those who desired to go to a pencil high school like Stuyvesant or BrooklynTech. That was also a minority of students.

    Today, if there is a school across the street from your house, you can be bused half way across the city if you so desire and most no longer walk to school. Tell me what is wrong with that picture? In addition to the monumental costs to the City and the MTA, look at all the time wasted in transit that could be put to better use, like children being children and having time to play outside. Few realize the unnecessary strain put on the MTA by having to provide additional service. Before the 1980s when the MTA had no idea on where it needed to provide service because there were no traffic checkers, only dispatchers who often fabricated numbers, the MTA only provided two additional buses at school arrival and dismissal times at the public schools. A few routes had a school open schedule which increased service on days schools were open. The amount of MTA bus service because of the increase in public transportation by school students has skyrocketed.

    On the B1 and B49 routes, at school dismissal times, twelve extra buses are inserted into service at Kingsborough Community College and even that a number is insufficient to handle the crowds as regular passengers are often bypassed and although the school operates its own yellow bus service which carries about 30 percent of the students.

    The solution is not simple but involves a multifaceted approach. One way to approach this is by returning to the concept of neighborhood schools so that we do not bus unnecessarily.

    • AG says:

      it happened because ppl complained (and sometimes correctly) that schools in certain neighborhoods (read: minority) were being neglected.

    • Henry says:

      Busing happened because of desegregation. Even with busing, the New York City school district is one of the most segregated in the nation, and the fact that most neighborhoods aren’t ethnically mixed exacerbates the situation. Some areas (Battery Park City, most of Queens, etc.) also lack sufficient capacity to hold every school-age child in their buildings.

      There are also special cases like the Specialized High Schools or schools of that nature, where entrance is by examination and not by location, and these schools largely house students who might otherwise be stymied in their regular schools.

      • BrooklynBus says:

        I know it happened because of desegregation and I always thought that was a bad idea. It left schools in minority areas half vacant while other schools had to go in double or triple sessions. A very inefficient use of resources and it never got to theroot of the problem why those in minority areas were receiving a poor education.

        Look at education today. It is still in turmoil. You won’t find too many who are happy or think that education has improved since desegregation. You can’t force integration. My high school was the model integrated school for the entire city back in 1967. But if you looked at the cafeteria, it was totally segregated because everyone wanted it that way. So was that really integration?

        As for specialized high schools and special needs students, I don’t think busing could be avoided for them. But most students going to special high schools use the train where capacity exists, not the buses, so that isn’t much of a problem. It is the extra buses that causes the real strain on the system.

  10. Michael K says:

    We must recognize that our public transportation use is likely highly tied to introducing transit as a reliable and consistent form or transportation at a young age.

    I personally feel that every transit agency should offer free rides to K-12 students, since they will essentially be revenue-neutral

    (they would not be taking it otherwise)

    That could go a long way in introducing a generation to transit.

    Many attractions and programs all over develop special programs for students, because they know that the kids will go home and tell their parents about it – and get them interested as well.

    ~excerpt from a Heritage Tourism Meeting for Passaic County last month.

    • Bolwerk says:

      If that’s your definition of revenue-neutral, then any ride is revenue-neutral. The fact is that enough kids take transit to require more vehicles throughout the system, which has costs.

      Not saying we can’t offer incentives/discounts to students/kids. But I just think we should, as a society, recognize that those things have costs and that someone needs to pay for them.

      • Someone says:

        Actually, if kids get to ride for free, then the parents will demand to ride for free. Then, the rest of New Yorkers will demand to ride for free, and MTA will go bankrupt.

        • Michael K says:

          @ Someone,

          I was specifically referring to non-MTA type areas.

          @ Bolwerk,

          I am meaning revenue-neutral in terms of the many suburban bus routes that operate at 10% – 25% capacity

          (and no i’m not talking about buses in Freeport, White Plains or Hackensack -I meant Parsippany, Rockland County and unwalkable places in general)

          • Michael K says:

            And yes, technically it is not revenue-neutral but are let on for free in most systems anyway – why not make it into a school transportation method nationwide so kids might actually use their free ride?

  11. AG says:

    Not sure what is hard to figure out… the ppl who work for those bus companies get paid a good amount of money. I’m sorry – but I don’t see why some of them are making $30 per hour.

    As to the other issue – I thought the free Metro Card was income based?

    • Henry says:

      It’s not – it’s distance based. Kids living up to a half mile away get a half-fare bus card (which isn’t worth getting, because you could walk that distance in most cases). Kids living further away get a full-fare Metrocard with three rides per weekday on it. (They say you’re not allowed to use it on non-school weekdays, but they’re valid, and the prohibition should be dropped because many extracurricular events happen on non-school days. That’s a argument for another time though…

  12. someone says:

    Per-pupil busing costs are so high precisely because New York buses relatively few of its students; As I understand it, busing ends in 6th grade for nearly all general education students (and even through 6th grade, it’s only available in limited circumstances). That means that roughly 1/3 of the kids taking school buses are special ed students, for whom transportation costs are much higher.

  13. ajedrez says:

    Just so you guys know, there are some areas of the city where the nearest elementary school is over the guidelines, and so they provide yellow bus service. I believe for grades K-2, if you live over 0.5 miles from school, you get yellow bus service (for grades 3-6, I believe it’s 1 mile), but there are exceptions if the area doesn’t have sidewalks and things like that. So in some areas (many parts of Staten Island, even many of the more built-up parts on the North Shore), kids are being bused to their local school.

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