Quantifying the Costs of School Transportation

PI: Noreen McDonald, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Co-PIs: Ruth Steiner, Ph.D., University of Florida; Thomas Cook, Ph.D., North Carolina State University

UTC Project Information


According to the US Department of Education, Americans spend $20 billion annually to bus 25 million elementary and secondary students to school - 4.2% of the funds spent on public K-12 education annually. Declining state and local revenues have made it imperative for school districts to manage transport costs, thereby preserving funding for classroom activities without sacrificing students’ ability to get to school. Yet school districts and municipalities regularly make decisions about where to site new schools and make investments in existing schools without fully understanding the impact of these decisions on overall transportation costs. Thus, the fact that current school location optimization algorithms only consider the cost of busing children to school is significant.

This approach fails to recognize opportunities to locate schools in places that minimize multi-modal transportation costs and to consider tradeoffs between land values and transport costs. The goal of this study is to document the full cost of getting children to school and to develop a decision support tool to help transportation and school planners minimize transport costs when siting or improving schools. With this study, we propose to rigorously evaluate multi-modal transportation costs in selected Florida and North Carolina elementary schools. We will document the variation in costs by location type and proximity to students. These results will form the basis of a pilot decision support tool that will help planners estimate up-front and on-going transport costs associated with proposed school locations. To summarize, the study objectives are:

1.   Measure the multi-modal costs associated with school transportation

2.   Document the variation in school transportation costs by location type and nearby development patterns

3.   Develop a pilot decision support tool that will estimate transport costs of potential school sites

To assess the full cost of school transportation, we will develop an accounting methodology that assesses the capital and operating expenses associated with each mode - school bus, auto, walk, and bike. Empirical assessment of the costs will be made via a detailed study of twenty recently constructed elementary schools in North Carolina (n=12) and Florida (n=8). Our sample will be stratified by location (city, suburb, rural) and number of children living within one mile of the school in order to measure the impact of local residential development patterns on school transport costs. Based on these results, we will develop a pilot decision support tool that will assist transportation and school planners in determining estimated transport costs by mode for proposed school locations.

Our study will benefit multiple constituencies by providing the first published evidence regarding the full cost of school transportation - across all modes and including up-front and on-going costs. We will share this information with scholars and practitioners through journal articles and webinars. In addition, the pilot decision support tool will assist school districts and local governments as they plan new schools. The tool will allow planners to better estimate transportation costs associated with potential school sites so they can weigh land and transport costs and consider the potential impact of up-front non-motorized infrastructure investments.