Until last spring, Nia Parker and the other kids in her neighborhood who attend West Boulevard Elementary in Columbia, Mo., commuted to school on Bus 59. But as fuel costs have risen, the Columbia school district has needed to find a way to cut its transportation costs. So the school's busing company redrew its route map, eliminating Nia's bus altogether. Instead, Nia and her neighbors travel the half mile to school via a "walking school bus"—a group of kids, supervised by an adult or two, who make the trek together. "It's healthier for them to walk," says Melissa Clark, Nia's mom, who approves of the change. Nia, a 9-year-old who's in fourth grade, sees other advantages. Since the bus used to pick up many children along a circuitous route, walking to school is actually quicker. "I like it because I get to sleep late, and I don't get as grouchy," Nia says.
Like the rest of us, school districts are feeling pinched by rising fuel costs—and finding new ways to adapt. The diesel fuel that powers school buses now costs an average of $4.28 a gallon, up 34 percent in the past two years. Cities and states spend $14.7 billion annually transporting kids to school; for the typical school district, bus bills total 5 percent of the budget. As administrators look to trim, busing is an inviting target, since it doesn't affect classroom instruction (or test scores). According to a survey done by the American Association of School Administrators in July, more than one third of school administrators have eliminated bus stops or routes in order to stay within budget. "When you have to make tough choices," says Daniel Domench, executive director of the AASA, "you cut back on what's least harmful." In the Capistrano Unified School District in California—where there is no state requirement to transport students—two thirds of the district bus routes have been eliminated. "That's 4,000 to 5,000 students that received it last year no longer getting transportation," says transportation director Mike Patton. In New Hampshire, principal Karen Cloutier says that she expects one third of her elementary-school students will walk this year—even through rain and snow. "If there is school, we will walk," she says. "And we rarely cancel school."
Many parents are delighted to see their kids walking to school, partly because many did so themselves: in 1969, according to the National Household Travel Survey, nearly half of schoolkids walked or biked to school, compared with only 16 percent in 2001. Modern parents have been leery of letting kids walk to school for fear of traffic, crime or simple bullying, but with organized adult supervision, those concerns have diminished. "Parents are buying into it more and more," says Susan Haynes, principal at Van Derveer Elementary in Somerville, N.J., which cut all its home-to-school transportation. Some kids like this change, too. "It's like recess before school," says Price Phillips, 9, who walks to school in Columbia, Mo., this year.
Schools and busing companies are finding other ways to save by cutting field trips and redrawing athletic schedules to reduce the distances of "away" sporting events. In rural areas where busing is a must, some schools—like MACCRAY High School in Clara City, Minn.—have even opted for four-day school weeks. First Student Transportation, the leading U.S. school bus provider, is training drivers to eliminate extra stops from routes, to turn off the engine while idling and to check tire pressure every time they leave the lot. First Student is also using route-optimization software to determine the most fuel-efficient routes, which aren't always the shortest ones. A few schools now use diesel-electric hybrid buses, which achieve 12 miles per gallon (compared with 7mpg for a traditional bus). But at $180,000, hybrids cost more than twice as much as a traditional diesel bus, so few schools have switched.
There could be downsides, however, to the busing cutbacks. If every formerly bused student begins hoofing it to school, it's an environmental win—but if too many of their parents decide to drive them instead, the overall carbon footprint can grow. "On average, one school bus replaces 36 private vehicles," says Mike Martin of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a pro-busing advocacy group. Replacing buses with many more parent-driven minivans can also increase safety risks: Martin cites a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded students are 13 times safer on a school bus than in a passenger car, since buses have fewer accidents and withstand them better due to their size. And some students—including Murat Agca, a first grader in Columbia—complain about the long morning hikes, particularly when the route, like Agca's, contains a really big hill. Still, these children have it easier than their parents' generation—when, of course, all routes went uphill, both ways.