Opinion: Seattle school buses should use existing Community Bus Stop

By Brook Ellingwood

For the 2011-2012 school year, the cash-strapped Seattle Public Schools Transportation Department has come up with a plan designed to cut costs while still providing school bus service to many students. A primary part of this plan consists of consolidating multiple stops into central locations designated as “Community Bus Stops.” An FAQ on the SPS site (PDF) describes how Community Bus Stops will work.

Q. My transportation eligibility is “Community Bus Stop.” What does that mean?
A. Community Stops are located at or near your neighborhood school and within the walk zone of the school. This could require up to a one mile walk. If you do not live in a walk zone for an elementary or K‐8 school, the bus stop will be at a regular neighborhood stop and could require a walk of up to a half a mile. If you live within a half a mile of the regular transportation zone, you can apply for space available transportation and walk to a corner stop within the zone.

For my family, this will mean traveling a half mile to the Beacon Hill International School so my son can catch the school bus that used to pick him up across the street from our house. Sure, it’s an inconvenience, but I’m well aware of the financial problems the district is facing and while I hope they get their house in order, I’d rather they make cuts to bus service than to educational programs.

But on the other hand, when I read the phrase “Community Bus Stop” I think “Don’t we already have one of those in front of Beacon Hill’s Link Light Rail Station?”

To provide efficient public transportation, Metro Transit and Sound Transit have coordinated their services so that they converge in one spot. From this one location on Beacon Avenue, mass transit riders can board bus routes 36, 38 and 60, or take the elevator to the light rail platform and board a train. What they won’t be able to do under the new Seattle School District transportation plan is see their child safely onto a school bus and then easily board a Light Rail train or a number 38 bus. Instead, parents of children assigned to the Beacon Hill International School bus stop will find themselves half a mile from our neighborhood’s existing Community Bus Stop for the entire community.

The School District is suffering from terrible reputation problems, fueled by highly publicized scandals and an impression of lax oversight and poor responsiveness to community needs. I would suggest that a step towards restoring the district’s reputation and better fulfilling its mission could include aligning its transportation services with the services offered by Metro and Sound Transit. Effective education means understanding the needs of families, not just the children in those families, and making choices that better help working parents better juggle getting their kids to school, themselves to work, and everyone safely back home would be an indicator that the Seattle School District understands this.

As a practical matter, school buses can’t block the Metro bus stops on Beacon Avenue. However, they could conceivably stop on Roberto Maestas Festival Street, 16th Avenue, or even on the other side of the block on 17th Avenue across the Festival Street from where a school bus stopped at the El Centro de la Raza driveway all last school year.

What matters less than these details is that the stop would be near a real Community Bus Stop that already meets the transportation needs of many families. The School District projects an image of a out-of-touch bureaucracy that plans in isolation and is incapable of managing its affairs. Aligning school bus stops with Metro and Sound Transit’s regional transportation plans won’t change this perception overnight, but it could help demonstrate an awareness of the need to work better with the communities the District serves.

While on vacation last week I sent an email to the Seattle School District Transportation Department proposing this idea. This week I’m going to follow up by emailing the School Board and both emailing and calling the office of School Board member Betty Patu, who represents the Southeast District, linking to this post and asking that they please consider this idea.

If you agree and would like to express your support, here is direct contact information:

(Thank you, Brook! Have an opinion on something? The Beacon Hill Blog welcomes opinion articles. Email us.)

(One sentence was edited for clarification after publication at the request of the author.)

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Seattle school buses should use existing Community Bus Stop”

  1. After I sent this to Wendi, I realized I’d edited two sentences together in a way that left out some information. Instead of writing:

    “What they won’t be able to do under the new Seattle School District transportation plan is see their child safely onto a school bus and then easily board a Metro bus or a light rail train.”

    I should have written:

    “What they won’t be able to do under the new Seattle School District transportation plan is see their child safely onto a school bus and then easily board a Light Rail train or a number 38 bus.”

  2. While there are some commendable ideas here, it seems to me that there are also a whole host of practical and bureaucratic issues involved in this idea that have not been considered. Making it more convenient for working parents to get to work on public transport, while important, I think perhaps takes second place to some of these other issues.

    For example, the school district may have chosen to keep bus stops near to schools, because it will be easier to service and support them in these locations, where they already have staff.

    Centralizing a bus stop has the goal of concentrating more children in one place. While this does help to create economies of scale and cost savings, it also creates other safety and liability problems that are not such big issues when a few kids are waiting at a bus stop near home.

    If a kid gets hurt at the bus stop under the old model, s/he is close to home and more of the onus for dealing with that falls on the parents. But at the point where 30+ kids are all congregating in the same location further away from home at the behest of and for the convenience of the school district, I think the onus of responsibility starts to shift more onto the school district (both in terms of security and liability for problems).

    Put another way, if a kid gets hurt at one of these new centralized bus stops, the school district is going to be called to answer for that either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. I don’t think this is the case to the same degree under the existing bus stop system.

    So it makes a certain amount of sense to locate the stops where the district already has personnel in place. That way, if a kid gets hurt at the stop, a fight breaks out, etc., there are people who are trained and readily available to get involved this kind of situation. There is also a safe, supervised place where a kid could run to (or be escorted to). There is also a room where you could conceivably put a kid while somebody calls his or her parents to come and get him.

    The area around the Beacon Hill Light Rail station has none of these attributes. It is primarily an adult (and teenager) space on a busy street. To mitigate these issues, the district would probably need to contract with a group like El Centro de La Raza to provide services that the district already has available at the International School. This starts to defeat the cost saving goal of consolidating the local stops into one large neighborhood stop.

    Moreover, two of the three buses that stop at Beacon Station also stop near the International school (36 and 60), yes?. The northbound 36 bus, while perhaps slower than light rail, services more or less the exact same route as Link. So for parents whose commute ends downtown, in First Hill or in Capitol Hill, it seems like more or less a wash to me (36 to downtown; 60 to First Hill and Capitol Hill). The same is true for most southbound commuters (60 to V.A., Georgetown and White Center; 36 to Rainier Valley). The main exception is people who commute to the last few stops on the light rail (these people would need to walk back to Beacon Station to get on the light rail or take the bus and transfer). I wonder how many of those people there are?

    I know that working parents have it really tough and that public school is often not set up to acknowledge and accommodate their issues and circumstances very well. I’m also not an expert about all this stuff, so I may completely misunderstand the whole situation. But it seems to me that in this case, there may be some other issues that take precedence over the ones your proposal is meant to solve.

  3. Hi J-Lon,

    It’s not that I haven’t considered the host of “practical and bureaucratic issues involved in this idea,” it’s that I think the inability to think past and solve them is indicative of the deep systemic issues the school district is suffering from. We shouldn’t expect our government services to only think in terms of what can be easily done, but in terms of what should be done. And I’m not sure the liability issues are nearly as big as you have made them out to be.

    The simple fact is that Sound Transit has made an enormous investment in the future shape of public transportation in our region, and my expectation is that other government agencies should take this future into account as they make their own plans. Don’t forget that the buses and trains that converge at the Beacon HIll LINK Light Rail station could also carry children to their school bus pickups, and not just carry parents away. Seattle Public Schools pays lip service to reducing family commutes with programs like John Muir Elementary’s “Walking Wednesdays” put on in cooperation with Feet First, but the transportation plan is in no way aligned with what these programs are trying to teach.


  4. We got the official notification of where our school bus stop will be and were surprised to find out it will still be in front of our house, a block from the light rail station. I guess we’re more than half a mile from Beacon International School, although it can’t be by much. On the other hand, the pick up is an hour before class starts, just to go two blocks south of Franklin High School. It seems like it might almost be better if the school district didn’t even bother offering any bus service.

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