Determining School Bus Stop Locations
Making decisions about where school bus stops will be placed requires balancing conditions that would be ideal with the realities of a community's road system, weather and topography. In this discussion, ideal characteristics are described, but these characteristics will rarely all be met for every school bus stop. Transportation directors must seek to do everything possible for student safety with less than perfect conditions.
There is no perfect school bus stop, because it is impossible to eliminate all potential hazards, but guidelines and training are still necessary to ensure that responsible parties are making the safest, most informed decisions when placing stops.
— State Director of Pupil Transportation
A Note About Policy
Transportation directors usually have state and/or local policies that must be followed before considering a potential school bus stop site's specific characteristics. State and local policies can influence or dictate the process and ultimate placement of school bus stops. State-level policies, often mandated by the State Boards of Education or legislatures, tend to only address basic requirements, such as the minimum distance between school bus stops. Such basic policies may be presented as guidelines rather than requirements. The vast majority of decisions on routing and placement of stops are made at the local school district level.
Although some districts have no local level regulation and rely solely on existing state-level regulation for guidance, other districts utilize a wide range of policies. Some school districts have very formal, written policies while others have nothing "set in stone," and the decisions are made entirely at the discretion of the school transportation director.
District-level regulations related to school bus stops may address issues such as:
- Use of private roads and/or property
- Special guidelines for kindergarten students such as door-step pick-up
- Placement of stops at corners or mid-block locations
- Placement of stops on main arterials
- Provisions for providing transportation in hazard zones within a "no transport zone"
- Placement of stops in cul-de-sacs and
- Proximity of stops to railroad crossings
Districts face several delicate policy issues and must decide which responsibilities the school bears and which responsibilities fall to parents and other caregivers. In addition, those responsibilities must be further clarified to reflect policies when students are traveling between home and their school bus stops and while waiting for the bus. Most school transportation professionals agree that it is the parents' responsibility to supervise students at these times. However, many also recognize that this may be an unrealistic expectation due to work schedules, disabilities, or other circumstances. In some cases, accommodations may have to be made for these situations. Regardless of how these situations will be handled, clearly stating and communicating expectations about parents' responsibilities is vital.
After following existing policy, the next step to consider is school bus stop location options. It is impractical to discuss school bus stops without discussing bus routes. Clearly they are closely related and the characteristics of one have implications for the other. For example, if a route involves travel along a busy road, and a stop is designated along that segment of the route, students who wait at that stop will have to contend with traffic on that road. Information here will be presented with the school bus stop as the central point of focus but with the recognition that there is a need to balance the desired characteristics of a bus stop with the realities of what the school bus route will allow.
Street-side characteristics include the conditions on the road where the school bus stops to load and unload students. To provide the safest environment for students to walk between home and the school bus stop and wait at the stop:
- Pick routes on streets with lower traffic volumes and lower speeds.
- Minimize or avoid multi-lane roads where pedestrians are most at risk of injury (Federal Highway Administration [FHWA], 2009).
- Pick roads with sidewalks or designated pedestrian paths separate from the roadway and traffic. If these are not available, pick roads with sufficient space to walk along the roadway to reach the stop.
- Avoid or limit stops that require the school bus to make a left turn anywhere along the route.
- Avoid stops that require backing up. If backing up is unavoidable, pick up students before backing. During the afternoon return trip, drop off the students only after backing up and being in position to drive forward.
- Avoid railroad crossings along the bus route. If it is impossible to avoid crossings, signage and railroad crossing arm protection should be present.
- Select stops that provide sufficient visibility for both pedestrians and drivers. There needs to be enough sight distance so drivers, bus drivers and students waiting at the stop all can see each other. There are no standardized distance measures that provide sufficient visibility nor are there formulas for computing an appropriate sight distance, but the following can impact sight distances:
- Sunrise/sunset times (Try to avoid placing stops where vehicles will be facing into the sun at pick-up or drop-off times.)
- Curves and hills
- Trees and other vegetation
- On-street parked cars and approaching vehicles
- Snow drifts from snowplows
For areas where insufficient sight distance may be an unavoidable, contact the local transportation authority to post warning signs when needed. The Manual of Uniform Traffic Code Devices (MUTCD), used by traffic engineers, describes use of "Bus Stop Ahead" signs based on sight distance. According to the 2009 edition of the MUTCD, the sign should be installed in advance of locations where a stopped school bus — picking up or discharging passengers — is not visible to road users for an adequate distance. The transportation authority can help determine what is considered to be "an adequate distance" (FHWA, 2009).
School Bus Stop Characteristics
In addition to the on-street characteristics, characteristics about the off-street location of the school bus stop are also critical to ensuring student safety during transport to school. This section addresses the school bus stop itself. For the safest areas for students to wait for, and load onto or off of the bus:
- Choose "near-side" stops whenever possible.
- Minimize the need for students to cross a road from the stop to the bus regardless of the type of roadway.
- Students must not cross multi-lane roads where all traffic is not controlled by the presence of a school bus stop arm and flashing lights.
- Pick locations that offer adequate lighting. If students will be waiting during low light hours, the stop should be positioned near a street light or other light source whenever possible.
- Choose locations with sufficient space for students and parents to wait at least 12 feet from the roadway. This distance is recommended based on the "12-foot rule" for students approaching and leaving the bus included in the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures 2005 Revised Edition (The Fourteenth National Congress on School Transportation, 2005). However, some transportation professionals have suggested that the distance needs to reflect the bus class and the differing sight distance afforded by each. For example, Type C buses have a sight distance of 17 feet, so consider the appropriate distance for the type of school buses being used by your district.
- Consider the surrounding environment. Commercial businesses and parks offer benefits and drawbacks. While they can confer safety because drivers may be more likely to expect pedestrians in these areas, they also can distract children from being ready to load when the bus arrives.
- Choose locations that provide protection from weather. Depending on the geographical region:
- Establish stops that offer shade without sacrificing visibility.
- Avoid areas where snow drifts will reduce visibility or access to the bus.
- Determine policies for mid-block stops compared to corner stops. Whether a stop is located mid-block or on a corner does not have the same impact on safety as other factors described here, but this is a policy decision that must be taken into consideration. The Transit Cooperative Research Program's "Guidelines for the Location and Design of Bus Stops" describes advantages and disadvantages of mid-block, near side and far side stops, but this report, focused on public transit, assumes pedestrians cross behind the bus whereas students are taught to cross in front of the bus. Both far-side corner (the corner past the intersection) and near-side corner (the corner located prior to the intersection) stops can impact sight distance (Federal Transit Administration, 1996).
State and local policies vary regarding corner or intersection stops. This variation is due to differing interpretations of safety issues and their priority, especially as they relate to visibility, traffic conditions, and control of oncoming traffic. Corner stops are considered preferable because they conform with drivers' expectations to stop at intersections. They also provide a wide area to scan for traffic and students, minimize buses backing up and create more efficient routes. However, corner stops can be considered less preferable due to the inability to easily control all approaching drivers. Some states have noted that if a school bus stop is at an intersection or corner, students should be loaded and unloaded on the far side of the intersection so that the school bus blocks the cross traffic and the stop arm controls the other directions. Although there are advantages and disadvantages for each, perhaps the most important consideration is to avoid locating school bus stops at busy intersections.
- Consider the number of students who will use a stop. While the presence of multiple students confers safety, too many students increases the likelihood of behavioral problems.
This guide focuses on the prevention of traffic-related injuries, however, students — like all community members — face other risks such as assault or other crimes. Many transportation policies address non-traffic issues — such as proximity to liquor stores, bars, adult entertainment, sex offenders, and other-crime related factors. See the Resources section for more information on these factors.
The Student's Route Between Home And School Bus Stop
The majority of members of NAPT and NASDPTS who provided feedback which helped inform this guide indicated that their district level policies, guidelines, or recommendations for establishing school bus stops in some manner considered the safety of the route that students travel between their doorstep and the bus stop. The most commonly mentioned elements were:
- The presence of a "safe" path
- Quality and type of road crossings (more specifically, the number of lanes and the traffic controls present at these crossings)
- Proximity of railroad crossings
- Traffic speed limits
- Walking distance
There was a strong emphasis on the parents' role in ensuring the safety of the student while in route to or from the stop and waiting at the stop.
The following factors influence student safety around traffic between home and the school bus stop and should be considered during the bus stop placement process:
- Many school districts or states have policies that specify the maximum distance permitted between a student's home and the school bus stop. The distance between home and the stop:
- Typically ranges from one to one and one-half miles
- Sometimes varies with the age of the rider
- Are increasing in some districts due to economic constraints that are impacting bus service
- Assumes that parents will ensure the child's safety between the home and school bus stop
- May be determined from the center of the roadway outside of the residence to the bus stop, not from the front door of the residence to the stop
- Is usually approved by the school board and follows state guidelines
- May be determined by examining safety issues on a case-by-case basis instead of using a certain distance standard
- School bus stops should be located so that students and parents have adequate pathways to walk from home. Although it may not always be possible to provide all these features, desirable pedestrian routes:
- Minimize or avoid street crossings
- Have traffic controls (stop signs or traffic signals) to provide assistance to pedestrians if crossing streets cannot be avoided
- Have sufficient space to walk that is separated from traffic (ideally, a sidewalk or path separated from the roadway is available)
- Do not require walking on high-volume, high-speed roads
- Are passable in snowy weather
Several resources are available for transportation professionals and parents to use to assess how "walkable" a particular route is from one location to another. The "Walkability Checklist" available from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (see Resources section) gives insight into the walkability of a neighborhood by raising questions such as:
- Did you have room to walk? Potential problems include:
- Sidewalks or paths started and stopped
- Sidewalks were broken or cracked
- Sidewalks were blocked with poles, signs, shrubbery, dumpsters, etc.
- No sidewalks, paths, or shoulders
- Was it easy to cross streets? Potential problems include:
- Road was too wide
- Traffic signals made us wait too long or did not give us enough time to cross
- Street needed striped crosswalks or traffic signals
- Parked cars blocked our view of traffic
- Trees or plants blocked our view of traffic
- Sidewalks needed curb ramps or ramps needed repair
- Can a child:
- Cross at crosswalks or at a location where the child can see and be seen by drivers
- Stop and look left, right and then left again before crossing street
- Walk on sidewalks or shoulders facing traffic where there are no sidewalks
- Cross with the traffic signal
An additional benefit of using a walkability checklist is that it can serve to document and demonstrate the need for pedestrian facilities or improvements to existing facilities when approaching traffic engineers or planners about these issues.