To Reduce School-Run Traffic, Is It Time for More School Buses?

Is it time to put on more school buses for students in Dublin? Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Conroy asked her fellow members of the council’s public transport subcommittee on 17 June.

Conroy says school buses could be a good solution to congestion. “To get all the cars off the road. That’s the main thing,” she says.

Many students don’t have a direct public-transport route, and some children are too young to take a bus themselves. “Young children, a public bus wouldn’t be safe.”

The issue will be discussed at the transport committee meeting in February 2022, she says.

Bus Éireann runs more than 800 school buses at the moment, its spokesperson said. Conroy says** **they should be more widespread across the city.

But when schools across the city have surveyed students and parents to see how to ease their congested car journeys to school, school buses haven’t always come out as the most practical alternative.

The Current Set-Up

Two buses, provided by Bus Éireann, do collect students from Swords and Finglas and ferry them to Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Clontarf, says Barbara Treacy, a teacher there.

Roughly 30 students take the Swords bus, which is in its second year. The Finglas, with 16 students, started this year.

Parents organised the bus, says Treacy. Changes under BusConnects, the redesign of the Dublin bus network that is now being rolled out, mean there will no longer be a direct bus from Swords to the school. Already, there is no direct public-transport route to the school from Finglas.

Students come from Howth, Malahide, Finglas, Swords, Blanchardstown and Glasnevin, says Catherine Leavy, a teacher at Mount Temple. “Because we’re a Protestant school,” she says, so people travel to attend.

At the moment, Bus Éireann operates 850 school bus routes throughout Co. Dublin on behalf of the Department of Education, a spokesperson said.

It cost the company €224.7 million to transport 114,000 children in school buses around the country in 2020, they said.

Parents of primary-school kids have to pay €100 a year to use a school bus while parents of secondary-school students pay €350 a year. (Bus Éireann has not yet responded to queries on why secondary-school students have to pay more.)

A family doesn’t have to pay more than €650 if they have more than one kid on the bus, they said, and children with special educational needs who are eligible travel free.

Not all schools can have these school buses, though.

There have to be at least 10 kids living more than 3.2 kilometres from their primary school, or 4.8 kilometres from their secondary school, before Bus Éireann will establish a school bus, they said.

Bus Éireann hasn’t responded to queries on why these specific criteria were chosen, how many applications for school buses have been rejected for not meeting them, and what the considerations would be around changing them.

Even if every school had a school bus available though, not every student would take it.

Treacy says not every parent pays for their kid to take the bus to Mount Temple. Some prefer to drive them, rather than paying for the school bus, she says.

Working Out Need

There needs to be data to best assess if a school bus is needed, said Anne Feeney, a Fine Gael councillor.

“I’m not convinced that they have done an analysis of the times or the destinations or any of that,” she says. “I’d need to see the data on that. We could invest in a whole load of school buses and they may not be what’s required.”

“Whatever we invest in, we need to be pretty sure that it’s the solution that’s required, and that people will use it,” she says.

Donna Cooney, a Green Party councillor, says transport surveys can be used to find out how students travel to school, and how far they are coming from.

“You get an idea whether a school bus is even a need or necessity,” she says. “Every school should have a transport survey.”

She says she organised a transport survey for Greenlanes National School in Clontarf, aware of congestion outside the school.

Most of those who drove (21 percent) lived within five kilometres of the school, she says. Another 39 percent took public transport, 27 percent cycled and 12 percent walked.

Two-thirds of the 92 parents who responded to Greenlanes’ transport survey said they would try out a “bike bus” – when a group of parents and kids all bike together in a convoy, picking up more people as they go, until they get to school.

So, Cooney organised three bike-bus routes for parents and kids, stopping at various locations along the way to pick more riders.

Dublin City Council also organised a car park so parents could “park and stride”, meaning walk, a little while away from the school, she says.

“It hasn’t kept up everywhere,” she says. “But there’s been a huge shift.”

Other Options

The latest Greater Dublin Area Transport strategy does a few things to address school-related car traffic, said Dermot O’Gara, spokesperson for the National Transport Authority (NTA).

It focuses on improving cycling and walking infrastructure, redesigning the bus networks, and supporting Green Schools [awards] programme to encourage active travel, he says.

Sarah Rock, a lecturer in transport and urban design at Technological University Dublin, says that “trying to address some of the key barriers to active travel to school would be a wise move”.

If parents could drop off their kids at a time that suited them better, they might not find it necessary to drive them to school, she says. “Pre-school or breakfast clubs would reduce the time pressures for some parents needing to get to work at the same time.”

Creating child- and teenager-friendly cycle routes would also help encourage more students to cycle to school, Rock says.

There’s a limited role for school buses within cities, she says. “One of the reasons for this is the usually relatively good network of public transport that would already exist within cities.”

In Templeogue, parents of students of Riverview National School – an Educate Together school – wanted to reduce the number who drove their children to school.

Aodhán King, a parent at the school, says there were safety concerns. “Outside the school, there were too many cars. It was a free-for-all on school drop-off,” he says.

So, in 2018, they did a transport survey. Of the parents who responded, 85 percent sometimes or always drove their children to school. The rest sometimes or always walked (14 percent) cycled (12 percent) or took public transport (9 percent).

As a way to reduce the number who drove, 40 percent said they would most like a private school bus or car pooling, over other options like scooting or using a public bus.

But they didn’t get a private bus. Kids in Riverview live all over the south of the city, from Tallaght to Rathmines, King says. A bus would have too many stops to be feasible.

“The logistics of actually supplying a bus would mean you’d probably need about six or 10 buses to get all those children in,” he says.

Instead, while a bike bus was not the most popular option, some parents decided to try it anyway, says King.

About 20 people, kids and parents, were on board at the start, when it was trialled on Fridays, and now it’s about 50 or 60 people, and is known as the D12 Bike Bus.

Starting on the Crumlin Road, it travels about eight kilometres to the school, he says, picking people up along the way.

But it still only operates on Fridays, because it’s too difficult to manage every day, he says. “It’s not an easy thing to keep going.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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