New Haven is a small city, an area that one can easily walk across. Yet nearly everyone is bused to school. In a town with such dense population, schools can be easily located within a reasonable walking distance for all students, yet nearly every student rides a bus. Instead of a single bus picking up a group of students on one corner and bringing them to a nearby building to be educated, the transportation department coordinates transportation to nearly 18,000 students with nearly 2000 who are bused in from surrounding towns. Bus routes crisscross and make three complete morning, and three more complete afternoon circuits to accommodate the intricate magnet school placements of the students of the city.
In order to alleviate the de-facto segregation created by longstanding residential patterns, the New Haven Public School district encourages school choice, through inter-district magnet schools. Unfortunately, the school choice has increased the number of students who need to take a bus to school rather than get there on foot. One of the goals of our investigation will be to examine student transportation and to explore and to quantify the difference in busing required if students were assigned to schools by neighborhood or by magnet choice.
The intent of our work is not to diminish the issues of school segregation, negate the benefits of school choice, but to address the reality of the unintended consequences of such a program. The question is how to achieve the least harm, with competing interests at play. Initiatives such as Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and the federal and state "Safe Routes to School" program are focusing public attention and funding on our children's needs for physical activity coupled with our environment's needs for less pollution. These programs are not possible or useful, when school choice policies supersede the planning of bicycle and footpaths to centrally located schools. In a perfect world, our urban centers could be dedicated to human powered transport. Unlike suburban sprawl-plans, urban centers can be walk-able, and bike-friendly; certainly, New Haven's small size makes that a possibility.
Currently, our urban centers present its youngest members with the greatest burdens of pollution. Histories of residential use and decay have left the legacy of leaded buildings and soils. Parks are often (ad-hoc or by design) reclaimed dumping grounds. Many studies have demonstrated that densely populated, lower-income neighborhoods have diminished access to and fewer resources for physical activity. A study of physical activity resources, such as parks in Kansas and Missouri concluded that, "incivilities were consistently present and conspicuously bad and offensive at physical activity resources in lower-income, higher ethnic concentration neighborhoods."
No Child Left Behind has caused cities like New Haven to mandate out recess in order to accommodate increased academic instruction time. A kindergarten teacher at my local school explained how 5 year olds at the school had free-play: "the kids get lots of exercise moving from the carpet to their tables."
There are unsafe places to play when you get home and longer mandated school days. During the winter this often means arriving home with dusk. An extensive bus ride in place of a possible walk to school removes the possibility of built in exercise as a way to get to school. The Safe Routes to School program promotes the "walking school bus".
Children are picked up along a route, like a traditional school bus, with an adult to monitor the group. This addresses the safety concerns of urban school children, and offers active commuting, but can only be implemented in a neighborhood school setting.