The information provided above is only a generalized description of school traffic congestion. You should use these basic facts to help develop a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
The following groups have an interest in the school traffic-congestion problem and should be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it.
This guide is written for police, not because they are the biggest stakeholders in solving traffic congestion problems, but because they are often one of the first to be called when traffic congestion develops around schools. Police are more likely to be contacted only after tensions have developed among residents, school staff, and parents over who is responsible for the congestion. Police therefore are in a unique position to serve as mediator between these groups, helping them to seek common ground in developing and implementing effective solutions and ultimately making their jobs easier by reducing the number of calls for service generated by congestion, and the traffic violations and traffic safety issues that often accompany it.
When it comes to both understanding the underlying source of the congestion problem and developing responses to it, parents may be the single most important stakeholder you identify. This is because parents’ decisions to drive their children to school, their concern for their children’s safety, and their regard for existing traffic rules can tremendously affect the problem.
While research indicates that most school traffic problems occur around elementary and middle schools, in cases where congestion is around high schools, students are significant stakeholders given that their driving and parking habits are likely contributing to the problem. Student input in lower-grade schools is equally important, and can become critical if a response strategy includes encouraging children to walk or bike to school.
School staff often experience the aggravation of school traffic congestion in equal measure to parents. Some staff may be inconvenienced by congestion in their own commutes to and from the school. Others, such as the principal and school administrators, bear the brunt of complaints by parents and local residents. Given that most congestion occurs in and around school property, the child safety concerns associated with traffic congestion become the school’s responsibility, as well.
Residents living near schools with congestion problems are very much affected by the problem, and may also be contributing to it. Imagine being late for work and pulling out of your driveway, only to realize that school traffic is at its peak and it will take another 10 minutes just to travel a tenth of a mile. Residents may become so frustrated by repeated complaints to the school or local police with no sign of resolution in sight, that they deliberately ignore signs prohibiting street parking or making streets one-way during drop-off and pick-up times, further contributing to the congestion problem.
In some areas, school traffic congestion is caused or exacerbated by commuters whose routes take them past the school or those who use residential roads around schools as shortcuts to reduce travel time, despite the congestion they may encounter around schools.
Your local transportation and planning department is also a critical partner in understanding and addressing the problem of school traffic congestion. This agency can change or add traffic signs, create one-way streets, and change the traffic-light timing to increase traffic flow and reduce congestion around the school.
In cases in which congestion occurs around schools that have busing, the bus companies are an important partner in developing responses to the problem. For example, if buses are perceived as contributing to the congestion problem, the school may determine that the best approach is to stagger bus drop-off and pick-up times and/or schedule those times so that they do not coincide with parental drop-off and pick-up times.
Formal entities such as PTAs can conduct surveys of their membership to better understand the nature of the problem, to enlist their participation and support in developing and implementing responses, and to aid in administering surveys designed to assess the response’s impact.
School architects and landscapers may need to be enlisted to better understand possible and feasible changes to school property, as well as to aid in drafting plans to reduce congestion. In addition, while most of the literature on school traffic congestion pertains to schools already existing when a traffic problem emerges, it is important to note that school architects can play a critical role in designing out traffic problems before new schools are erected.
In some cases, schools are located near retailers or businesses that generate their own traffic or that suffer from school-generated traffic. These businesses represent another important stakeholder group in understanding and addressing the traffic congestion problem.
The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of school traffic congestion, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.
Incident data will enable you to measure the level and type of traffic congestion problem occurring around the school(s) affected by congestion. To answer these questions, it is useful first to learn whether the school system and/or police department has a mechanism for recording traffic congestion complaints. In some cases, police calls-for-service data may provide the necessary details to extract this information. In the case of school-generated data, however, the school system is likely to document only traffic safety issues, such as crashes involving the injury or death of a child. It is likely, therefore, that the police officer assigned to the school (or the patrol area in which the school is located) is the best source of incident data. The questions to ask to obtain incident data include the following:
A useful means to assist in answering these questions about setting is to conduct field observations at and around the school at different times of day and days of week to find out where most traffic is coming from, where people park, and where pedestrian pathways and flows are located †. Such observations may also reveal whether any nonschool commuter traffic cutting through the school area is contributing to the problem.
†You can find a useful resource to guide such field observations in a document produced by the National Highway Safety Transportation Board that provides advice to those conducting pedestrian and bicycle crash analyses. See http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/ped/pbcatjan01/index.html.
In most growing school systems, school assignment is reevaluated each year. As a result, even if your particular problem is congestion around an individual school, the problem must be considered in light of the larger school system context. This includes identifying and anticipating any significant changes, including the following:
These questions underscore the importance of understanding that any efforts to address school congestion problems must be considered in light of the larger system, and that congestion issues and your responses’ effectiveness must be reassessed and may need to be amended each year.
When studying the issue in your local jurisdiction, it may be useful to conduct a survey of parents to learn how often they drive their children to school, their openness to other forms of transportation, and their perceptions of the incidence and severity of the congestion problem. In analyzing the problem, a survey of parents can shed light on why they take their children by car, including the following response categories:
If the chosen response to the problem is to reduce parental driving, such a survey can help in developing a response that speaks to parents’ motivations and concerns. Conducting a similar survey after implementing your response will also assist in your assessment of whether the response was effective (see “Measuring Your Effectiveness” below).
Other important questions to pose to parent drivers include the following:
A “windshield survey” posing similar questions to parents and other commuters stuck in congestion around schools may also be fruitful.
† For guidelines on appropriate signs, see the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices at http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/Caltrans Traffic Manual.
Once you have gathered information on street patterns, traffic flows, and signs, a useful means of integrating all this information in a way that leads to potential solutions is to map the locations of these factors, either by hand or through the use of Geographic Information System software. Such mapping can be useful to understand the flows and nature of congestion within the larger context of the surrounding area.
At this point in the process, you should begin to develop a list of possible responses designed to address the underlying cause of your school traffic problem. It is often useful to survey parents, teachers, staff, and even students to obtain their feedback on which of the proposed interventions they like best. While the popularity of the response should not be the only criterion for its selection, if you have identified an array of equally effective responses, it is only logical to implement the one that most people will support, particularly because their compliance is critical to the interventions success. Such a survey not only serves to narrow down the list of possible interventions, but also will help to justify the response ultimately implemented.
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area.(For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)
The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to school traffic congestion:
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