PROJECTStudent Transportation and Educational Access

Students getting on school bus

Cities across the country have adopted school choice policies that allow students to select and attend schools outside their neighborhoods, providing low-income students more opportunities to attend high-quality schools. For these schools to be feasible choices, however, families must be able to get their children there. For families without reliable transportation, getting their children to school can introduce new challenges and make these schools unrealistic options.

Student travel matters for many reasons. Spending lots of time traveling to school could have adverse effects on students’ health, safety, and academic outcomes. Going to school outside their neighborhoods can mean leaving behind social supports and connections to other neighborhood children. And when student transportation is provided by the city, district, or school, it can take money away from other important costs, like teachers or instructional materials.

The following reports explore the complexities of transportation policy in the school choice–rich cities of Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, DC. Key findings are as follows:

  • All five cities provide transportation, but availability varies by school. Although each city offers yellow bus or public transit to students’ neighborhood schools, transportation to nonneighborhood and charter schools varies.

  • Most students do not live further than a 20-minute drive to their schools, but travel patterns vary across age and demographic groups. Older students travel farther to school than younger students, and black students travel farther than white and Hispanic students.

  • Access to a car can significantly increase the number of schools available to a family. In nearly every grade, students have access to 10 or more schools within a 15-minute drive but typically have access to fewer than 10 schools when traveling for the same amount of time on public transit.

  • Students from low-income families typically do not travel farther to school than their comparatively advantaged peers.

  • Charter school students do not always travel farther than their peers in traditional public schools.

Deep Dives into Five Cities:

  • The Extra Mile: Time to School and Student Outcomes in Washington, DC
    Roughly three-quarters of students in DC attend schools outside their neighborhood. A longer commute to school is associated with an increased likelihood of changing schools and absenteeism but is not associated with sixth-grade test scores.

  • New Orleans Students’ Commute Times by Car, Public Transit, and School Bus
    Through a lottery system, students in New Orleans can apply to and attend any school in the city. This report compares school bus routes with public transit or car rides to understand how far these students travel to school. Although the median student is on a school bus for 35 minutes, schools vary in their bus route efficiency, and some students have commutes longer than 90 minutes.

  • Going the Distance: Understand the Benefits of a Long Commute to School
    A study of 3,100 incoming ninth graders in Denver whose first-choice schools are far from home looks at whether these schools offer students stronger academic programs, diverse school activities, and other benefits. Students who are “super travelers” often can’t find schools with similar benefits closer to home.

  • Motor City Miles: Student Travel to Schools in and around Detroit
    In Detroit, the proportion of students that attend schools outside their neighborhood is one of the highest in the nation. This report analyzes the distances, travel times, and enrollment patterns for 113,806 Detroit students in the 2015–16 school year. The authors find that 75 percent of nearby high-quality schools are located outside city limits.

  • Does Pupil Transportation Close the School Quality Gap? Evidence from New York City
    This study of elementary school students in New York City examines the relationship between transportation use and school quality. Students who use the school bus or free public transit to attend a choice school attend better schools than those who don’t use transportation.

  • School Choice and Commuting: How Far New York City Students Travel to School
    New York City offers students significant school choice at all grade levels. Using geographic student and school location data, this report estimates commuting times for elementary, middle, and high school students and explores the effect of school choice on the diffusion of students across schools. Although disadvantaged students have more nearby options, they often need to travel farther to reach a “high-performing” school.



The Early Bell: When School Choice Means Crossing Town

Research Areas Education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy