Hidden cost of sprawl: Getting to school

The cost of getting to school

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Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences. As Americans have flocked to the suburbs for the lower cost of living, the cost of sending their kids to school has gone up. Where most kids used to walk to school—myself included—nowadays many simply live too far away. While some students get rides from their parents, many are left to take the bus, an option that is funded by districts. But as kids travel farther to get to school, the costs for busing them have also gone up.

Fully 56 percent of people living in metropolitan areas in 1950 resided in their region’s big city (or cities). By 2000, that proportion had dropped to 32 percent. At the same time, the cost of sending kids to school has increased from $289 per student to $737 per student.¹ It might be tempting to blame gas and diesel prices, but they aren’t responsible—they’ve remained largely constant over that time period when adjusted for inflation (except for the energy crisis in the 1970s). Yet the trend in student transportation costs has risen unabated. Though the outlay may not seem significant, it is money that would be spent more effectively in the classroom.

  1. All costs are inflation adjusted to 2007 dollars.


Boustan, Leah Platt, and Allison Shertzer. 2010. Demography and Population Loss from Central Cities, 1950-2000. California Center for Population Research Working Paper PWP-CCPR-2010-19. Available online.

U.S. Department of Education. 2009. Digest of Education Statistics. Table 147.

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  1. Two other factors that may be contributing to rising transportation costs: the trend toward larger schools and residential segregation. More students need to travel more miles to a 1,000-student elementary school (standard in my area) than they would to three 350-student schools (the norm 50 years ago). The trend has been toward mega-sized middle and high schools as well. The desire (or court mandate) for racial and socio-economic balance in schools since the 1960s and 70s means that many children endure long bus rides to distant schools rather than attend the schools closest to their homes. Encouraging residential diversity would be a win-win. A third, smaller factor is increased school choice: magnet and charter schools across town offer programs drawing people away from their neighborhood schools.

    I also wonder about the externalized costs–all the parents driving kids to school. Where I live, it is the norm. I bet in 1950 it was the rare exception. So the true costs of transportation (public and private) are really much higher than shown in the graph.

    1. Those are good points, Nancy. School consolidation is definitely an issue, and one that displaces one cost (administration) with another (transportation). Busing programs could be another source, but from what I found, most busing programs ended in the 1980s (if they made it that long). And though the graph doesn’t show it, data from the U.S. Department of Education website shows transportation costs increased again for 2000-2007 to $737.58 per student. That’s the single largest inflation-adjusted increase since records were kept. (Sadly, I couldn’t yet find data on the city/suburb population ratio for the last decade. Hopefully it will become available as the new census data comes out.)

  2. In our part of Canada, most urban schools are within walking distance, but parents drive their children to school anyhow. A lazy lifestyle, paranoia about safety, two working parents – whatever the reason, the car is King!

  3. I, too, wonder about the costs of all the parents driving to school. Few of my town’s schools are near high traffic areas, yet most parents I questioned about this mentioned traffic around the school as their reason for doing so. There was traffic around the school; most of it caused by these same parents dropping off their kids.

    None could tell me how much of their taxes went to bus service.