First major survey of elementary school student commutes shows parents mostly drive

For decades, San Francisco city leaders had little idea how the youngest students got to school — until now.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority released a first-of-its-kind survey this week, detailing the commutes of The City’s 45,000 kids who attend public or private elementary schools in San Francisco.

Perhaps most significantly, the study found more than half of parents surveyed drive their kids to school most days — a far cry from the commute of adults, who drive less.

“The beauty of the study is there hasn’t been this comprehensive data in the past,” said Supervisor Katy Tang, a SFCTA commissioner, at a Tuesday commission meeting where the report was revealed.

The survey was requested by Tang and the Mayor’s Office, and conducted by Fall Line Analytics in conjunction with the transportation authority. More than 1,700 parents across the San Francisco Unified School District, private schools and other schools in The City were surveyed in English, Spanish and Chinese.

The survey found 56.5 percent of students in kindergarten through fifth grade are driven by a parent or caregiver to school. About 14 percent take public transit, like Muni and BART; 8 percent carpool with other families; 7.8 percent walk; 7.6 percent take another bus (like a yellow school bus); and only 0.1 percent take taxis, Lyft or Uber.

Those numbers show kids are far more car-reliant than adults who travel on their own — where San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency data shows 25 percent of commuters take transit, 23 percent walk, 27 percent drive alone and 21 percent carpool.

When including the number of students picked up from some form of after-school program, the number of students being driven by family or a caregiver jumped to 70 percent.

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“Aftercare … is an issue for working parents,” said Joe Castiglione, deputy director for technology, data and analysis at the SFCTA.

Students who live in the west and south sides of The City were more likely to be driven, with 65 percent of Sunset District parents, for instance, driving students to school.

And while those cars have a tiny impact on citywide congestion, they may contribute heavily to localized traffic congestion around schools, according to the report.

Even more troubling, the lack of transportation options may curtail kids’ ability to attend after school activities, Castiglione said.

About 20 percent of respondents had a four-mile or longer school commute, which the report identified as a “challenge” for parents.

Tang told the San Francisco Examiner that one way to tackle a lack of student transportation may be by creating a student shuttle system, something she said The City will research.

Though Tang expressly said in the meeting that “this is not, ‘Hey let’s bring back the yellow school buses,’” parents have expressed interest in a government-run, or sponsored, shuttle program — though parents reportedly weren’t interested in an exclusively private solution.

“Believe it or not, Uber and Lyft were not really the top of the list for parents,” Tang said.

The report suggests offering a shuttle service in a “select geographic area on a pilot basis,” which may require another study. Some models across the U.S. require parents to pay for shuttles, the report notes.

Castiglione said that carpooling using apps may be a viable solution, though current carpool apps don’t have a “critical mass” of users to make them useful.

The SFUSD provided well over 200 buses in the 1970s, according to Heidi Anderson, a district spokesperson.

Those numbers declined in following decades, down to 100 buses in the 1980s and 60 buses in the 1990s.

By 2010, the SFUSD made cuts due to the recession and now serves some 2,000 general education students with a fleet of 25 buses, Anderson said.

Tang along with supervisors Mark Farrell and London Breed, who all serve on the SFCTA board, were raised in San Francisco.

“I think it’s really sad that when I was growing up in San Francisco, we walked to school together, with other kids,” Breed said during the meeting. “People would walk up to my window, and holler out my name and we walked together and walked across the street.”

Breed lambasted the current SFUSD school assignment model, which gives priority to pick a school to families living in neighborhoods with the lowest test scores rather than families that live in the same neighborhoods as a school.

The average commute distance between home and school would be curtailed by at least a mile under a neighborhood-based assignment system, according to an SFUSD analysis on K-5 school assignments presented to the Board of Education last week.

“Because our system is screwed up, we have to come up with a whole ’nother transportation solution,” she said.

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