Analyzing School Traffic Circulation

School has been in full swing for some time now and, if you have kids, you likely have your morning and afternoon routines set. Depending upon their age and your specific circumstances, they may take the bus, drive themselves, get dropped-off/picked-up by you, or walk/bike. With all these modes of travel converging on the school in a short window of time (most parents will drop-off or pick-up within about 20 minutes of the start and end times), school operations can be frustrating.

Our first advice to those parents driving their kids is to slow down and take your time. Everyone is trying to accomplish the same goal. Using horns, cutting into the queue, and other disruptive driving behaviors do not improve the situation. Of course, it’s very easy and cavalier for me to say that typing at keyboard.

But beyond that simple advice, we have also had the opportunity to work with several schools (public and private as well as all age groups) in improving circulation for everyone. Here’s our quick procedure to follow in those situations:

Gather Existing Data.  This includes counts and observations. It’s very important for you to see firsthand that busy morning and afternoon peak periods to understand the current traffic flow. The key questions that you should answer are:

+ How does the parking lot function for buses, parents, and students, both driving and walking?

+ What routes are used when walking or bicycling to the school?

+ What is the traffic control at the school accesses to the public road(s) and for any internal intersections?

+ How are the sight lines for drivers at the access points, within the parking area, and through the drop-off/pick-up area?

+ Are there any special circumstances (nearby railroad tracks, adjacent parking lots used by parents for drop-offs/pick-ups, lack of sidewalks or marked road crossings, etc.)

Understand the Root Cause.  This is where the observations pay off in understanding the real concerns. Queuing may be a symptom of inefficient signal timing. Internal congestion may be the result of overlapping travel modes (i.e. lots of pedestrian crossings in front of the parent pick-up/drop-off area). After identifying the problem, determining the ‘why’ it’s a problem can naturally lead to potential solutions.

Develop Potential Solutions.  A short blog cannot possibly go through all the potential options that could be considered for school operations. However, here’s a quick list of general concepts we adhere to

+ Separate the modes of travel. Ideally, bus traffic is separate from staff parking areas is separate from parent drop-off/pick-up is separate from student walking/bicycling routes. The ideal is almost never possible, but look to minimize those conflict areas.

+ Control drop-offs/pick-ups. These operations can occur smoothly with assistance from school staff and/or volunteers to help students quickly out of or into the cars and have the cars move in groups. This should also include physical barriers, such as one-way operations and raised curbing, to prevent queue jumping.

+ Slow traffic. This could include having a route with turns to naturally slow traffic or using items like bump-outs (reducing crossing distances too) or speed humps. While speed humps or tables are effective, be sure to consider the other impacts like snow plowing in evaluating them.

+ Use proper signing and pavement markings. Ensure signing and striping follows the latest information from the MUTCD.

+ Increase student visibility. This includes ensuring good sightlines for drivers to see sidewalks, trails, and crossing areas. Drivers should have sufficient time to recognize a student, whether at a crossing or if they wonder into the driving area from the sidewalk, and stop. Vegetation should be trimmed or relocated if presenting a sight distance issue.

+ Set expectations. The school should have their arrival and departure procedures on their website at a minimum. Ideally, parents and students would be sent this information at the beginning of the year with a reminder in January after winter break.

Separate Short- and Long-Term Solutions. It’s easy to reconstruct parking areas, revise traffic flow, and add trails on paper. But these things cost money, which schools and school districts are usually in short supply of. Try to get low-hanging fruit to improve the operations now while allowing the school and school district to plan for other upgrades.

Coordinate with School and City Officials. Don’t wait to the end of the project, this should be done throughout the project. We would recommend at least three meetings. The first after gathering existing data to discuss your observations and understanding of the situation. You also need to listen during this meeting as they will have lots more background on operations as well as knowledge of things that may have been tried in the past. A second meeting to discuss preliminary solutions you have developed. This is their time to provide input on the feasibility of the options (moving the front doors may be a great idea to help separate movements, but not practical). The third meeting should present the refined solutions and final report.

Want to learn more? Checkout 7 Parts of an Effective School Traffic Safety Plan.


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