It sure would be easier if everyone walked to school. But that isn't exactly a realistic possibility.  Image by MoBikeFed licensed under Creative Commons.

Dropping off and picking up kids from school can entail navigating a messy labyrinth of parked and moving cars, running kids, bicyclists, and opening car doors. To alleviate the chaos, some schools have implemented strict drop-off policies or worked to promote walking and bicycling. Not all of those solutions works everywhere, though, and as schools work to find solutions, many are dealing with increasing numbers of parents who drive their children to school.

Steve Glazerman kicked off a discussion among GGWash contributors with this email:

City schools that draw students from all over the city have a lot of kids dropped off and picked up by parents in cars. I feel like there are schools that have figured out how to do this well and others that have such utter chaos that tragedy is pretty much waiting to happen.

Meridian Public Charter School is a good example of the chaos category. Any bike commuters (or car commuters) who use 13th street between Florida and U Street know what I'm talking about. Last week I witnessed a cyclist hit by a car in the blender that serves as the de facto drop-off area for the school. This is an area where parents double and triple park their cars, forcing cyclists to choose a head-on travel lane or a scary path where doors can open on either side of you and small children dart in and out. In this case, the bicycle with rider bounced off the car, the rider screamed in terror, but kept going unharmed. The next time it will be a serious injury or a child will be hurt.

Also, residents are routinely blocked in by parents who leave their cars parked in the travel lane. Other times this double and triple parking occurs while the curbside spaces are empty. Parents just don't want to parallel park. If a resident parks in these curbside spaces they will be ticketed.

Here's what Steve is talking about:

In contrast to the Meridian example, there is Yu Ying Charter School on Taylor Street NE, just north of Catholic University. There, parents aren’t allowed to stop in front of the building, but instead have to line up along 2nd Street NE, where parking isn’t allowed during morning rush hour. About 15 cars can fit there with about five parents dropping kids off at a time-- overflow cars line up on Taylor Street, but through traffic passing isn’t as much of a danger since kids aren’t actually getting in and out there. A few faculty stay on hand to help throughout the morning, and there are also separate bus and carpool dropoffs.

At Yu Ying, kids get dropped off along 2nd Street, where there's less traffic, parking isn't allowed during rush hour, and school faculty help kids get in and out.  Image by Google Maps.

But, says Steve Seelig, “I'd be careful though to see Yu Ying as a panacea.  There is still some bad behavior from drivers, and bike access is not a picnic either, as cars are prioritized over cyclists.”

It’d be great if fewer parents drove their kids to school. But that’s easier some places than others.

Contributor Bryan Barnett-Woods reflected that simply encouraging walking or biking, for those who can, could have significant impacts on the number cars present during drop-off/ pick-up:

In Virginia, there is a Safe Routes to School program that encourages walking/bicycling to school, and one of the "selling points" for schools (outside of the obvious health, fun, more parent/ teacher engagement factors) is that a small reduction in the number of vehicles at pick-up/drop-off can have a proportionately larger impact on traffic reduction.

[But] it is difficult to make this switch because it relies on a mindset shift that isn't easily changed.

Carolyn Gallaher says walking to and from schools isn’t always safe and it may require more than just changing your mindframe:

Speaking from the suburban perspective: I’d love to walk my son to school, but it is over a mile away from my house and requires crossing a very busy highway (University Boulevard). And, the main crosswalk is at an intersection so there are always cars turning into the crosswalk.  And also, the light is short-timed for the side street turning onto university, so people are always trying to “make the light”—i.e. gunning it through the intersection.

So, I’d caution that it is not just mindset.  I don’t want to put my kid (and me) in danger every morning.

Related to what Carolyn said, some fixes to the drop-off chaos aren’t just cosmetic in places where traffic volume is high. Extra crossing guards, a sophisticated system for arriving parents, and even a school initiative to get more people to walk, bike, or take public transport may not be enough for schools on the busiest streets.

What if you change how the streets around a school function?

Significant structural changes may be needed to manage hectic school drop-off zones. Steve Glazerman elaborated on one such fix, but emphasized that it wouldn’t work without cooperation from parents:

When Meridian opened at their current location, the city took offline nearly a whole block worth of curbside parking (one side of 13th and half of V street) for the school to use during the pickup and drop-off hours of every day. Residents like me who have a car and no off-street parking options were sort of screwed, but we recognized it was necessary.

The frustrating thing is that they have a whole curbside-parking lane but they don't use it because parents prefer to treat the travel lanes of 13th Street as a parking lot and don't want to bother parallel parking.

The general trend is that most schools in urban areas are having these problems. Cheryl Cort hinted at a deeper, more persistent issue:  

Definitely a big problem since scattered non-neighborhood charter schools with limited resources are inventing protocols as they go along.

For schools that only have a frontage on a busy street to rely on for curbside access, drop-off and pick up are a big challenge. Is it possible to reserve more of the curbside for loading and unloading? It is hard when parents must park and go inside and collect their kids.

At some schools, parents park legally in surrounding neighborhoods where there's plenty of space, and in front where there's a long frontage for the school and a park. For highly urban neighborhoods, this is probably much more challenging. Are there protocols for these conditions that can be created that we can get parents to follow so we can tackle the safety issues you raise?

School choice means more driving to school

Drop-off logistics are clearly important, but the problem’s scope has only recently expanded-- in other words, it’s not something schools have had that much time to think about.

Since the mid 2000s, enrollment at both charter and traditional schools is up (charters had 44 percent of citywide enrollment in 2014), and with more parents entering the school lottery every year more students are attending schools outside of their neighborhoods. That often means walking or biking isn't feasible (especially for elementary school kids who may not be old enough to walk, bike, or take public transportation), so more parents are driving.

In other words, said Steve Glazerman, “school choice does naturally lead to longer commutes, all things equal, at least in the short run. The idea is that parents get to trade off distance with other school attributes like academic quality or special programs.”

Steve actually did a recent study on school choice, and his findings helped lead to this graph, which is based on data from everyone who applied to DC’s public school lottery in 2014:

Image by Steve Glazerman and Dallas Dotter used with permission.

"School choice,” said Steve, “both charters and open enrollment, more than double the average commute distance for these families, probably pushing a lot across the mode choice threshold from walking to car/bus/train.”

But while school choice may be adding to the number of commuters on the road,  Julie Lawson pointed out that all schools in urban areas face the challenge of drop-off logistics:

We have no-parking-during-school-hours on two blocks’ worth of street next to the school, where parents can drop-off. We also have a lot of buses because we have a large special needs population. Three quarters of the student body is in bounds so most kids walk. We have the space, so it runs pretty smoothly, if you ignore the drivers speeding and ignoring stop signs.

That said, there are two  daycares on 3rd and Sheridan as well, plus the busy bike lanes on 3rd. THAT is a disaster. I hate going by there on bike or in the car because of everyone double parking or getting in or out of traffic randomly.

So, even beyond the public/charter/neighborhood school issue, the problem exists across the childcare spectrum.

What solutions might you suggest to alleviate the drop-off chaos?

Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.