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Crowded School Buses, Long Drop-Off Lines Lead Parents To Seek Alternatives

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Cars line up waiting to pick up their kids Providence Middle School in Chesterfield County. Families were asked by the Superintendent to drive their kids to and from school due to a bus driver shortage. (Photo: Crixell Mathews/VPM News) 
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On Tuesday, families lined up to pick up their children. Once on school grounds, cars had to snake around the parking lot before getting to the front door. For some drivers, the process took almost 40 minutes. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
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With a shortage of school bus drivers in Chesterfield County and long lines of cars queuing up to drop off students, many parents are considering alternative ways to get their kids to school. But for some, walking or biking aren’t an option. 

Rebecca Lightle would love to walk her two kids to Robious Middle School -- it’s less than a mile away -- but there are major roadblocks.

“The path from my house to the school, despite being very, very short, is just not one you’d ever expect to see people walking,” she said.

That’s because in between her home and her kid’s school is West Huguenot Road, a four lane thoroughfare with no crosswalks or sidewalks. It’s a heavily traveled road that saw 32,000 cars daily in 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. 

“There’s no pedestrian infrastructure whatsoever -- certainly no crosswalks, definitely no sidewalks. I’m not even sure the lights are really timed with no left turn arrows to really allow a pedestrian to cross,” she said.

Even if she and her kids did get across, the Polo Parkway shopping center also stands in their way. Lightle says that even though there are some multi-family homes behind that center, there aren’t any sidewalks to complete the trek to school. 

“And unfortunately the cars... they really just drive too fast for us to fake it,” she says. “I do feel like us pedestrians should have the same rights to the roads as drivers do.”

But in other parts of Chesterfield, families are discovering new options. Carrie Hawes found a walking trail near her subdivision that she and her first grader are able to use.

“It was so much easier, so much less stressful and kind of gave us a chance to have some quality time together that we will walk the remainder of the year,” she says.

Hawes says they were slated to ride the bus, but after hearing about all of the issues -- not enough bus drivers, crowded buses during an uptick in COVID-19 case numbers and potential long lines at parent drop-off sites -- they chose to walk even though her son protested at first.

“He was not so happy about the idea of walking because he said it was really hot out,” Hawes said.. “And I had to remind him that the temperature will change. We also explained to him that he got home within 15 minutes, where other people were still waiting for a bus. And he thought the idea of getting home and playing was far more enticing than sitting on a bus.” 

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Providence Middle School Principal M.J. Rodney helps direct traffic during parent pick up. (Photo: Crixell Mathews/VPM News)

Safe Routes to Schools

Tara Fitzpatrick is the Richmond coordinator for Safe Routes to Schools, a national organization that encourages walking and biking. 

She says if kids can’t walk or bike to school, then riding a bus -- preferably an electric one to cut down on emissions -- is better than a long parent drop-off or pick up line. 

“We need to remind the community that you’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic,” Fitzpatrick said. 

She says for those who can’t walk or bike, or don’t want to take the bus due to driver shortages or COVID-19, then there’s another option.

“Maybe that's where you can talk to your community about doubling up, carpooling. Windows down, masks on, kids in the car and trying to work together as a community,” she said.

In some areas, Fitzpatrick says, she’s helped develop what’s called a “walkable bus,” which is when a group of parents, or one parent, walks a group of kids to school. She adds parents can take turns being the driver, so to speak.

Fitzpatricks says she works with school administrators, city officials and PTA organizations to help find ways  to safely get kids to school on foot or by bike. This includes working with crossing guards, helping to improve crosswalks and looking at car crash data in areas where it may not be feasible to walk. Through some of these efforts, all Richmond Public Schools will have high-quality bike racks installed this year.

In 2019, the last time schools were able to sign up for the individual National Bike and Walk to School days with Safe Routes, more than 30 Richmond schools participated. In Chesterfield, 22 schools took part. 

Chesterfield County officials are aware of the infrastructure issues facing school-bound pedestrians. At Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, they will consider awarding contracts to build trails that would connect neighborhoods to  Swift Creek and Carver middle schools as well as Clover Hill High School.