The U.S. School Transportation System is Massive

Last Updated: January 27, 2012

This article appeared in the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Every school day morning 26 million public school students climb aboard 480,000 school buses that haul them more than 12 million bus miles to school. They reverse the process at the close of school. That is 52 million student bus rides a day, not including about five million more student bus rides for extracurricular activities every day.

In school year 2007–08, this massive transportation system cost more than $21.5 billion, about $866 per transported student.

Busing students to and from school at public expense began in the early 1920’s when motorized transport made it possible to assemble more students over larger areas. By paying for transportation, public officials hoped to lower rural voter resistance to school consolidation. Forty-five states passed in tandem laws that authorized school districts to consolidate and to pay for student transportation.

By 1929–30, nearly two million students, about nine percent, were riding the buses at a cost of about $29 per transported student (or $361 in inflation adjusted 2008 dollars).

The percentage of students riding the bus grew steadily until it peaked in the mid-1980s at 61 percent. Real cost per student had doubled however, to $564 per transported student.

The number riding the bus continued to increase after the mid-1980s, but far more slowly than the total number of students. By 2007–08 the percentage riding had dropped back to 54 percent, but the cost per transported student had ballooned to $866 (in 2008 dollars).

Transportation expenditures soak up a larger share of rural school budgets than schools in other locales. In non-rural areas schools spend from 3.8 to 4.8 percent of total expenditures on busing. In rural areas, it is 5.5 percent. West Virginia, one of the most rural states, led the nation spending 7.5 percent of its education dollar on student transportation in 2006–07, the last year for which state level data are available nationwide.

Read more from the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.