A group of girls holding brand new sneakers in their hands, giggled and chatted as they walked up Cherry Avenue toward Buford Middle School on Wednesday morning.
A crossing guard held up a stream of cars, many of them waiting to drop off students, to allow the girls to cross Tenth Street SW onto the school grounds. As the girls approached school doors they were surrounded by children streaming out of cars, or arriving on foot and bicycles.
There were no school buses in sight.
The city’s pupil transportation system, which is run by Charlottesville Area Transit, is experiencing a record deficit of school bus drivers — more even than last year, which also saw record shortages. Of the 40 drivers the district needs, it has 6.
That means, 3,400 of the district’s roughly 4,300 children do not have bus seats.
Charlottesville City School officials knew early in the summer that they were not going to have enough drivers to meet their district’s bussing demands. Their solution is to encourage walking.
So far, the district has spent much of its efforts on the roughly 1,100 children who live close enough to their respective schools to walk — about 0.75 miles for elementary schools, and about 1.25 miles for Walker Upper Elementary School, Burford Middle School and Charlottesville High School.
The district has defined these areas as “family responsibility zones.” Children who live within them do not generally qualify for bus seats. Instead, officials spent the summer creating walking routes through these zones to the schools.
For instance, Tiffany Harris requested a bus seat for her daughter, who has asthma and epilepsy. The family was denied because they live too close to Buford.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Harris, as she and her daughter walked toward Buford for the first day of school Wednesday morning. Still, Harris plans to walk with her daughter every day for safety.
The new system does bring up a lot of safety issues. Many of the routes have children walking along busy streets and crossing high traffic intersections.
Areas with lots of traffic, such as the interaction on 10th and Page streets, have received numerous complaints about the lack of care some drivers have, even in the presence of pedestrians.
Shannon Cruthirds trusts her kids to get to school safely on their bikes. It’s the drivers she’s concerned about.
“There have been several times that I’ve been walking with my kids and we’ve almost been hit by cars as a family,” said Cruthirds, who is a teacher with Albemarle County Public Schools.
Cruthirds lives in the expanded “family responsibility zone” for Clark Elementary School, where her son attends. She is most concerned about the first part of her son’s walk, which involves crossing a number of intersections.
To compromise, she put her kids on bikes as a way to get to school quicker since, because of her work schedule, she is unable to follow them each way. She hopes that will be safer.
“With the city saying that they’re expanding the walking distance to school, we realized: ‘Oh crap, there’s a whole lot of places that probably need to be fixed,’” said Carl Schwarz, chair of the Charlottesville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “There are a lot more problems than we can even catalog.”
There is work happening to make the routes safer.
Over the summer, school officials identified ten new areas that seemed particularly hazardous along the new routes and hired crossing guards to be in those areas. City Schools pays crossing guards for a minimum of an hour even if they work for less, said Gurley. Crossing guards pay starts at $16 an hour.
In addition to the cross guards, CCS staff members or “trusted adults” are leading two “walking school buses,” or groups of students, to Clark and Venable elementary schools from Friendship Court and Westhaven. The district is looking to set up more.
At the same time, members of the Piedmont Mobility Alliance are working to carve out a safer walking route from Fifeville to Tonsler Park for Buford students. The current route has the elementary children walking along the busy Cherry Avenue, where cars tend to speed, Peter Krebs, community organizer for PMA.
City Schools is working with the city to add traffic signs to curb hazardous driving.
City Councilors have also discussed reducing speed limits on certain roads. Over the summer, the city also added “No Turn on Red” signs at some intersections, upgraded numerous crosswalks and added other signage.
Recently, the intersection of Rugby Avenue and Rosehill Drive was converted to a four-way stop, as set by the city. The intersection will later have signals when construction kicks off in October.
Families and community members can relay safety hazards they see, or other concerns, to the school district by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
But all that only addresses the walking needs of 1,100 of the city’s 4,300 students. Of the remaining 3,200 city students, about 900 are assigned a bus. That leaves about 2,300 students and their families on their own.
“Bus routes were chosen based on student and family need as well as distance from school,” said Amanda Korman, a spokesperson for City Schools. That means the school system was more likely to prioritize students who live farther away, or have greater need for a bus, however that did not guarantee a student got seat on a bus.
“Our child lives four miles from Buford and does not have a bus spot,” Noelle Dwyer wrote in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We are trying to arrange a carpool. This isn’t so bad for the morning, but it’s difficult after school, because school ends at 3:15, and all the parents work and generally don’t get off work until 5.
“Encouraging walking for a mile or less is wonderful, and I’m glad the schools are taking action to make walking safer for the elementary schools,” she continued. “However they don’t seem to be doing anything to help the Charlottesville High School, Walker, and Buford kids and parents who live two to five miles from their school. A lot of parents are freaking out right now.”
To help address the needs of families like the Dwyers, the school system is looking into transporting kids itself using Type A buses — a smaller bus that fits 14 passengers and does not require a Commercial Driver’s License. The city school system ordered two Type A buses, but will not receive them until March due to back orders, said Kim Powell, chief operations officer for CCS.
A handful of area organizations have offered to transport Charlottesville students. City of Promise tentatively plans to use their shuttles to take Walker Upper and CHS students who are on the bus waiting list.
“We don’t ever want our families to feel like they are doing this alone,” said Charlottesville Superintendent Royal Gurley, “or we’re just throwing this onto them.”