College study sheds light on WPS transportation

It’s a Monday morning, around 8:15am, and traffic backs all the way down State Street, adding an extra ten minutes to the commute to the high school.  Come afternoon, the traffic on Weston Road extends from Fells Market all the way to Central Street with the cars of parents picking up their elementary, middle and high school students.  The issue of transporting local students to school in Wellesley clearly precipitates havoc for the community as a whole.  Luckily, a group of local college students proposed some solutions to this problem in a study completed and published this spring.

The college students at hand were a collaborative group from Olin College of Engineering, Babson College and Wellesley College, working together as part of a joint course entitled Sustainability Synthesis.  The group was tasked with applying their knowledge of sustainability to a problem facing a specific community under Professor Monica Higgins of Wellesley College and included David Elkan, Elizabeth Mahon, David Pudlo, and David Zhu of Olin and Chloe Williamson and Rita Mary Hennigan of Wellesley. This being the colleges’ third collaboration through the program, the participating students opted to focus their studies on and develop recommendations concerning transportation within Wellesley Public Schools.

The group’s studies centered on responses from 1,273 families to a survey on school transportation distributed across the district in March. Their findings showed that the primary mode of transportation for elementary school students was driving, with 40% of students riding in cars alone, followed by walking at 24% of students while carpooling was at a mere 16% and riding the bus at 12%. The results were far different for middle schoolers, showing that 43% of students take the bus to school while only 22% drive and 16% carpool as a slim 10% of students walk. The high school’s statistics followed the visible norm, with an overwhelming 46% of students driving to school and 17% carpooling while 21% ride the bus and only 9% walk.

According to the report, between the district’s different schools, there are 4,663 cars dropping off and picking up students each day. Without taking bus transportation into account, that amounts to 1098.68 tons of CO2 emissions annually. The report cites said estimate as an optimistic one, excluding the emissions that come from idling.

To address the overuse of private vehicle transportation to and from school, the research group put forth a number of suggestions.  Among other strategies, the report suggests that the district embrace the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) on each bus to make bus location and schedule more accessible to users in real time.  Also to increase busing in the school system, the report put forth the concept of one-way bus passes, allowing for students taking part in after-school activities to ride the bus in the morning without financial loss.

The report goes on to encourage the creation of a ride share system for students and parents throughout the district that would allow for easier carpool organization.  The program would potentially take the form of a mobile phone application or social media-based tool and would be administered by district officials.  The Wellesley High School Green Team stated that they intend to explore and develop this idea as a primary focus during the 2015-16 academic year.

The final recommendation that the report makes focuses on increasing the use of bicycles as a mode of transportation to and from school.  Two specific possibilities for promoting this method emerge in the report: Wellesley Public Schools could invest in an affordable set of bicycles to use in physical education courses to increase awareness of the option, and parents could ride with their elementary and middle school students to school just as they would drive them.

The findings of the report were presented to district officials in the late spring.  Student groups, including the Wellesley High School Green Team, have already begun to dive deeper into the issues touched upon in the report.  Exact actions by the School Department are expected to be discussed this academic year.

(Matthew Hornung and Olivia Gieger)

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