To Save Student MetroCards, Trim the Fat From Bloated Yellow Bus Costs


New York City’s MTA hearings wrap up tonight at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. If experience is any guide, we’ll get to watch a parade of pols harangue the MTA Board without offering much in the way of solutions for the underlying financial problems plaguing transit.

But if our elected officials really want to stick up for their constituents, maybe one of them will mention these numbers on student transportation in New York City. As Noah reported Monday, taxpayer support for student transit passes — which move nearly 600,000 NYC schoolkids — pales beside the huge outlay for yellow school buses, which transport about 150,000 students. The state and city literally spend pennies per trip on student MetroCards, while the Department of Education’s billion-dollar budget for yellow buses works out to about $19 for every student trip.

The long-term trend shows that school bus costs are, quite simply, out of control:

nyc_student_transpo_spending.jpgSources: NYC Department of Records, MTA

Remind me again — where’s all the waste and bloat in transportation spending? If New York City bent the curve of rising yellow bus costs just a bit, millions could be restored to fund student MetroCards. But the way things stand, we’re spending more tax dollars on less efficient school buses while allowing support for student transit to wither.

Noah Kazis contributed reporting to this post.

  • Fantastic graphs – you might want to put the Streetsblog logo in them to make sure you get credit. I’m sending these images to the electeds I wrote to earlier this week.

  • Good idea about the logo.

  • To me, if a student is over 10 years old or a teenager (depending on the parent), and not a special need or handicapped, then they should use public transit.

  • I agree–these graphs are dynamite!

  • vnm

    I’m sick and tired of all the bloat, waste and mismanagement related to yellow school buses!

  • I nominate that for quote of the day!

  • elementarymom

    One problem: younger kids cannot take the subway alone. For those who attend non-neighborhood schools, there is no alternative to the bus. The city has many unzoned schools that draw kids from far beyond walking distance. My 5 and 8 y.o.s are two of them…

  • ElKim

    Rather than wax on the cost of yellow bus service, it would be better to look at the marginal costs. As someone commented, kids who lives > 1 mile from a subway station, have certain mental or physical disabilities, or are under a certain age basically should not be required to use the subway as transportation. Additionally, the analysis needs to draw a straight line that shows students who could otherwise take the subway are opting for the yellow bus instead, otherwise we’re talking about two completely unrelated expenses.

  • Brilliant, important reporting. You guys have opened the door to some amazing territory.

    More fun with numbers: The 2010 yellow bus budget is 48% greater than the 2002 budget. But inflation (CPI) from 2002 to 2010 is only 22% (it was 19% to 2009, and I’ve extrapolated the 2002-2009 rate for an extra year to 2010).

    Why is the 2002-2010 rate of increase in spending on yellow buses more than double the rate of inflation?

    Slicing the same numbers differently: if the 2002-2010 bus budget increase was only at the rate of general inflation, the 2010 budget would be $832 million — a savings of $173 million from the “actual” $1005 million. Wouldn’t the “missing” $173 million make up most of the shortfall in funding student MTA passes?

  • Veritas

    There is a lot of corruption involved in the awarding of contracts for school bus services. Many of the bus companies have ties to the Mafia. I am sure this something to do with the high costs.

  • Komanoff: the MTA budget has increased far beyond the rate of inflation as well.

  • com1

    How do you expect a six year old kid who lives four miles from his school to travel? What happens if his/her parents have to arrive at work early in the morning and cannot escort their child on the subway? I support many of the ideas written about on this site, but attacking yellow school buses is ridiculous.

  • BicyclesOnly

    The point is equity and parity, not that we should take school buses away from kids. Under the current system, the state seems to promise kids a free public education, including transportation, regardless of where in the state they live (I know most yellow bus school kids don’t have a bus stop right in front of their house, but most kids, including yellos bus and NYC Transit commuters, catch their transportation a reasonable walking distance from their house).But NYS and NYC are now eliminating equity for NYC kids compared to their fellow students who use yellow buses, by making them pay for their own transportation to school. What makes it all the more galling is that the purported rationale for de-funding urban kids’ school transit–that it is too expensive–when in fact it is much cheaper per trip than other trips. The only thing that makes the urban kids’ transportation subsidy “too expensive” is that (1) transportation for lots of kids is going to a single provider, MTA, instead of lots of little bus companies, so there is a “big savings” to de-funding that one provider; and (2) MTA is a politically feasible target. As long as the state and its school districts are willing to spend $19 per yellow bus student to make good on its promise to universal access to education, how can it refuse urban kids their stdent metrocards? Basic equity says that it cannot.

  • Deacon

    The Yellow school bus problem exists here in Dallas too. I get your story is about NYC but the problem is wide spread.

    There are 2 schools about a mile from where I live, one is a middle school the other is an elementary school. Every morning and afternoon school buses leave these schools and drop the kids in front of their houses here in my sub division and those surrounding the schools. They drive down every street! That is preposterous!!!!! Since when is it not ok for kids to walk somewhere?

    @ com1: In South Africa where I grew up I used to walk 4 miles home from school every afternoon from age 9 through 13. When I went to High School it dropped to about 2 miles. Case in point I walked home virtually everyday and it didn’t hurt one bit, I actually had fun whilst doing so. Those days I did take the bus to my grandmothers, it didn’t drop me off in front of my house either, I still had to walk from the stop to get home.

    There are solutions to the problem. Get other parents involved so the kids can travel in a group and take turns to chaperone them to school.

    The yellow school buses are a drain on any budget. The numbers don’t lie, you don’t . The way systems are run screams inefficiency and waste. It’s a broken system that needs fixed.

  • Ian Turner

    When I was 9 I used to bicycle 3.5 miles to and from school. Don’t all these school bus subsidies just distort people’s transportation, housing, and education choices?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Komanoff: the MTA budget has increased far beyond the rate of inflation as well.”

    Not excluding debt in pensions it hasn’t. Not much.

    NYC is robbed twice — in the allocation of state aid for transportation, and in what it is charged for school bus services.

    Remember that showdown between the DOE and the school bus companies? How many people said “Bloomberg is right, were being ripped off and it has to stop” when the companies started dropping off kids in random places in January? Does anyone remember that now? What did the state legislators have to say?

  • JK

    Well done Streetsblog. These facts were publicly available and no one chose to report on them. Why? How can you ignore Komanoff’s question “Why is the 2002-2010 rate of increase in spending on yellow buses more than double the rate of inflation?” This is a $173 million question? Do we get a City Council hearing about something they can actually control? We have to also look at paratransit/ Access A Ride. How can it cost more than $65 per ride? Let’s provide these services. But let’s not do it in a way that bankrupts the system and crushes other transit users.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    You see Charlie, even when you point to a clear instance where the private sector is much less efficient than the public sector, even when you have good numbers to back it up, someone will point out an inefficiency in the public sector, and as we know there are many. But when there is a private sector success, only very rarely will you see someone applaud a good thing the public sector has done. Its part of the ethos and gravity of a culture of privatism.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “These facts were publicly available and no one chose to report on them. Why?”

    The “facts” that are reported on are in press releases by lobbying organizations with a financial interest in public policy. A reporter takes the press release, calls one of the usual suspects likely to provide an opposing quote, and has a “story.”

    I’ll bet it took Ben & Noah a couple of hours to collect this information. Who else would be willing to invest that time and money when there are easier and chepear alternatives?

  • Charlie — The dollars in the bar chart are already inflation-adjusted. The growth in yellow bus costs is astronomical.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The growth in yellow bus costs is astronomical.”

    Anyone want to bet $5 that at least 50% of it is as a result of soaring funding for underfunded pensions and retiree health care, not current student transportation?

    One construction worker told me that his union had put through a big enhancement for those about to retire in 2000. When, um, the projections didn’t hold up, remaining union members were forced to contribute vastly more to the funds. Once again, screw the newbie, flee to Florida.

    That construction union didn’t have access to tax dollars, so the remaining workers got screwed. But the politically powerful bus companies do have access to tax dollars, so taxapayers and public services got screwed.

  • Ben (re your #20 and my #9): Can you document that the numbers in the bar chart are indeed in 2010 dollars?

  • Noah Kazis


    The school bus numbers are from this budget [PDF]. I see $577 million as the final appopriation for FY 2002, which I then just plugged into the BLS inflation calculator to get $680 million.

    The $108 million is just $90 million in 2002 dollars, as both the state and city were contributing $45 million to student MetroCards at that point.

  • JK

    Streetsblog should note on the graphs that these dollars are constant 2010. Wow. Maybe you can also link to the spread sheet you used so council staff can look at the un inflation adjusted numbers.

  • Noah — Thanks for the page # (57E, or 64 of the pdf you linked to). The $577M in actual FY2002 dollars appears to include “special education pupils” and may also include some allowance for the free fare passes — it’s unclear from the terse text. (“Older pupils receive free fare passes to ride common carrier bus and train lines.”) To nail this down perfectly, we should separate the three components (special / yellow buses / free passes) for both 2002 and 2010 and calculate the separate increases. Dunno who’s going to do that. But the thrust of the post (and comments by me, JK, et al.) still stands.

  • Larry:

    Not excluding debt in pensions it hasn’t. Not much.

    SAS is reporting that even excluding debt, the MTA budget is $10 billion this year; in 1990 the budget was $2.9 billion, which is equivalent to $4.8 billion today.

  • Com1: the six-year-old can take a city bus or the subway. People do it all the time in Tel Aviv and Singapore.

  • Felix

    I became a stay-at-home parent in the late 90’s and spent a lot of time in Prospect Park, back when cars were allowed during the day during “winter” hours (I think). I was shocked at the constant stream of empty yellow school buses that passed through the park during the day and wondered exactly who was going where in them. Was this a result of “school choice”? Is walking to one’s neighborhood school becoming less common every year?

  • com1

    Alon Levy: I really would not want a six year old kid talking a NYC subway alone, that has disaster written all over it. I find it ironic that after that horrendous incident in which a young child was killed by a Yeshiva Bus, many people were on here commenting that the thirteen year old who was with him was not old enough to be acting his a guardian.

    Deacon: I’m not sure what the roads are like in the area you grew up in South Africa, but I would not want a young child crossing major intersections, such as Broadway, 3rd Ave, and Delancey Street alone just so he/she can avoid taking a school bus.

  • BicyclesOnly

    The age at which a kid is judged able to travel alone in NYC is going to vary, depending upon the kid, the route, the neighborhood, the conveyances used, and the parents. My 7 y/o daughter is ready to walk the five blocks from our home to school–she’s very aware of traffic and traffic rules from cycling; it’s a familiar route for her; it’s a safe neighborhood; no avenues need be crossed, and at very virtually every corner we see a crossing guard who knows us and waves hello. My son was ready to take the bus and subway alone on familiar trips when he was 10. But though he’s a pretty skilled urban cyclist, I still won’t let him bicycle alone at 12 because of the way some drivers agress against cyclists who appear vulnerable.

    Most of the parents I know let their kids walk in the city accompanied by friends by age 11 or 12. Few allow their kids on public transport alone before age 14. Many have different rules for girls vs. boys.

    Lenore Skenazy built a career out of letting her kid ride the subway alone at 8, but when you read the details of that celebrated trip, you see that it was a simple, direct safe ride.

    It’s all in the details.

  • Com1:

    I really would not want a six year old kid talking a NYC subway alone, that has disaster written all over it.

    No more than on buses and subways in the rest of the world, surely.

  • com1

    Tel Aviv and Singapore have significantly lower crime rates than NYC. In fact, SIngapore is one of the safest places in the world: according to Wiki, the entire city, which has 5 million people, only recorded 8 homicides. That is a murder rate approximately 40 times lower than New York’s. Also, Singapore has probably the best government-run agencies in the world and thus their subway system has a lot fewer problems.

  • com1

    To clarify, Singapore had 8 murders in 2007.

  • I don’t know what Tel Aviv’s murder rate is, but Israel’s ranged from one third to one half New York City’s. And the overall crime rate may not be lower: the US has a higher murder rate than what you’d guess based on its other crime rates. An OECD-wide crime survey found that the US crime rate is in the middle of the pack of the developed world; meanwhile, murder is at the top.

    Singapore may have a well-run government, but Israel does not. People in Israel pine for American efficiency.

  • com1

    Rate of Robbery:
    New York: 231 per 100,000 (It’s this high despite the fact that the majority of NYC robberies go unreported to authorities.)

    Israel: 30.6 per 100,000 (According to Wiki.)

  • You’re citing reported rates. Reporting rates are higher in the US than in other developed countries (though I don’t have specific data for Israel). In the US, the majority of robberies are reported, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Comparable crime surveys in other countries peg the reporting rates at much lower. For what it’s worth, the two highest-crime OECD countries are the UK and Australia.

  • BicyclesOnly

    The issue of whether NYC is too dangerous to allow kids to travel to school independently is way off point from the post.

    But since we’re there, I think it’s very questionable to do these cross-cultural crime rate comparisons. Is every jursidiction counting the same thing, i.e., are all arrests counted, or just convictions? How do you control for different levels of enforcement, reporting, rights of accused across crimninal justice systems? Do Singapore or Israel treat certain crimes as “family” matters that are handled by religious tribunals and don’t get picked up in the broader criminal justice stats?

  • The standard statistics are based on reports filed with the police, not on arrests or convictions. Issues of the rights of the accused can affect reporting rates (e.g. of rape – in the US, reporting rates have gone up from 20% to 40% in the last 40 years) and that’s why they have crime surveys, but there aren’t that many good surveys around.

    All developed countries and most developing countries have completely secular criminal codes. Israel is unique in having a religious family law, but crime is crime there just like anywhere else. Singapore has a secular government, where religion is treated as an ethnic quirk, not a basis of law. But while we’re at it, to my knowledge even in such countries as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, murder statistics include honor crimes.

  • Quïnn Hue

    If according to this, the cost of funding my (I’m a student) transportation is 120$, please allow me to pay slightly more for more privileges when riding the subway. 240$ for unlimited use of the MTA NYCT system for one year would be worth every penny and I would pay for it. However I believe the figure’s authenticity is in doubt.

  • TGO

    If this includes special eduction transportation then the graph and the article adjoining it are absolutely worthless. Children with extreme physical handicaps require significant expenditures to get them to school, so that would inflate the cost per pupil dramatically. I agree with a premise, not included in the article, that children who are zoned for a specific school should either attend that school or be required to provide for their own transport. Unfortunately, most of the schools that non-special needs children are bused to are within the specific school district (come to think of it, it may be all children), which probably wouldn’t lend itself to using public transport in all that many cases. That is, most distances and locations between school children and schools within their district (but not their zoned school) are in the range of under a mile, which may or may not be near a regular MTA bus.

    In other words, get your facts straight.

  • ajedrez

    There are some things that have been mentioned that show how the cost escalates to $19 per person for yellow school bus service as opposed to $0.33 per person for public transportation.
    First off, although I calculated that it would cost about $700 per year for a student to use the local bus/subway to and from school every day, the Department of Education gets about 585,000 MetroCards for only $70 million. That breaks down to a yearly pass for close to $120 per student. Basically, the DOE is guarenteeing that over half a million kids will be using the transportation system, so they get the bulk rides at slightly less than 1/5 th of the regular price.
    Second, there are certain classes of children that must be taken by school bus. Although on the NYCDOE website, it says that it offers Student MetroCards to children in grades K-2, most of those students get on a yellow school bus. Below 6th grade, most students receive yellow bus service, that pretty much can’t be cut. I’m sure we remember the outrage in January of 2007, when they eliminated a large number of yellow bus routes, and gave kindergarden kids MetroCards. For disabled/special education kids, it is the same situation, where they must provide yellow buses to them, often right to their house, which adds to the cost.
    The only thing left is to cut routes that bring kids ridiculously long distances. For example, there was a story of a child who lived in Staten Island, yet the DOE had a minibus pick him up, with him being the only person on the bus. I don’t know if the policy that the child’s school must be in the same borough as the child was instituted after that.
    At my former middle school (I’m now in high school and receive a Student MetroCard), the school was allowed to keep its yellow school buses (the DOE policy was to allow kids in 6th grade to ride yellow buses, so instead of running buses that barely met the threshold for running the bus service, they allowed 7th and 8th graders on the bus.
    Another issue was that the ”zone” was broken down into 2 parts: since the school was on Staten Island, New Springville, Heartland Village, Willowbrook, Bulls Head, Travis and southern Graniteville were zoned for I.S.72, but Arlington and northwestern Mariners’ Harbor were also zoned for I.S.72, even though they were clearly closer to I.S.51. Therefore, they had to run yellow school buses out to the areas that were far away, since they couldn’t reasonably say that a child’s zoned school was a 40 minute bus ride away.
    The solution is to try and combine lesser-used yellow bus routes into one route. The buses shouldn’t really be going out of the neighborhood, so combining them shouldn’t be that hard. This might cause protests, but if it meant saving Student MetroCards, it would definitely be the lesser of 2 evils. Though maybe the DOE is content to let the MTA take the blame.
    Whatever the case is, in my opinion, the agencies should work together to maintain the city. If the MTA can keep crime and dropout rates low, even though it isn’t in their jurisdiction, they should do it. If every agency cared for themselves, the MTA wouldn’t be running any service and the city would just die because of lack of public transportation. The same way that if the MTA doesn’t figure out a way to save Student MetroCards, if the DOE can’t, the city would be a much worse place.


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