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Traffic Nightmares During Schools' Arrival, Dismissal

FCPS, Fairfax County addressing overcrowded car lines at schools.

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Traffic Nightmares During Schools' Arrival, Dismissal

FCPS, Fairfax County addressing overcrowded car lines at schools

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The congestion outside Fairfax County schools has officials looking for federal help to shorten the lines.

School Superintendent Jack Dale and County Executive Anthony Griffin want kids in school, they just take different approaches on how they should get there.

Both agree the long lines outside Fairfax schools have to shorten. While Griffin eyes infrastructure and design plans to solve the problem, Dale thinks it's first about changing minds.

"We need help to convince parents and kids to ride the bus or walk or ride a bike to school," said Dean Tisdadt, FCPS chief operating officer and head of facilities and transportation services.

Tisdadt spoke at the Superintendent Parent Advisory Council meeting Tuesday about the need to solve the problem in the Kiss and Ride lines before and after school. "We know some of the bus rides are too long. And we had too many logistical problems with bus runs this year."

Traffic at Hayfield Elementary School got so bad, for example, the school closes the car line at 8:02 a.m. after which parents must park and walk their children into school. At Bull Run Elementary School, the car line climbs to 200 some mornings.

In Reston, the line at Sunrise Valley Elementary School is particularly bad, and cars must travel past the school and make a U-turn just to enter the parking lot. That backs up traffic in both directions on the narrow, residential side streets close to the school.s

Tisdadt also acknowledged some parents have legitimate reasons for driving their kids, including crowded conditions and a ban against bringing musical instruments on a bus.

But that does not account for all the people at Kiss and Ride, he argues.

Griffin wrote to Dale in March to discuss how the school system and the county can improve their partnership, particularly around applying for federal funds from the Safe Route to Schools (SRTS) program.

The letter outlined how the county and schools worked on encouraging SRTS grant proposals and other efforts to get more kids on the bus or path. Griffin asked Dale to "direct FCPS 'from the top down' to make the SRTS Program a FCPS priority."

SRTS programs enable community leaders, schools and parents to improve safety and encourage more children, including children with disabilities, to safely walk and bicycle to school.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for administering the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program in Virginia. "The program is designed to facilitate the development of partnerships among schools and local governments for the planning and implementation of successful SRTS initiatives," according to the SRTS website.

Fairfax County — the state's largest school district — has netted about $10,000 of the $14 million available to schools through SRTS in Virginia. Areas like Alexandria and Virginia Beach have received around $1 million each in grant money in the past.

Fairfax schools with a history of involvement with SRTS programs include Louise Archer, Marshall Road, Cunningham Park, Vienna, Wolftrap, Flint Hill and Lynbrook elementary schools. Terra Centre Elementary School put in an infrastructure application March 25 and Spring Hill Elementary School is involved with the transportation department on a possible sidewalk infrastructure project.

Griffin's letter also acknowledged the Board of Supervisors' willingness to direct Department of Transportation to help with "transportation analysis, grant preparation, walkway project design, land acquisition, and construction."

But in an April 7 letter to Griffin, Dale said emphasis should be made on changing parents' attitudes about driving their children to school so sidewalks and other construction projects would not go to waste.

"Parental and student behaviors remain an obstacle to this goal," Dale said.

Dale's letter included results from a 2008 online parent survey on Kiss and Ride to show the unwillingness among parents to have their children ride the bus or walk to school:

  • 60 percent of designated walkers and 39 percent of designated bus riders were driven to school.
  • Of the designated walkers, almost 30 percent said they will continue to use Kiss and Ride even if safety improvements are made.
  • Some reasons listed for why Kiss and Ride will continue: heavy backpacks, convenience, inclement weather and letting the kids sleep later.

When asked what would be required to consider getting their kids back on the bus, 61 percent did not choose one of the available responses, leading the school system to conclude there is nothing the schools could do to convince parents not to use Kiss and Ride.

"We can't even get the current [designated] walkers out of cars," Tistadt said.  "We don't want to build trails to nowhere."

Tistadt and Dale are hoping to build a community dialogue about getting parents and kids to change.

"We know we won't eliminate the Kiss and Ride lines but we have to reduce them," Tistadt said. "And it has to happen community by community."

Bruce Wright, chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling and a strong SRTS proponent, said he is glad both the county and FCPS seem to be taking a serious look at SRTS as a solution to the car line problem.

Wright hopes that more schools will get involved and existing programs will expand and improve, as many are not active.

"We've made some progress in developing programs but there is so much more that could be done, " Wright said.

As Griffin and Dale work out whether building sidewalks or raising awareness is the solution, Wright thinks both are necessary and is especially encouraged by Dale's emphasis on changing attitudes.

"We are paying for the bus seats that are sitting empty," Wright said.

Melissa Hammond Gifford April 30, 2011 at 09:41 PM
My kids are occasional users of kiss & ride (e.g., when they need to transport special projects or a large musical instrument), but usually ride the bus to and from Sunrise Valley and Langston Hughes. In my opinion, long lines and unsafe conditions could be helped by drivers following established procedures and traffic signs and laws. Unfortunately, I rarely use kiss & ride without seeing someone parked in a no parking zone, making an illegal u-turn or turn, or stopping short of the designated drop off/pick up area and causing traffic to back up on the street - especially at SVES. I'm afraid someone is going to get hurt!
Tammy Klinefelter Bane May 01, 2011 at 03:37 AM
I agree with Melissa, but have found that some schools do a much better job at providing staff to help move the Kiss and Ride area along much better than others. I was a firm believer that it was safer to have my kids on a bus than drive them until they redid the bus routes 5-6 years ago. Two things occurred when a new route supervisor took over at least in our area. Buses no longer came into our neighborhoods, but bus drivers were picking up kids up on the corner of a roads which have more traffic and higher speed limits. The drivers "can't block the T intersection thereby stopping not at sidewalks, but where a concrete culvert drains are located on busy streets. Not only is it unsafe for the 15+ kids to stand in the turn lane, but the bus now backs up on a street which has an increased speed limit. Even with all parents complaining to Transportation, but they did not care about the safety of the children. Only about saving seconds off the time of the bus route. In addition, changes in routes/stops have been made very unsafe. Our bus must pull out onto the Fairfax Co Pkwy in rush hour traffic and cross both lanes within feet of making a lefthand turn onto Wiehle Avenue! Hello?? I wouldn't even try it with my car! Seems to me that increased bus lines occur because parents are not happy about the bus transportation. I know I have personally gone from having my kids riding the bus every day to driving them myself more for their safety rather than convenience.
Diane Blust May 01, 2011 at 01:07 PM
I often wonder if parents who insist on driving their kids to school when other, safe options are available think about the health implications of exposing their children to so much car exhaust day in and day out. When cars idle - as they must in long lines - they actually produce more exhaust than when driving. It follows, therefore, that our children are being exposed to higher levels of noxious fumes than they would if they walked or took the bus. I hope parents will factor this health and safety issue into their decision making process. (I understand there are some circumstances where children must be driven to school, but I find it hard to believe that all those people in the long lines at schools are there out of necessity.) I hope more people will follow the example of some of my neighbors on the south side of Quorn Lane who walk their children to Hunters Woods Elementary School day in and day out. Perhaps neighborhoods and communities could come together to form walking clubs? Or, perhaps parents and neighbors could take the initiative to speak with each other about solving this issue? For my part, I have offered to walk my neighbor's children to Hunters Woods when they enter school this fall: great exercise for me and the kids! And, they will not be exposed to the exhaust fumes in the kiss and ride lane. Lastly, who in the school system has dropped the ball concerning funding via SRTS? This is unacceptable. Fairfax County deserves better.
Bill Cramer May 01, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Bill Cramer We spend millions on school buses and they should be mandatory with but few exceptions. Riding a school bus is helpful to a students education through their interaction with other students. Tony want to lay more asphalt but that will only encourage more people to use kiss and ride. Make bus transportation mandatory.
The Convict May 01, 2011 at 11:43 PM
The problem is convenience. Nothing more and nothing less. As long as it seems more convenient for parents to convey their hunchers in cars, they'll do that instead of putting them on the bus or making them walk. If you want to get the kids out of the car, FCPS will need to make the Kiss and Ride less convenient, more dangerous and prohibitively expensive. In fact, the best strategy for dealing with K&R parents is to require permits for access to the K&R during opening and closing of schools. Of course, you'll still have to deal with the inevitable informal K&R's that will emerge, but once those have been pushed a few blocks from the school, parents will get the hint and make their kids walk from home or ride the bus.
Amy May 02, 2011 at 12:38 AM
All I know is that it can take half an hour or more just to get from one end of Becontree Lane to the other when Forest Edge is letting in or out.
fred May 02, 2011 at 01:56 AM
Why does the same article on different Patch sites (Herndon, Reston) show different comments? As a parent who drives children to and picks them up from Hunters Woods each day, I ask what would you do? I could leave at 7:45 to drive them to the bus so they get to school at 8:25 (on a good day) or I could leave at 8:05 to drive them to school so they get to school NLT 8:20. I park to pick them up (mostly because the Kiss & Ride line is INSANE), but observe on a regular basis the unsafe and illegal driving/parking practices of others picking children up at school. Many parents drive their kids because their bus rides are 1 hour or more (the fantasy of FCPS bus scheduling clearly does not account for traffic, or the fact that it takes more than 5 minutes to dismiss a building of >1000, and yes, it is an elementary school with a consistent population of >1000)-
Tammy Klinefelter Bane May 02, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Last year due to budget shortfall, FCPS decreased the number of buses on our roads. It is now acceptable for 70, yes 70 Elementary school children to be on one bus. Has anyone been on a school bus lately??? I have, and it is very unsafe to have three students in one seat designed for only too. And yes, Diane, I too would love to know what happened to SRTS on buses. Caution for those wanting to make buses mandatory: Be prepared for increases in our tax bills if they would make busing mandatory! They would definitely need to hire a lot more drivers as well as provide more buses which are very costly.
Karen Goff May 02, 2011 at 03:46 AM
Fred - when it is posted on different sites, it is considered a different story (even if it is the same story, which this is not because some details about Reston have been added). Thus, comments on Reston Patch show up on the Reston patch story.
long-time Restonian May 03, 2011 at 02:29 AM
When I look at the reasons for why Kiss and Ride will continue, 2 of the reasons given in the article are indicative of other underlying problems in FCPS: heavy backpacks and letting the kids sleep later. 1) Heavy backpacks. Why are our kids carrying such heavy backpacks??? because they get too much homework! Speaking as a parent of 3 kids who had 2-4 hours of homework every night in 3rd-6th grades, homework overload is very real! Studies have shown that there is no correlation between homework in the lower grades (K-6), and later success in life. There is a weak correlation between homework in middle and high school and later success. The Race to Nowhere documentary should be mandatory viewing for all board members, school administrators, and even teachers! 2) Letting kids sleep later. Why do we need to let our kids sleep later? Because our schools start TOO EARLY!!! If our schools started at more reasonable times, parents would be less inclined to let their kids sleep an extra 15-20 minutes and drive them to school. Fix these two underlying problems (which are far more pressing) and the Kiss n Ride lines will decrease substantially. The unintended consequences of early start times and too much homework are far-reaching. Safety improvements will have a minimal impact on long Kiss n Ride lines. It's time to address the REAL problems in FCPS: schools starting too early and too much homework!
Tammy Klinefelter Bane May 03, 2011 at 02:54 AM
Can we also remember that this traffic nightmare isn't just the result of our parents driving kids to school but counties south and west of us who have experienced economic booms over the last 10+ years who have brought large numbers of increased cars to our roads. Safety improvements can only go so far in helping get our kids to school, but when you look at areas where the "safe route" is to travel up a sidewalk along the Fairfax County Parkway or Dranesville road, as an example, I can't blame parents for putting the safety of their kids first.
Diane Blust May 03, 2011 at 01:21 PM
Tammy - How right you are! I wish you had been at the March 12 screening of "End of Suburbia" at Nature House in Reston (sponsored by Sustainable Reston, RA Nature Center and Friends of Reston). This film highlights the unsustainable nature of American growth patterns that developed in the post WWII era. We are going to be showing the film again this summer or I can arrange a screening at my home if you are interested. And, yes, no parent should be expected to allow their children to walk on a sidewalk next to a 50 mph arterial. What we need are better trail connections for those families and students who can use the oldest form of personal transportation: the feet. There will always be families who must use the drop off, but we should strive to reduce that number. (I had a neighbor who drove her kids to school every single day of the year for years even though we had a trail directly accessible from our back doors that led to the school, with two crossings of a 25mph two lane road involved. That's the behavior we need to change.) Let me know if you're interested in the film -i t's great. You can contact me directly at dblust@comcast.net
Tammy Klinefelter Bane May 03, 2011 at 02:12 PM
Diane, would love to see the film. When will it be shown this summer?? Right now is kind of busy for me workwise, but it sounds really good. I too would love to have a trail connecting to the school. We are off old Stuart Road, a once country two laner with no sidewalk, speed limit still 35 mph but within an easy walking distance to the elementary school. ...and of course no road improvements with the exception of it being cut in two by the parkway, but no path was ever created to connect the road to the back side of the school and neighborhood above us....the County should have made the developer put one in. Nothing sader than seeing a bunch of bike rakes empty at an elementary school. We road our bikes until moving to Fairfax County......
Diane Blust May 04, 2011 at 04:13 AM
Tammy - What is your email? I'll pass it on to Katie Shaw the manager of the Walker Nature Education Center. She's working on a date and will let people know. Also, would you like me to add you to our Sustainable Reston newsletter mailing list? Diane
The Convict May 04, 2011 at 02:06 PM
Pshaw. My 5th grader is up at 5:30 am in order to get the exercise that schools use to provide in Phys. Ed. He gets up without a fuss either. And he doesn't fuss when he goes to bed at 9:00 to 9:30. It's all about scheduling and priorities. As the parent of youngsters, you should be setting these, not the kids.
Frank Sogandares May 04, 2011 at 02:32 PM
pshaw? tomfoolery?
Pamela Findley June 13, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Both of my daughters usually rode/ride the bus to school (Armstrong ES), but this year, I must drive her to school once a week for band, as she is not allowed to carry her sax on the bus because it is so crowded (70+ students). In addition, every other week, I drive her to school every day so she can get to school early for news team, which usually doesn't occur during the busy K&R times.
Amanda Hamm June 13, 2011 at 07:25 PM
My daughter is in 2nd grade at Aldrin Elementary School and she rides the bus every morning. I think it is a great opportunity to make friends while waiting for the bus and during the ride to school. I have used kiss and ride a couple of times on mornings that we overslept, etc. and I just want to say it is definitely a last resort. The kiss and ride line at Aldrin is ridiculous (as I am sure most other schools are as well), and I don't know why anyone would choose to use it unless they absolutely had to. Just sitting in the line for 20 mins to proceed from the roadway up to the front entrance of the school was enough to drive me crazy. To each their own, I suppose, but I certainly wouldn't do it on a daily basis out of "convenience".
Amanda Hamm June 13, 2011 at 07:28 PM
I completely agree on the driving due to instruments and early morning commitments. I think if the schools are wanting to encourage bus riding over kiss and ride, they should definitely consider resolving the overcrowding issue. 70+ kids on a bus cannot be safe and if parents are worried about their kids' safety due to that, it is just going to hinder the concept of getting away from kiss and ride.
Diane Blust June 13, 2011 at 08:57 PM
Pamela - There are always going to be times when you need to drive the kids to school - but thanks so much for making the decision to use the bus most of the time. Diane
Diane Blust June 13, 2011 at 08:58 PM
Good for you, Amanda! She'll be healthier for not breathing exhaust fumes for 20 minutes every day.

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