The bus is the most exhausting part of school

We need to talk about the school bus. In other cultures, people admit that school starts when you get on the bus. In The Netherlands, for example, the kids pedal themselves to school on the bus. Absurd, yes, but the fundamental acknowledgement that the schoolday begins on the bus seems positive to me.

On the other hand, most parents ignore the bus ride when they think about school.

The Pioneer Woman is a media personality who never wants to offend anyone, yet she somehow has to explain why she homeschools, and she explains that the bus ride was too long. She couldn’t bear to see her kids spending that much time sitting on the bus. It’s amazing to me that people aren’t offended because they put their kids on the bus every day.

The quality of one’s commute has huge impact on their life. This is true for adults in study after study, so I don’t know why it’s not true for kids. Here are four reasons why the bus ride to school is terrible:

1. It’s too long – for anyone. Not just kids. The average commute for adults is 25 minutes. The average school bus ride is longer than that. We know that a commute longer than ten miles negatively impacts and adult’s health, so surely the same negative affects apply to kids. And research papers call on policy makers to address the problem. But of course, this is not where school reformers like to spend their time. And as school districts look for places to cut costs, they often slash bus routes, which saves a lot of money and means longer bus rides.

2. The unpredictability is too hard on kids. Kids like predictability. And responsible parents create a predictable home life.  School is predictable. (Not in a good way, but that’s not the point of this post.) The bus ride is totally unpredictable.

There are tons of kids with only one adult, and the adult is driving them. Even when there is an adult supervising, the adult has no authority over the kids. It’s complete mayhem. And there is nowhere to hide.

Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, (one of my favorite books), says that the worst thing in life—worse than losing a limb—is an unpredictable commute. Because a lost limb you can adjust to mentally, and humans are good at adjusting. But if you never know how something will be and it will often be bad, you have no ability to mentally adjust to the bad situation.

3. The bus ride impacts kids ability to perform at school. We know that if you have a bad commute to work, it spills over into the rest of your life; it affects how you treat your co-workers, and it you have a bad commute going home, it affects how you treat your family. Surely this means that kids are spending the first hour of school recuperating from the bus ride, and the first hour after school recuperating.

4. When you put your kid on the bus you devalue your kid’s time. The school bus is really an integral part of the institutionalized babysitting program—you don’t even have to drive your kids to school! Instead, the kids sit on the bus for triple the amount of time it takes to drive to school. I understand why we bus kids to school when their parents cannot drive them. But I don’t understand why middle class families are putting their kids on the bus.

23 replies
  1. Sacha (@zigged)
    Sacha (@zigged) says:

    I grew up in the city riding public transportation to school, which is a completely different experience than the school bus (as far as I can tell). At the very least it exposed me to how to get around in the world and not be weird about strangers. As I got older it was a ticket to partial freedom, as an overbearing step-mother couldn’t be bothered to keep track of where I was as long as I was home by dinner. As an adult living in a suburban situation now, I would much rather have the choice to ride for an hour than drive for a half hour, but that’s not really doable in that city I call home.

    My husband grew up in a (nearly) rural environment riding the school bus. His house was one of the first stops in the morning and, thanks to a reverse route, one of the last in the afternoon. He HATED that long ride. Consequently he has anxiety about his daughter riding the bus—which she does from her mother’s house half the time—even though her ride is only a few minutes. She’s also an extrovert (compared to his introvert) and not at all bothered by it. We drive her to school the other half of the time and that ride is 30–35 minutes, so I try to make it less awful by letting her guide how we use the time (e.g., talking, reading, controlling the radio).

    All this is to say that I never really thought much about the school bus ride, certainly not like you have here. Good points, all.

  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    My husband spent three hours a day on the bus when he was a kid. As a direct result of this experience, we bought a house two blocks away from a school when we both would have preferred to live out in the country (we’re in a small town in a very rural area). This was great until we pulled our kids out of school to homeschool them. Now we’re stuck living in town until the real estate market improves and we can sell our house for a decent price. The one kid on my husband’s bus who had a longer ride than he did lives a block away from us. No sane person who lived through that as a child could put their own kids through it. It’s crazy.

  3. David Holmes
    David Holmes says:

    My bus ride was 10 minutes in the morning and an hour in the afternoon–they reversed the order to make it more fair. But the environment was horrible–fights, sexual harassment, general anarchy. That was 35 years ago. Today, I see way more parents driving their kids to school than letting them ride the bus. I live in the South though, so maybe it’s a regional thing?

  4. Edd
    Edd says:

    Not only did I have to ride the school bus for forty minutes of driving in the morning, my school wouldn’t let the bus drivers empty out when they got there. They had to all empty out at once.

    This meant all the buses would compete for who got to school first, because the last ones in would have to wait for all the other buses to pull out of the driveway.

    So after 40 minutes on the bus, we’d have to sit in the parking lot for 20 minutes waiting for the “bus bell’.

    I have always insisted on working a walkable distance from my job due to this experience. It’s funny to see other commenters say the same thing.

  5. kristen
    kristen says:

    My kids get driven to and from school but my nanny’s older son is now at the middle school and takes the bus. The bus has kids all the way up through high school and it sounds like a complete “Lord of the Flies” scenario. He told me about a large high schooler who physically picked him up and moved him (he only weighs 75 lbs) saying “you can’t sit here” as well as a kid being drunk on the bus. The stories he tells me certainly validate my decision to enroll my kids out of the school district and drive them the 12 minutes to school. If the local district bus was taking them it would be at least 45 minutes each way and I would be fearing for their safety.
    All that being said, I have often thought about donating my time, once or twice a month, by riding the bus. I may not have any real authority but I wouldn’t hesitate to explain proper behavior and ettiquette. If we all did things like that it would go a long way towards improving the system. But my kids aren’t on the bus, so while I care about the situation, I probably won’t ever commit the time to it.

  6. Nonnie
    Nonnie says:

    I liked riding the bus. It was nice daydreaming/dozing time, maybe chat with friends. Once you get on the bus, it’s nothing like an adult commute since there are no responsibilities whatsoever and if you’re late it’s not your fault.
    However waking up at the crack of dawn and waiting in the dark, freezing cold, was not fun. Also, sprinting wildly to the bus stop half-awake in whatever clothes I grabbed off the floor was not fun.
    There was a kind of vague background apprehension about bullies, but they mostly left me alone. I think it was worse for boys.
    I think I also felt that kids who got rides to school were a bit spoiled.

  7. Julie
    Julie says:

    I hated the bus. It was torture. But at least we only had a thirty minute ride. I remember once when it was making a tight right hand turn, everyone from the left side of the bus jumped to the right side seats (and whoever was already in those seats) so it would tip onto two wheels. That was interesting. That happened every morning for a week until the school found out about it.

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I lived just outside of town, and got picked up and dropped off first ( great after school (10 min), not so great in the morning (70min)) but I dont recall it being that big of a deal. I usually read a book, or if I needed to, finished homework.
    Occasionally there was drama not often.
    But i love the idea of the kids getting some exercise on the way in to school~! what a neat idea to burn off excess energy!

  9. Leah McClellan
    Leah McClellan says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I didn’t mind the schoolbus. It was a 45 minute trip or so each way. For me it was a time to socialize with friends and have fun or just relax–or sleep. I often read whatever latest novel I was reading, or I did homework (sometimes it was a lifesaver for homework!)

    There were only a few times (over the course of about 7 years that I lived where I did and took the bus) that there were any problems or fights and all that. I got teased sometimes, and that was hard, but that can happen anywhere.

    The part I minded sometimes was the walk to get to the schoolbus, which was about 1 1/4 miles. Rural. Mountains. Very cold in the winter. Sometimes scary in the dark by myself. Often late and had to run. I got a ride with my friend and her mom plenty of times, though, and warmed up in a sporty little Mercedes. That was fun compared to my dad’s pick-up truck :D

    Riding the bus was mostly a positive experience. I just accepted it for what it was and what my life was about and enjoyed it or never really thought about it.

  10. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    A friend of mine wouldn’t allow her daughters to ride the local park district bus to after school programs because, she said, “That’s where you go to lose your innocence.” However, she is also the person who said, when I told her of our decision to homeschool, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

  11. Cassie Boorn
    Cassie Boorn says:

    Aiden begged me to let him ride the bus. He is supposed to start taking the bus tomorrow. I didn’t think about any of this until now. And now he will be a bus kid for approximately one day.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      It all those little yellow school bus toys and cute songs. My older daughter had a toy school bus that would take off when you pushed the drivers head down and the happy child passengers’ heads would go up and down to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus.”

  12. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I really like hearing peoples’ bus stories. It’s fascinating to me that everything is normal to a kid because it’s all they know. So I like hearing that other people had horrible bus experiences and how they process that as adults.

    Other peoples’ stories remind me of my own. Mostly missing the bus incessantly and walking and being late. But also waiting in freezing cold weather after a too-quick shower and having my hair turn to icicles at the bus stop. I remember staring out the window of the bus breaking off the ends of my bangs before they melted.


  13. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    The negative aspect of school socialization – as you say, the Lord of the Flies – comes very much to the fore during bus rides. I recall that about half the altercations I was involved in as a child happened during bus rides. I would choose not to ride the bus whenever I could, and was riding my bike two miles to school by the time I was in fourth grade. If somebody really wanted to “get you,” he would wait until the bus ride, because you could not run away on the bus. No adult was ever watching, and eyewitnesses could easily be intimidated, so no kid ever got in trouble for beating someone up on the bus. My proudest achievement was learning how to shiv a kid with a pencil just badly enough he’d leave me alone.

    By tenth grade, I pretty much needed a stiff drink to face the bus every morning (we’d moved somewhere the bike ride was truly awful). In tenth grade, I stopped going to school.

    My kid rode the bus for most of his abortive experiment with public school. It went right in front of our house and stopped on the corner. What could be wrong?

    What could be wrong was kids from all grades and all neighborhoods on the same bus, including emotionally disturbed kids who would have been in special schools when I was a kid. My son was threatened with death by kids with parents in jail, my son came home with torn or missing or bloody clothes. I watched my son’s stuff get thrown out the bus windows as the bus approached. Kindergartners being too afraid of 200 pound teenagers with weird eyes and rage problems to do or say anything. The drivers were all recent immigrants too insecure and incoherent to do or say anything.

    According to the other parents who called me when their children told them what had happened, the bullying was intense. According to the school, there was no bullying.

    For this special experience we had to wait up to forty-five minutes in the winter. If it was snowy, we’d not even bother, knowing the bus would be at least a half-hour late, and we should just walk. Towards the end of our experiment with public schools, I started driving him. It was dawning on me that all the chair-fillers in the system really didn’t give a good goddamn about what was going on, and his safety was my responsibility, not theirs.

    Other things dawned on me at that time too – like why should my kid have to be away from home for eight hours in a day in order to get the pitiful quantity and quality (TERC Investigations…) of instruction he received in the midst of such a poisonous atmosphere? In that sense, the bus was the point of the wedge for me. The important thing to realize is that the crap that happens on the bus goes on all day – you’re only more likely to hear about it because it just happened.

    I think one of the things you might be missing in your hatred of busing is what that word means to us in the Northeast. Among the many problems with our school system, busing is used as a system for redistributing access to schools. Of course, the public schools in the richer, whiter neighborhoods have better test scores and more parent fundraising. So in the name of equity you must enter a sort of roulette when you apply, and your kid is bused to whatever school he ‘wins.’ In practical terms, this means your kid’s bus will go on a long and winding route through many neighborhoods, only picking up a few in each, along with a dozen other buses all going different places with the other kids on the block.

    I had a pretty bad time with busing, and so did my kid, but at least we didn’t live here in the seventies, when kids would wear jackets on the hottest days so they could pull them over their heads to protect them from breaking glass.

    I think this is one of your more accurate and on-point posts. Most parents know how much a crappy commute can drive them nuts for half the day. Why not fix that problem for both of you?

  14. karelys
    karelys says:

    I moved from Mexico to the States when I was 16 and I thought riding the bus would be a blast because we’d watch American movies with highschool kids and there was always some sort of socialization. I thought it’d be awesome. It wasn’t. It was terrifying.

    Besides whatever goes into the teenage socialization, the most terrifying part for me was that my parents knew NOTHING of what went on in the bus. The driving was creepy (to me) and I hated being the last one. I don’t know if it was instinct or a very active imagination but I disliked how friendly he was and always feared that he could do anything to me if he wanted and then drop me off at home or not drop me off.

    I wonder why parents never bothered to think of this. My parents were SO protective of us growing up but in this part they just gave us up to a very long ride with a stranger with nothing, not even a cell phone to defend ourselves.

    My brothers are 3 years younger and my stomach was always up in knots thinking of them. I’d grill them about the bus ride wanting to make sure I knew the routine in case something was off. I couldn’t believe no one made a plan just in case things were wrong.

  15. Anna
    Anna says:

    In middle-school my bus experience was very “lord of the flies” and I got to be in the bus sometimes over an hour. There was talk of sexual/drug/alcohol experience that I was not ready for. The older kids were in charge. Not the bus driver who would yell at the young kids in the front for talking and seam happy with himself for being in control.

    Finally, I just quit. My parents wouldn’t/couldn’t pick me up, so I went home with a friend on a different bus in my neighborhood. I would then walk home 3/4 of a mile. The bus driver had much better control or the kids were just quieter. I am not sure, but it was a passable experience and only 30 min drive.

    In high-school (which was much farther away), I wouldn’t risk it. I walked to the nearby community library where I would wait, sometimes two hours, for my sister to get off work and take me home.

    I don’t think I will ever let my kids (admittedly imaginary, future kids) ride the bus.

  16. Alison
    Alison says:

    We bought a house across the street from my daughters’ school exactly for this reason. I feel it is a tremendous waste of time for my kids to ride the bus. Unfortunately, once they are in Jr. & Sr. high they will have to ride the bus, but at least from kindergarten to Gr. 6 they’ll be able to walk. I’m trying to convince my husband to move to the part of town that the high school is in when it’s time for them to attend there.

  17. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I LOVE that picture of the Dutch bike-bus! I hope those catch on more. I think the company has only made 25 of them so far.

    It’s true that everyone bikes to school here in the Netherlands (and work – even the prime minister!). Here’s a cool video that a dad made showing the bike traffic of parents and kids on the way to a Dutch school in the morning:

    When I drop my 6-year-old daughter off at her Dutch school, I usually also take along my 4-year-old and 1-year-old. I use a bakfiets, a cargo bike, like this:

    Though yesterday, my daughter rode her own bike for the first time, with me on my regular bike next to her, the 4-year-old on a child seat behind me and the baby in an Ergo baby carrier on my front. The school is 2 kilometers from our house (that’s 1.2 miles, for those who, like Penelope, don’t like metric conversions), and it takes between 5 and 20 minutes to get there depending on the bikes we’re using.

    The idea of public busing is totally foreign here, which is one of the things I like about Dutch schools.

  18. B
    B says:

    A list of things that happened on the school bus when I was a child attending public school:

    1.) A little boy brought a grenade on to the bus
    2.) A bus driver fell asleep and rolled the bus sideways
    3.) A hippie bus driver showed up in tie-dyed shirts, reeking of weed, promising us all a trip to Disneyland (it was cute to hear us all cheer.)
    4.) A boy would do disgusting things like pass gas in other kids’ faces.

  19. Judy
    Judy says:

    I am laughing while I read these comments becuse riding the school buss was absolute torture to the point that even before I decided to homeschool my kids, I vowed that they would NEVER have to ride a school bus. It’s good to see that I was not the only one who has those horrible memories.
    Living in Alabama during the early seventies and early during desegregation, I first rode public transit to school. That was no problem at all. The bus drivers were kind and the adults were protective of us kids. My personal schoolbus hell began when the school system finally procured enough busses to come into “our” neighborhoods. Being confined to the small space with limited adult supervision seemd to bring out the worst in kids.

  20. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    This scares the crap out of me!! My grandson will be riding for the first time & he has never misbehaved in public. Now, I wish he knew Karate!!! How can it be awful for 25 million kids? Geez!

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