Increased Student Bus Travel Costs Will Cut Savings from School Closures

The Government has failed to provide any information on the impact of its proposed school closures on student bus travel or on ACTION costs and revenues. The Education Minister, Andrew Barr, has asserted at regional consultation meetings that increases in student bus travel will be met by alterations to existing services.

In the debate over school closures in 1990, increased demand for student bus travel was a significant issue affecting the net savings to Government from closing schools. Following public discussion of the school closure plan, it was generally acknowledged that school closures would have significant implications for student bus travel and that these costs should be included in the assessment of the savings and costs of the plan.

The ACT Treasury and SOS Canberra both engaged consultants to prepare a study of the school bus requirements following school consolidation. While the findings of the studies differed significantly, they both concluded that the closure of 18 primary schools and 3 high schools would lead to an increase in student bus travel which would result in a net increase in ACTION costs.

The ACT Treasury and SOS Canberra subsequently carried out separate whole of government assessments of the costs and savings from school closures which included the increased costs to ACTION of increased student bus travel. These increased costs were offset against the estimated savings from closing schools.

Mr. Barr needs to acknowledge the cost implications of increased student bus travel following school closures. The Government should commission an independent study of the likely demand for school bus travel under different school closure scenarios and the net cost to government of increased bus travel by students.

A summary of the two bus travel studies undertaken in 1990 follows.

Treasury study

Denis Johnston & Associates 1990. An analysis of the implications of a policy of consolidation of schools on bussing requirements in the ACT. Consultant report prepared for the ACT Treasury, July.

The ACT Treasury study was commissioned to advise on the likely cost implications of the school consolidation proposal. The major tasks undertaken in the study were:

  • Determination of existing bus requirements for student travel;
  • Estimation of changes in demand for school bus services following school consolidation;
  • Estimation of new school bus service requirements;
  • Estimation of updated unit cost rates relating to school bus services for calculation of additional operating and capital costs; and
  • Comment on the appropriateness of the current school bus cost re-imbursement formula.

The study was conducted in two parts:

  • Schools which have dedicated school “specials”;
  • Schools which rely on the fixed route bus service.

For the first type of bus service, the study determined the operational changes that would be needed to service the new pattern of student travel and the resource implications of those changes. In the case of second type of service, the study examined the ability of the existing network to facilitate new patterns of travel.

The increase in demand for student bus travel was estimated on the basis of existing patronage levels, the existing modal split of student travel (that is, the proportion of students using public transport and other means of transport), and an adjustment to the existing mix of short and long trips.

The modal split used was based on a survey of student travel in 1985 conducted as part of the Canberra Joint Public Transport Study. It was estimated separately for primary and secondary school students in each of the 6 major districts of Canberra and for intra-district and inter-district trip type in each case. There was considerable variation in the proportion of students using bus services according to district of residence, primary and secondary school students and whether it was for intra-district or inter-district travel.

The proportion of students travelling intra-district and inter-district was used as a proxy for trip length. The adjustment to the existing mix of short and long trips was based on judgments about the extent to which trip lengths were likely to change, given the location of the closing school relative to the location of the likely alternative school(s). These adjustments are not made explicit in the study.

The study estimated a significant percentage increase in student bus travel but the actual numbers involved was small. It estimated an increase of 192 bus passengers for the 18 primary schools proposed for closure and 39 students from the 3 high schools to be closed. However, it also estimated an increase in the length of trips undertaken.

In essence, the study found that additional bus service costs are incurred with the closure of schools provided with dedicated bus services, but not for other schools.

The study did not analyse the school bus re-imbursement formula in any detail. It noted that it appeared to be based on average costs which would not necessarily reflect the true cost of providing these services.

Nine of the schools proposed for closure had dedicated school “specials”. The study found that a total of 24 ACTION school bus runs would be affected by the proposed school consolidations. This involved assessing the changes needed to a route so as to serve the receiving school whilst incorporating service to the neighbourhood in which a school was being closed.

It concluded that four additional buses and drivers would be needed morning and afternoon to serve the 24 routes. All of these were for primary school routes. The need for additional resources was found to be driven by the pattern of service required rather than increased demand for services.

The study estimated that the additional annual cost to ACTION to make the school run changes for primary schools would be $277,151 and $6,228 for high schools. These increased costs would be offset to some extent by increased revenue from passengers, with $21,120 from primary school students and $4,290 for high school students. The annual net cost to ACTION was therefore $257,969 ($256,031 + $1,938).

The study concluded that the network of fixed route services was capable of serving other schools proposed for closure with only minor modifications which do not have any cost implications.

SOS Canberra study

Upali Vandebona 1990. Forecasting additional school bus service requirements for planned closure of schools in Canberra. Report prepared for Save Our Schools Canberra. Department of Transport Engineering, University of New South Wales, July.

The study was commissioned to:

  • Estimate the number of students who would use school bus services as a result of school closures;
  • Determine the busing requirements for these students assuming existing patterns of usage and provision of school bus services;
  • Calculate the recurrent and capital costs of providing additional bus services;
  • Determine the impact on existing bus services of students travelling greater distances to school; and
  • Provide advice on the adequacy of the current school bus service cost re-imbursement formula as a means of attributing the cost of resources provided.

The study examined different scenarios of 18 primary schools closing. It assumed a modal split of 25 per cent using bus transport. The study took into account existing out-of-area ratios for the consolidated school and estimated the new out-of-area ratios likely to arise from school consolidation. The study also used the experience from a previous round of school closures in 1988 to estimate the potential modal split and the school bus service pattern.

The study estimated that the number of primary school students displaced because of school closures would range from 4158 to 4768, depending on the school closure scenario. It found that 22 to 26 new bus services would be required in the morning and afternoon to service the increased demand for the consolidated primary schools, depending on the closure scenario. These services would therefore require an additional 11 to 13 buses and drivers.

These estimates were based on the assumption that all students from the closed school would move to the nearest available primary school. The study also made estimates based students attending schools other than the closest one to the closed school. These estimates were based on the attractiveness of different schools according to factors such as availability of after-school care, school band, a language other than English and existing bus routes. In these cases, the additional bus route would have to be extended and the operating duration of the service would increase.

A similar analysis was undertaken for the 3 high schools proposed for closure. The study estimated that an additional 11 buses for 22 additional services would be required to meet the increase in demand for student bus travel.

This analysis was based on a survey of students at the 3 high schools proposed for closure. The survey showed that many more high school students would have to use public transport to access another high school.

The study did not comment on the school bus re-imbursement formula.

A key issue in the findings of the two studies was application of the 1985 modal split to the pattern of student travel following school consolidation in the Treasury study. It assumed that the same proportion of students would travel by bus on intra-district trips as before school consolidation. However, this assumption was challenged because the 6 districts defined for the study were very large and it was likely that more students would have to travel by bus to access another school in the same district even if there was very little change to the inter-district modal split.

The SOS study assumed a significantly higher modal split for intra-district travel by primary school students than that used by the Treasury study. It assumed a 25 per cent modal split for bus travel compared to 8 to 17 per cent for different districts in the Treasury study. A survey of students at one primary school indicated a much larger modal split (40 per cent) than even that assumed in the SOS study.

The modal split for high school student travel in the SOS study was also significantly higher than that of the Treasury study, generally being 2 to 3 times higher for intra-district travel. The modal split for the SOS study was based on a survey questionnaire of students in the three high schools proposed for closure.

As a result of these differences in approach, the two studies came to much different conclusions about the projected increase in student bus travel and the requirements for additional bus services and buses.

Trevor Cobbold

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