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January 24, 2005
School bus spotted in London

In the USA the school bus, looking approximately like this


is a part of the national mythology. It is always yellow.

But I don't recall seeing any (specifically) school buses in the UK. Until today


Spotted in the Kings Road, approximately 4 pm this afternoon, travelling west.

Maybe we have rather more school buses in the UK than I'm implying. But school buses in the USA are like our red pillar boxes or our black cabs, or perhaps more to the point like our red double decker buses. School buses are central items of Americana, all part of what makes America America. Yellow school buses, always with their bonnets sticking out in front, appear constantly in American high school movies. In The Simpsons the bloke who drives the school bus makes constant appearances. In the UK, school buses are nothing like such a big deal.

Why the difference, I wonder? Why do they rely on these things so much, and we so relatively little?

Is it because our regular buses are so much more regular, and can do the school run without even thinking about it, while they use cars for nearly everything, except for getting the kids to school, so they have to have a special bus for the school kids? Is that it? Or is it simply that I have only just noticed one of these things?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:25 PM
Category: This and that

Well, in Los Angeles, Columbus, Detroit, etc., you would have buses running -- and actually, in New York City (and the rest of the northeastern megalopolis), many if not most schoolchildren actually take ordinary public transportation (often the subway), but in rural areas, the school bus is the only kind of group transportation at all (most towns don't even have taxis). It gets out there at 5 or 6am, picks up the kids, and continues down the rural route that's generally only visited that regularly by the postal service. It gets back between 3pm and 5pm (school starts around 8am and ends around 2-3pm).

School buses also have a bizarre tie-in with civil rights/racial history in the US. Many children and communities never saw a school bus until the 1950s -- the black children would be bussed out of a neighborhood, or maybe the white children bussed to their school, but for the most part, everyone was going to a school in the immediate vicinity. Only after the enforced bussing (to desegregate schools) were children being shipped wholesale across a city to a specific school. Those routes don't make any sense for any purpose other than that, which makes the dedicated bus idea more reasonable.

And, at least in the US, the school buses are also used for field trips. Normal classes seem to get 2 or 3 a year; if you've got 30 classes, that's 90 fieldtrips in 180 days. On top of that, you have the phenomenon of morning vs. afternoon kindergarten (that transition -- switching the kids out -- happens between 11am and 1pm), and staggered school schedules (where high schoolers start at 7:30, middle school at 8:00, and elementary at 8:30), keeping the school buses busy with just shuttling kids around for, like I said, about 12 hours a day. I know my school bus, in elementary school, was leaving the yard around 4:45am, picked up its first passenger (his name was Arthur) around 5:15am, picked me up between 7:40 and 7:52am, and dropped the whole lot of us off at 8:00am at my school. Some of the buses, though, were only picking up elementary kids between 7:30am and 8:00am, because they had taken the high schoolers in and dropped them off by 7:20am. My bus (same driver, same number) picked me up at 2:45pm, dropping me off at my day camp at 3:00pm, and finished with Arthur right around 6pm. Admittedly, I was in Los Angeles, and part of a bussed-in Magnet program (that's why Arthur was spending 3-5 hours on the bus every day), but it's analogous to the more far-flung rural districts. About half the time we had a field trip, we ended up on that same bus (it was a long enough one for 60 kids and 10 chaparones), and the bus couldn't ever pick us up from our trips until after 1pm, so I've sort of assumed it went off to drop off and pick up kindergarteners. For what it's worth, I remember because I was terrified of my school bus driver (she had super long fingernails, and the small finger on her right hand had a gold-painted super long fingernail); I actually stopped going to my day camp (without permission) and began walking the three miles or so to school (also without permission) because of her. I can remember the absolute dread -- this heavy weight in my stomach -- when I saw she was driving us on field trips...

Lastly, and perhaps more relevantly than anything I just said: in many US jurisdictions, school buses are given extra traffic protection. In Ohio, for instance, you have to come to a full and complete stop (with IIRC a 20 foot allowance) ANY TIME a bus stops and turns on its flashing red lights. You have to treat the bus itself like a stop sign (many of them come equipped with stop signs that swing out), and even the driver doesn't have the authority to wave you around. Also, school buses are easier to legislate and police (they have to come to a stop and look both ways when they come to train tracks, for example -- and have reduced speed limits on highways). I mean, it's hard to miss the yellow, and people who buy the things for themselves usually repaint them anyway.

Comment by: Sarah on January 25, 2005 04:03 AM

I think that I can field this one.

The yellow school bus grew out of America's tradition of rural government-operated schools. During the Great Depression of 1929-1941, many parents or rural families could not afford to transport their children to school, due to the often long distances involved.

Anxious to remain open (and prevent a generation of illiteracy) school districts then started purchasing used buses in order to transport children, with parents often contributing what they could for gasoline and maintenance.

Of course since the buses came from private transport, company markings needed to be obliterated. Yellow paint was inexpensive, and had the added bonus of being highly visable to motorists.

Soon, companies began producing buses especially adapted for the purpose of transporting pupils.

The yellow color remains. :)

Comment by: EdWonk on January 25, 2005 04:04 AM

And don't forget the basic geography. Population density in most of the USA is much lower than in Britain. Traditionally, British schools were located within walking/cycling distance of their "catchment", so motorised transport was simply not needed.

Along with many things, this is changing, though. Over the years many small community schools have closed, and the climate of fear leads parents to prefer to drive their children even the small distances to urban schools.

Comment by: Frank Carver on January 25, 2005 09:58 AM

"Is it because our regular buses are so much more regular, and can do the school run without even thinking about it, while they use cars for nearly everything, except for getting the kids to school?"

You're more likely to find that actually our regular buses are pretty rare and don't cover most areas of the country very well, while fleets of mums and dads use the car for absolutely everything including generating massive amounts of often needless traffic around most schools.

Comment by: Jason Holdcroft on January 25, 2005 03:46 PM

What you haven't noticed is that there are lots of school buses on Britain's roads. You just don't recognise them.

They are the oldest, slowest, dirtiest, cheapest, smelliest, leakiest, most dangerous buses in the country.

It would be illegal to transport cows or sheep in them, but they are, apparently, OK for children.

The one my son has to travel on is full of exhaust smoke, unheated, lets in rainwater, and has no provision for seatbelts.

This is what the State education system does for us.

Comment by: Andrew Duffin on January 25, 2005 04:15 PM

The same question struck me not long ago, and when I asked someone, the very simple explanation that distances are often much bigger in the US made immediate sense. Not many British people live an hour or more from the nearest school, but lots of Americans do. It is quite amazing how much of the US is still waiting to be populated!

Comment by: Alice on January 25, 2005 04:44 PM

Yes, but distances in Australia are as large or larger than in the US, and Australia is even less populated than is the US, but Australia doesn't generally have vehicles dedicated to being school buses. School buses tend to be chartered (along with drivers) from local bus companies, and the same buses tend to spend non-school hours plying commercial bus routes. Or at least that's what happens in my part of Australia.

Comment by: MIchael Jennings on January 25, 2005 07:20 PM

Newer school buses increasingly have the engine in the rear. There's a picture of one of these (and, incidentally, a good school-bus story) here: http://www.tinotopia.com/log/archive/2002/03/06/wont_somebody_stop_thinking_of_the_children.htm

And I think they're painted yellow not because of cost or tradition but for the same reason that taxis are yellow in a lot of places: to make them more visible. It is hard to overestimate the level of paranoia that American society has about the possibility of anything happening to kids (see story at the link above). Aside from the yellow color, the flashing lights, the swing-out stop sign, etc., etc. they have now taken to putting constantly-flashing strobe lights on top of all of them.

Comment by: Tino on January 26, 2005 12:22 AM

Given some of the things that happened on the public service bus I used to catch to secondary school, it was never very surprising that the dedicated school routes were served by the more ancient buses in the fleet. I expect the same antics go on today.

Until (a minority of) schoolchildren stop destroying school buses, no bus company in their right mind will let any children loose on their decent vehicles. So, even if Andrew Duffin's son is a Nice Boy, he will still have to travel on horrible buses because some other boys aren't.

Comment by: Sarah on January 26, 2005 01:46 PM

In the States, school buses came into use in the 1920s, and by the 1930s people realized that they could be rather dangerous. Automotive fatalities were new fangled back then, and the US was way ahead of the rest of the world in moving to internal combustion based transportation. There were even auto safety campaigns in the 1930s, including one in which drivers promised to drive no faster than 35mph (about 55kph).

There were a number of activists, and they managed to petition President Roosevelt (FDR), and they set up a federal committee on school buses. This committee promulgated a variety of safety standards. I gather one required all students to have places to sit, and another required the color yellow for visibility. Many of the standards seem rather obvious now, but kids were being hauled to school in the back of pick up trucks with configurations right out of Road Warrior.

School buses are still treated specially. There are laws about passing them when they are stopped beside the road, and they frequently require a special level of licensing to drive. In many cities, children use local bus transportation to get to school, and often have special transit passes, but the suburbs and rural areas are horribly inefficient with regards to transportation, and require special buses to this day.

I am sure that the Bush administration has a plan to privatize or personalize something or another, and will probably do something about this archaic, obsolete coloration. Who knows, a suitably designed school bus might serve as an ethically acceptible alternative to abortion?

Comment by: Kaleberg on January 31, 2005 12:15 AM
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