Recent estimates peg the number of students who ride the school bus in the US at 25 million, just over 50% of the total 49.9 million American school children aged 5‒17. An estimated 10.7% walk or bike to school and the remaining 39.3% of students travel to school by private vehicle.

The question of how mode of transportation affects learning outcomes among school children is not a simple one because of the many factors involved. For example, school students in Michigan who have access to school transportation are shown to attend school more regularly than those who live within the walking distance cutoffs. Economically disadvantaged students who have access to school transportation experience a 0.5 to 1 percent increase in attendance rates and are 2 to 4 percent less likely to be chronically absent than their counterparts who live in non-transportation zones (1).

Attendance rates tend to be lowest among kindergarteners, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study -Kindergarten Class of 2010-1011 found that kindergarteners who took the bus to school had fewer absences and were less likely to be chronically absent than students who commuted to school in another way (2).

School bus transportation has also been shown to close the school quality gap where school choice is involved in urban settings. Students in New York City attending choice schools and using bus transportation attend significantly better schools than their peers attending nearby choice schools. Transportation plays a particularly important role for Black and Hispanic students, who are 30 to 40 percent more likely to attend significantly better schools than their same-race peers who attend choice schools but do not use transportation (3).

Despite these benefits, some studies have also shown that students who commute to school via private vehicle or on foot have higher test scores than those who ride the bus. (4). Bus ride duration, however, had no perceived impact on student test scores (5). This is interesting, since long commute times have been linked to reduced sleep health in school students, and sleep-deprived children experience a range of problems, from chronic fatigue and daytime sleepiness to being late for school, and may exhibit difficulties with learning and memory. Recently, researchers examined data from the American Time Use survey to see how teenagers’ school commute times affected their overall health and wellbeing. Data revealed that teens with long commutes to school slept fewer hours and engaged less in physical activity than their peers.

Taken as a whole…

Recent research shows that school buses improve attendance and enable students to go to higher quality schools compared to alternative transport. Some studies link bus rides to lower test scores, while others find no relation. Caution should be taken in establishing long school bus commutes. While they are unlikely to impact test scores, long commutes do impact student sleep health and cause students to engage in less physical activity than their peers.