Opinion: Which IUSD Schools Need Busing the Most? The Answer May Surprise You

Flying students, unequal access figure into school bus policies

Only five of Irvine Unified School District’s 42 schools offer buses to general education students. Thankfully, the Irvine City Council recently started working with IUSD to see if the city can help reduce traffic, cut carbon emissions, and improve public safety by expanding school busing. What’s been discovered so far may surprise you. 

Busing is best

Research shows school buses are by far the safest way to get to school – eight times safer than car travel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Individual car trips to and from school also produce considerable carbon emissions and traffic. During morning rush hour, 10-14% of cars on the road are schoolbound, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s no surprise that two of the top five hotspots for traffic collisions, according to the City of Irvine’s Long Range Safety Plan, are near University and Northwood high schools.

“One thing about Irvine, it’s a great city, it’s a wonderful city, master planned, but it didn’t account for the lack of school buses. And I think that one of the things that’s missing from our master planned community is having a robust infrastructure for buses,” said council member Tammy Kim at the February 13, 2024 council meeting. “Part of what’s driving some of our traffic congestion in the morning, I know from my own experience, is parents taking their kids to school.”

IUSD policy on busing

IUSD serves 36,000 students at 42 schools, and only five of those offer a bus for general education students. This is due in part to California ranking among the lowest in state funding for school transportation. Another reason for the scarcity of school buses is a policy that was last updated 20 years ago – before many Irvine neighborhoods were even built. 

Administrative policy 3540.1 prohibits busing for general education students who live within a certain distance from their zoned school (3 miles for high schools, 2 miles for junior high, and 1.5 miles for elementary). Bafflingly, the district measures this as a radius from the school rather than actual travel distance on roads or bikeways, as if students can fly over Irvine’s open space to their campus. The policy does allow exceptions for safety concerns or if the busing is “cost neutral” to the district, meaning fully funded by riders or another source.

Irvine’s pilot school bus program

In response to parent advocacy last year, the City of Irvine provided funding for a one-year pilot program that offers a school bus to students who live in neighborhoods that are 6 or more miles (by road travel) from their assigned school–University High School. Parents paid $450 per rider for a seat on the bus for the school year, with the City subsidizing the remaining $55,000 (about ⅔ the total cost). The 50 spots on the bus filled up within just a couple of days, and spilled over onto a waitlist.

With the overwhelming success of the pilot program, grateful parents returned to the city council in February this year to ask them to continue funding the bus.

“It’s great to see a pilot project that succeeds, that actually demonstrates, ‘Wow, this is a good way of meeting a need, and it might be able to be replicated elsewhere,’” said Vice Mayor Larry Agran in his comments at the meeting. He went on to point out that free bus transportation used to be routine for California public school children.

At the request of IUSD Board members, the City Council decided at its February 13 meeting to collaborate with IUSD to take a broader look at the areas in Irvine where school busing is most needed.

Where Irvine needs school buses

The initial data provided to the city by IUSD reveals the neighborhoods that are most severely in need of school bus service for general education students. (Door-to-door busing for special education students is federally mandated, though not sufficiently funded, and is not being addressed in this article.) 

The following IUSD schools all have more than 200 students zoned for their campus who live outside of IUSD’s defined radius for school busing:

  • Oak Creek Elementary School (308 students or 29% of the school population)
  • Jeffrey Trail Middle School (277 students or 24%)
  • University High School (234 students or 11%)
  • Alderwood Elementary School (233 students or 26%)

Keep in mind that the radius from the school can be misleading. Some students who live within the 3-mile radius of University High have at least a 6-mile, one-way commute by road. This may be true for other areas of the city as well.

Of the schools listed above, only Oak Creek offers busing that’s subsidized by IUSD. Two buses serve Oak Creek students who live in the Irvine Spectrum area, although that only meets the needs of less than half of the students living outside the 1.5-mile radius.

Other Irvine schools that have enough students outside of the busing zone to fill at least one 50-seat school bus include: Woodbridge High (91 students) South Lake Middle School (71) and Portola High (56). Rancho San Joaquin Middle School also has 142 students living outside the radius, but those students are served by six buses that stop in University Hills, UCI, Town Center, Turtle Rock, Quail Hill, Hidden Canyon, Laguna Altura and Los Olivos.

Unequal Access

Surprisingly, the data provided by IUSD reveals that a few of the buses currently subsidized by IUSD serve a very small need. IUSD subsidizes four school buses to Turtle Rock Elementary – enough to serve 20% of their students – even though only 1% (11 students) live more than 1.5 miles from the campus. According to IUSD officials, this is the relic of a 1989 decision by the Board of education. At the time, the district was ending home-to-school transportation districtwide but decided to continue offering bus routes to Turtle Rock due to safety issues. Needless to say, Irvine’s safety concerns have evolved in the last 35 years.

Additionally, no students zoned for Vista Verde live outside the 1.5-mile radius, although IUSD offers a school bus to students outside the school zone who elect to go to the school. As of this spring, that bus isn’t even filled to capacity. 

City Should Expand School Bus Pilot

While some council members have openly worried about stepping on the district’s toes by expanding funding for school bus service in Irvine, issues related to traffic congestion, transportation, public safety, and climate goals are rightfully in the city’s purview.

The city already appears to be taking into account the need for more transit around our schools. This spring, Irvine’s City Link shuttle launches with stops every 20 minutes at Woodbridge and Irvine High Schools, between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. Plus, the city recently applied for grant funding from OCTA Project V Community-based Circulators Program to provide additional city-operated transit services. 

IUSD and the city must collaborate on solutions for safer routes to school across Irvine, beginning with continuing the popular pilot bus program funded this school year to University High School, and then expanding services to the other schools that have the largest numbers of students commuting the longest distance.

The city has the opportunity to help decrease traffic, reduce emissions, support working parents, and, most importantly, keep our children safe en route to school – something that’s important to all Irvine parents.