IndustryNEWS: Districts Ease School Zone Traffic Congestion

In conjunction with Contra Costa County and the cities of Danville and San Ramon, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District In California is working to formulate a traffic congestion relief program around its school zone. Among the mitigation measures to be implemented is an expanded school bus transportation system designed to ultimately cut down on the number of cars on local roadways. The initiative, which is funded by Measure J – a 25-year extension of a half-cent sales tax, will have additional school buses in operation in 2009, said Tal Williams, transportation services manager for Danville. The scope of the program and how many students it will serve is still in development.

San Ramon school district currently operates a total of 33 regular route and special education buses. The fleet transports 1,260 children annually across 81,000 home-to-school miles and 330,000 miles for the special education program.

"Measure J will open up a whole new world of opportunities for our students and parents who otherwise would not have access to school transportation because a lack of state funds," said Terry Koehne, spokesman for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. "We are working together with the other public agencies in our community to ensure that the program is implemented In the most efficient, thoughtful way possible."

Driven by population growth and students opting to take private vehicles instead of the bus to school, traffic congestion in school zones is more serious in sprawling suburban towns where enrollment often exceeds the design of the school, said Jeff Tsai, program director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, North Carolina State University.

Effective management can be found in an appropriate school design that avoids conflict among the various ways students arrive to campus, he said. For example, a separate parking lot for school buses and sidewalks leading to the school entrance that don’t require crossing through vehicles may keep students safer.

"School transportation professionals should expand their understanding of school travel beyond school buses;" Tsai said. "School transportation is a system, a system that is made of several modes of travel – bus, car, walker, bike, transit bus etc."

Many school districts are looking toward technology to ease traffic problems and increase the level of student safety. Products like the solar-powered, programmable school zone flasher manufactured by Carmanah Technologies Corporation alert drivers to times when children are traveling to and from school.

These units are mounted on either end of a school zone, and operate on a pre-programmed calendar that is uploaded Into the device. In November Carmanah contracted with Los Angeles County to provide 62 beacons at 31 school locations as part of California’s Safe Routes to School program.

"The system improves safety in school zones," said business development manager Greg Miller. "The system is effective at drawing attention to these conditions and lowering vehicle speed."

Among the most effective measures to reduce traffic speed is driver feedback signs, said Gary Odell, president of Information Display Company.

The Oregon-based company manufacturers electronic traffic safety equipment, including speed data collection tools and the "Your Speed" display, which tells individual drivers the exact speed of their vehicles as they pass the electronic sign.

Odell cited a study by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department that showed 80 percent of drivers staying with in posted school zone speed limits after the placement of a driver feedback sign. In Portland, Ore., he said, police issued 66 percent fewer citations in the speed zone of an area high school during a three-month period after a driver feedback sign was installed.

"Driver feedback signs are ranked as the single most effective and long-lasting way to accomplish this objective," Ode, said. "By effectively calming traffic, schools can dramatically increase student safety and limit institution liability."