When Radeha Haque was applying to high schools, she attended an open house at Bronx High School of Science, where she remembers first hearing the sought-after public school’s unofficial slogan: “We’re worth the trip.”
Though Radeha lives in Woodside, Queens—about an hour and 15 minutes by subway, each way, from the highly-competitive Bronx high school—she applied anyway, and is now in the second half of her junior year there.
“I wasn’t scared of applying to Bronx Science, or putting it on my list because of the distance,” she says. “There’s a lot of students in the school who did have to make an hour commute, so I wasn’t the only one who has to struggle with it.”
New York City students have a lot of options when it comes to schools. From kindergarten on, families can consider zoned and non-zoned, gifted & talented programs, borough or district-wide public schools, as well as 260 charters. The city’s public high-school applicants can apply for up to 12 schools anywhere in the city, picking from more than 400 options, and they also have a shot at one of the eight specialized high schools like Radeha’s where admission is based on a single test.
Flexible school choice policies like this allow students better access to high-quality schools, proponents say, especially for families dissatisfied with options in their own neighborhoods. Researchers in 2017 found that city elementary school students who opted out of their assigned schools ended up choosing schools with higher average test proficiency rates than the schools the “non-choosing” students in their neighborhood went to. But choice also means some students will attend schools farther from home.
A longer school commute can have obvious downsides: There are safety concerns when it comes to kids or teens taking public transit alone, and time spent riding the subway or bus cuts into time that could otherwise be spent on homework, sleep or play. Long school commutes can be particularly burdensome to families in the shelter system, or for students with special needs who rely on city school buses, a system known for frequent delays and issues. There can also be less obvious social implications, including students who end up attending school with few or no other children from their neighborhood.
Whether or not a long commute is really “worth the trip” depends on each family’s priorities and preferences, experts say.
“I think what’s ‘too much’ of a commute really varies by the student,” says Laura Zingmond, a senior editor with the website InsideSchools, which reviews city public schools and provides information and resources about them. By high school, most city students will attend schools that require some kind of commute—usually a bus or subway ride—and she ideally recommends that families look at locations an hour or less away, or at those located along their local subway route without needing a transfer, to make the ride easier.
“I do think there probably is a tipping point of when the commute is really not worth it, even for the perceived advantages. But you assess that through introspection,” she says. It can be a tough decision. “We’re asking a lot of families and 13-year-olds in the process.”
Sean Corcoran, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University who has studied school choice and commute times, thinks the issue deserves more research and policy attention. School choice, by contrast, has gotten plenty of it: in his State of the Union speech earlier this year, President Donald Trump called for Congress to pass a proposal that would provide tax breaks for private school scholarships, saying students deserve to attend the school of their choice rather than be “trapped in failing government schools.”
“If you’re going to operate an elaborate system of school choice, then you have to provide transportation,” Corcoran. says. He pointed to cities like New Orleans, the only school district in the country entirely made up of charter schools, which is served by an elaborate and inefficient school bus network—what Corcoran described as “a mass chaos of school buses going from one corner of the city to the other.” One study that examined bus rides for 17 school routes in New Orleans found that a quarter of rides took more than 50 minutes, with some pickup times starting as early as 5 a.m.
“Often school choice is framed as a way of leveling the playing field so that all kids have access to all different schools,” Corcoran says. “But if kids don’t have an accessible way to get to those schools, then they’re really not choices. And If they’re really long commutes, they can be burdens.”
Student commutes in NYC
In New York, the Department of Education provides bus service to kindergarten and elementary school students who live a certain distance from their schools, while others are given subsidized student MetroCards to take the subway or bus.
“New York definitely has the good fortune of having a good public transportation system,” says Corcoran. “It makes lots of schools available to most kids, so the set of schools from which kids can choose is very large. It just may work out that kids end up traveling further because they’re considering a broader variety of schools.”
The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a question about whether it tracks data on all students’ commute times. But it does collect some information, including ride times for students who take city-provided buses, a requirement of earlier legislation that aimed to improve the system. In June of 2019, the most recent month for which the data is available, the DOE counted 1,399 students—about 1.5 percent of the nearly 90,000 students who take buses—whose average bus stop-to-school rides took more than two hours. For another 14 percent of students that month, bus rides took between one and two hours, while 84 percent averaged rides that took less than an hour that month, the numbers show.
It’s not clear if the DOE collects information on ride times for students who walk or take public transit to get to school. The city’s Independent Budget Office produced a report in 2014 that analyzed DOE and Census data and calculated that the average high school student’s commute by subway, bus or foot took 32 minutes during the 2011-2012 school year. More than one in five students had rides that exceeded 45 minutes, the same report found.
In 2018, Corcoran published his own estimates in a report with the Urban Institute which calculated average commute times for students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades for the 2013-14 school year, looking at differences across race or ethnicity, gender, borough, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL), test scores and other factors. (The estimates are based on the assumption that students are walking and taking public transportation to get to school, and does not factor in those who may get driven, but Corcoran doesn’t believe that subset would skew the data.)
The report found that commutes get longer as students get older: The average trip was estimated to take 10.3 minutes in kindergarten, 17.4 minutes in sixth grade and 31.3 minutes in ninth grade. At all grade levels, Black students traveled further to school than students in other racial and ethnic groups. Charter-school students had longer rides than public-school kids in both kindergarten and sixth grade, but shorter rides in ninth grade, the report found. Higher-achieving students—a distinction Corcoran based on sixth- and ninth-grade test scores—traveled further to school than low-achieving students.
The report also found that many students do not attend the school geographically closest to their home: Only 51 percent of kindergarteners, 37 percent of sixth graders and 12 percent of ninth graders did so during the year Corcoran looked at, with Black students the least likely to attend their nearest school compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
Still, the results indicate that many students would prefer to stay nearby: The report analyzed high school application data from the 2014-15 school year and found that on average, student’s first-choice schools were closer to home than those ranked further down on their application list.
“Families prefer schools that are closer to home for lots of reasons,” Corcoran says. This could include the ability to reach a student quickly during emergencies, safety concerns about kids traveling on public transit or just the minutes saved each week in transit.
For Radeha, the commute from Queens to Bronx Science was a big difference from her experience in middle school, when she attended a zoned school about five blocks from her home. To get to high school now, she leaves the house by 6:20 a.m. each day to ensure she’s on time, taking the R train into Manhattan, then transferring to the 4 train. During her freshman year, when after-school activities ended at 6 p.m., it meant she wouldn’t get home until at least 7 p.m., leaving her just a few hours before bed for homework and other tasks.
“That didn’t give me that much room for free time,” she says. “It is stressful, considering that you have to study for tests, do all this homework, there’s deadlines you have to make.”
While Radeha says she’s adjusted to the ride—her after-school clubs now end earlier, and she tries to do homework on the train, if she can find a seat—she thinks other high schoolers should weigh potential commute times during the application process.
“If you’re traveling really far, where it takes you more than an hour, I think you should really factor that in,” she says.
Zingmond, of InsideSchools, says that while there are “terrific schools all over the city, in every borough,” some high school students may find that their nearby options don’t suit their needs or interests. Many of the city’s smaller high schools, for example, have specialized curriculums and themes, such as a focus on architecture and design or for careers in the medical field.
“You may end up looking past that school because that’s just not your interest,” she says. “It’s probably impossible for a majority of people to be close to their first choice, but I would like a circumstance where everyone has a solid neighborhood option.”
Zingmond also thinks it would be helpful if the city’s public schools all had later start times in the morning. She pointed to Essex Street Academy, a small, progressive school on the Lower East Side where classes don’t start until 9:25 a.m., making it easier for kids traveling from other neighborhoods.
“You can certainly tolerate a longer commute, just like adults, if you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn,” she says.
Far from home
Some students face bigger barriers than others when it comes to school commutes, including those living the city’s shelter system—an estimated 15,000 school-aged children per night. Families in the shelter system are often placed in housing sites far from their children’s schools, and some are forced to move multiple times, making transportation a hardship, a 2016 city budget report found.
City Councilman Andy King, who sponsored a 2017 bill that would’ve required the DOE to collect and publish data on commute times for students in grades six to 12, said he was motivated to do so after hearing the story of one mother whose family was transferred to a shelter in the Bronx, far from her children’s Brooklyn school.
“She had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to get her kids ready to go to school,” he recalled.
That bill didn’t make it past the education committee that legislative session, City Council records show. But city lawmakers passed a slew of other school transportation-related bills in 2019, including one sponsored by King that requires the DOE to report commute times for its school bus routes twice a year.
That same package of legislation included another bill requiring the city to add GPS tracking devices to school buses, data that could be shared with parents so they can track their child’s travel in real-time. Though the DOE was supposed to have that system in place at the state of the 2019-2020 school year, officials told Chalkbeat in September that they expect it to be installed before the start of the next year. The law was passed in part due to parents’ complaints about inefficient bus service, especially when it comes to city students with special needs: delays on bus routes for special education students almost doubled over the last five years, Chalkbeat and THE CITY reported in October.
Bus delays can be particularly distressing for some students with disabilities, according to Lori Podvesker, director of disability and education policy at INCLUDEnyc, which provides services and advocates for young people with disabilities.
“There are kids who have a lot of anxiety and being on the bus may make them anxious. there are kids who are overstimulated easily,” she says. “By the time they get to school, for many of them, they’re upset. It takes time to calm them down and slowly integrate them.”
There are about 300,000 city students with disabilities, a majority of whom receive busing services–city officials say two-thirds of its bus routes serve special education students. Most of those students go to community and district schools, according to Podvesker, but nearly 25,000 attend district 75 schools, which are located throughout the city and serve children with more significant needs.
For many of these district 75 students, their choice in schools can be greatly limited by where there are available seats that can serve their needs. Many neighborhoods–including those in the Bronx and in Queens school districts 24 and 30–suffer from a shortage of district 75 seats, according to Podvesker.
“There’s the absence of school choice and there’s the absence of programs being equitably distributed,” she says, meaning some district 75 kids are bused out of not just their neighborhoods, but their school districts. Their bus routes also often include students of different ages from multiple schools, making pick-up and drop-off times even longer. She’s heard of some district 75 students being pulled from school before dismissal so they can board the bus, resulting in missed instructional time.
Students attending schools far from their home communities can have other consequences, too.
“It leads to further segregation,” Podvesker says. “They’re not given a chance to be integrated into their communities, which is going to lead to a better quality of life post-school.”
It’s not just special education students who are attending schools with few or no peers from their home neighborhoods: Corcoran’s 2018 study found that nearly half—41 percent—of ninth graders in 2013-14 school year are what he calls “singletons,” meaning they were the only student in their school and grade from their neighborhood. He plans to do additional research to determine if that’s a “positive or a negative thing.”
“It was striking to a lot of people because it’s so different from what they experienced as a kid. I grew up in a small city that basically—I followed the same students through elementary, middle and high school, and so those friend and peer networks were just intact the whole time,” he says. “In New York those are just completely redrawn every time kids change schools, so it seems.”
Zingmond, however, thinks going to school with peers from other neighborhoods can have major benefits for city students, including exposure to a more diverse group of classmates from different parts of the city, and from different backgrounds.
“It opens you up,” she says. “When I go to [review] schools that do that, that have kids from all over, they often cite that as one of the things they like.”
Either way, Corcoran thinks school districts, including the DOE, should do a better job of tracking and analyzing student commute data.
“School choice has just become more and more part of that basic operation and people are willing to look further than they have in the past,” he says, adding that districts should be proactive in addressing the issues that could arise from this. “The passive approach is to sort of wait for parents to complain that their trips are too long.”