The Rural School Bus Ride in Five States

Last Updated: August 01, 2001

by Craig Howley

The Rural School Bus Ride in Five States

Report PDF (247 KB)

This report provides the first detailed picture of the features of the rural school bus ride. Data were provided by rural elementary school principals in Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington: states chosen to represent diversity in region, locale (rural and suburban), and ethnic composition. Schools were selected at random, and response rates varied between 52% and 71%.

Four conclusions define a set of key policy issues related to the rural bus ride:

  1. Longest rides at rural elementary schools widely violate professional norms;
  2. Features of the rural school bus ride combine in ways that probably compound risks to the well-being of elementary children;
  3. Hypothetical risk factors vary systematically by poverty and minority status (impacting rural white children, in fact, more strongly than rural children of color); and
  4. Rural school consolidation prospectively shapes features of the ride and compounding hypothetical risk factors.

Longest Rides

A commonly cited standard for one-way length (duration) of school bus rides for elementary children is 30 minutes. In an appalling 85% of these rural elementary schools, respondents reported that longest rides exceed this upper limit. Worse still, in 25% of these rural schools, longest rides reportedly exceed 60 minutes (the suggested standard for high school students). It seems thoughtless that adults would so frequently impose long commutes on some rural children, a reflection underlined by the finding that, in the most impoverished schools, longest rides are substantially longer than in other rural schools. The average commuting time for adult Americans is just 22.4 minutes, and even in Los Angeles, the land of congested freeways, it is only 26.5 minutes. Apparently being rural and poor is sufficient justification, in practice, to impose long rides on some young children.

Compounded Risks

Leading scholars (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 2000) have reflected on the extraordinary degree of separation from children that modern society and its practices have imposed on families and communities. Challenging features of children's commute to school compound and reinforce this separation. Analyzed in the report, these compounded features of the ride are as follows:

  • Longest ride of 30 minutes or more at school,
  • Longest ride of 60 minutes or more at school,
  • 100% of students double-routed,
  • Rough ride index higher than average,
  • Emergency training not regularly conducted, and
  • Some or all of buses without communication devices.

Illustrative results appear in Table 5 for combinations of two to four features simultaneously encountered at a given rural elementary school. The report shows that combinations of these features of the rural bus ride are prevalent among rural elementary schools. Differences between states in this regard, moreover, are sharp and reach very high levels of statistical significance; state of residence itself, then, appears to be a risk factor.

Inequalities on the Ride

Potential risks are compounded by poverty and minority status. Most succinctly, in highest-poverty rural elementary schools as compared to lowest-poverty rural elementary schools:

  • Longest rides of 60 minutes or longer are three-quarters more common,
  • Double-routing rates are almost one-third higher,
  • The proportion of mileage over mountainous terrain is almost double,
  • The proportion of mileage over unpaved roads is nearly one-third higher,
  • Full-time bus supervision is about one-third less common, and
  • Half as many children (eligible to ride a bus) are optionally driven to school.

Similarly, in lowest-minority rural schools as compared to highest-minority rural schools:

  • Longest rides of 60 minutes or longer are twice as common,
  • The rough ride index value is nearly three-quarters higher,
  • The proportion of mileage over mountainous terrain is about three times as high,
  • The proportion of mileage over hilly terrain is about twice as high,
  • The proportion of mileage over unpaved roads is nearly 50 percent higher,
  • The proportion of mileage over level terrain is about half as high, and
  • Closures of 6 or more days for inclement weather are three-fifths more common.

These findings indicate that riding the rural school bus is as much a part of inequity in the U.S. as living in a particular neighborhood or holding a particular job. It is as characteristic of educational inequity as unequal school funding, unequal access to fabulous teachers, and differential achievement levels.


As rural schools have consolidated, they have become more centrally located and have enrolled more and more students. As a result, the geographic domain served by them has also expanded. Correlations between longest ride and size of attendance area are substantial. In all likelihood, size of the school attendance area most strongly influences the average length of the bus ride in rural schools. All else equal, it would be logical to speculate that rural school consolidation produces longer average bus rides.(2)


The finding that poverty is consistently associated with the burdens of the rural bus ride strengthens the logical argument for sustaining and restoring smaller schools in rural areas of the United States. Instead of focusing policy efforts only or principally on mitigating burdensome features of the rural school bus ride, educators and policy makers can more effectively foil the burdens of the ride by ensuring the existence of small rural schools, especially ones that serve impoverished rural communities.