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September Brings “Back to School” Jump in Traffic Congestion

9:12 AM PDT on September 5, 2012

Why do traffic delays jump in September? Obviously, fewer people are on vacation. But it's not just commuters back to the grind getting to and from work. It's parents dropping their kids off at school, often with even less forgiving start times than an adult workday.

Region Forward, a DC-based livability partnership, shows that the delay is getting worse year after year.

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According to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, up to 20 or 30 percent of morning traffic can be generated by parents driving their children to school. Today, about three-quarters of school-aged kids in America get to and from school by car. In 1969, half of all schoolkids walked or biked to school, but that rate has falled to 13 percent, according to the SRTS Partnership.

This creates a dangerous mess of cars pulling over and merging back into traffic in front of schools -- with small children walking around. The result: child injuries and deaths, especially on high-traffic streets with on-street parking. A 2007 Department of Justice report [PDF] found that, to make matters worse, delayed drivers often speed when congestion eases, in order to "make up time" and out of a perverse sense of road rage.

"One can view such threats to child safety as both a cause and a symptom of school congestion," said the DOJ report. "On the one hand, parental concerns about traffic hazards could lead more parents to drive their children to school, thereby increasing congestion. On the other hand, traffic congestion could lead to more child pedestrian accidents, with backed up cars’ blocking the views of small children crossing the street to enter school."

So perhaps it's no surprise that this is a nasty week for local traffic congestion. Parents are working out the kinks in their morning routines, getting used to new commutes at the start of the school year and feeling stressed (and driving badly) when they don't budget enough time.

Part of the problem is sprawl, says the DOJ -- but even kids that live within easy walking distance hitch a ride to school these days. Hoofing it is seen as "uncool" in some quarters. Maybe enough parents will get stuck in enough traffic and be late to work enough times to finally encourage kids to get to school on their own steam -- and encourage schools and towns to make the necessary changes to ensure there's a safe way for their kids to do so.

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