Investigating An Unlikely Culprit of Congestion: Schoolchildren

By Joanne Wong•14 Jun, 2018

Study finds that spatial mismatch between schools and homes exacerbates traffic congestion

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School quality is a concern for parents around the world. In China, this universal drive to send children to good schools is making congestion and air pollution worse.


A recent study by a group of researchers from MIT and several Chinese universities found that parents chauffeuring their children to school account for 10 to 15 percent of total car trips during the workday morning rush hour in Beijing. Because students live far away from their schools and school bus services are limited, almost half of Beijing students are driven to and picked up from school by their parents in private cars.


Published in January 2017 in Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, the study was co-authored by Siqi Zheng, Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, Cong Sun at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Ming Lu at Fudan University. The team wanted to investigate whether drive-to-school trips significantly contribute to traffic congestion and air pollution in Beijing.


Using datasets from 2009 to 2011 and 2013, the team compared traffic congestion and air pollution measures across the school calendar. They found that all else being equal, congestion was roughly 20 per cent lower on work days that are school holidays than those when school is in session. The pollution measures showed mixed results due to a smaller sample size, but preliminary analysis showed a reduction of 13 per cent in concentration of some particulate matter. The results were controlled for driving restrictions, in which cars are not permitted on the road depending on the last digit of their license plates, and weather conditions.


So why don’t students attend schools closer to where they live? The authors explain that as Chinese parents become wealthier, they demand higher-quality schools for their kids. Whereas these parents tend to live in newer, suburban residential complexes, the best schools in Beijing are located in the inner city, where the housing stock is typically older and smaller.


Urban households’ preference for their children to go to good schools are comparable between China and the U.S., as is the spatial mismatch between school and homes. However, “the policy issues in the two countries are quite different,” said Dr. Zheng, “because of the different institutional arrangements, such as the authority of local government, its responsiveness to local urban issues and neighborhood demands, absence or presence of local property taxes used for schools, etc.”


This means that while American households may be able to “vote with their feet” and move to better school districts, Chinese households find ways to secure places at schools outside their designated zones, such as paying a large school admission fee, or purchasing a small unit in a good school zone but living elsewhere. As a result, a significant population of students (and their parents) are stuck with long commutes to school.


In a city where the number of cars has increased three times as fast as the population growth rate, Beijing is keen to mitigate the negative externalities of car use. With regards to school-related commutes, the authors recommend that high-quality schools could consider relocating to the suburbs, or at least set up affiliated campuses closer to their students. Investments should also be made in school bus services to encourage more efficient commuting.